The best way to predict the future, as Alan Kay famously said, is to invent it. For decades, however, well-known technology companies have tried an easier approach: filming it.
They’ve done so in the form of short movies featuring mocked-up versions of the wondrous technologies that will be everyday realities for the consumers of tomorrow. (Many of the tomorrows in question — 1960, 1976, 1986, 1999, 2o04 — have since come and gone.) These films tend to have a self-important feel, as if paying actors to pretend to interact with make-believe gadgets was a vital part of bringing said gadgets to market. Even though the companies that produced them have only rarely gone on to make the products they depict.
Now that we do live in the future, we know that some of the movies’ visions were on target: for instance, they repeatedly showed in-home videoconferencing that’s very much like Skype or FaceTime. But all of them are at least as fascinating for the things they got wrong as the ones they got right.
Thanks to the futuristic miracle known as YouTube, many of these productions are readily available for viewing, including both golden oldies and recent efforts. Would you join me as we watch a bunch of them and ponder the predictions they made?
To New Horizons (General Motors, 1940)
Year depicted: 1960
Futuristic items shown: massive high-speed highways; cars guided by radio signals to avoid accidents; quarter-mile-high skyscrapers with landing decks for helicopters and autogyros; elevated pedestrian highways that allow for double-wide roads below.
Amusing anachronisms: The automobiles and architecture of 1960 look suspiciously like the automobiles and architecture of 1940.
Backstory: One of the signature exhibits at the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair was General Motors’ Futurama, an enormous, dazzling ride-through diorama depicting life in “the wonder world of 1960.” It was created by visionary designer Norman Bel Geddes, whose visions usually involved something that GM found irresistible: cities centered entirely around automotive travel. To New Horizons begins with some black-and-white boilerplate footage about how swell America is, then segues (at 7:52) into color film of the Futurama, which still looks eye-popping.
Creepiest moment: when the narrator explains that “undesirable slum areas” have been “displaced” by the super-highways. It’s not clear whether the future is so prosperous that poverty is a thing of the past, or whether the poor people were shipped off somewhere else to make way for progress.
In the years after the Futurama’s debut, massive highways did come to blanket the country. But not all of GM’s predictions/wishes came true by 1960 — and more than half a century later, Google is still working on that self-driving car idea.
Design for Dreaming (General Motors, 1956)
Year depicted: not specified
Futuristic items shown: push-button automated kitchen with smartcards and video screen; GM concept cars such as the gas-turbine Firebird II; electronic highway of the future.
Amusing anachronisms: The kitchen of the future is stocked with glass milk bottles which look like they were delivered that morning by a friendly milkman.
Backstory: From 1949 to 1961, General Motors held its own car shows, which came to tour the country under the name Motorama. They featured new cars and concept cars such as the Firebird and its successors; parts of Design for Dreaming were filmed at the 1956 edition. It’s not exactly shocking that the movie’s miracles, like those depicted in To New Horizons, involved car-centric cities and GM vehicles humming along endless highways.
Design for Dreaming stars dancers Tad Tadlock (she’s a she) and Marc Breaux; the latter speaks with a voice dubbed by Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger. It’s a bizarre extended dream sequence with ballet, bad poetry, designer fashions, GM cars, a Frigidaire-equipped future kitchen (the appliance company was part of GM at the time) and much, much more. (The futuristic bits begin at 3:20.)
It all must have been a trifle odd even in 1956; today, it’s unimaginably peculiar. But GM apparently liked it: For 1961’s Motorama, it commissioned a film called A Touch of Magic that’s all but a remake of Design for Dreaming.
Bonus footage: This GM clip, with a wonderfully inaccurate preview of automotive travel in the year 1976, was apparently produced for the 1956 Motorama. It stars the company’s Batmobile-like Firebird II concept car, with GM engineer Emmett Conklin as the Bing Crosby-like dad.
The Monsanto House of the Future (Monsanto, 1957)
Year depicted: 1986
Futuristic items shown: adjustable ceiling lighting panels; ultrasonic dishwasher that doubles as storage; “cold zones” instead of a refrigerator; automatically-lowering cabinets; automatically-rising microwave oven; push-button climate control with aroma-emitting feature; Touch-Tone speakerphone; adjustable sink; built-in electric razor and toothbrush; one-way bathroom videoconferencing.
Amusing anachronisms: The house still looks avant-garde on the outside, but the interior is so very Father Knows Best.
Backstory: Two years after Disneyland opened in 1955, the Anaheim theme park added an attraction called the House of the Future, a walk-through exhibit located in Tomorrowland. It was sponsored by Monsanto, at the time a major manufacturer of plastics. So the whole thing was a shameless plug for plastic — and the home itself and most of the items it contained were made of it. This film, featuring a tour of the Disneyland house, was similarly promotional in nature.
Plastic houses, strangely enough, never caught on, but some of the things inside the home did become pervasive well before 1986, including Touch-Tone phones and microwave ovens. Still, I suspect that the attraction had gotten stale well before it was torn down in 1967. (And my favorite feature of the house wasn’t anything futuristic — it was the sweeping views it boasted of Cinderella’s castle and the Matterhorn.)
Postscript: In the 1990s, Monsanto apparently decided that the future wasn’t made out of plastic after all, and sold off its divisions that made the stuff.
1999 A.D. (Philco-Ford, 1967)
Year depicted: 1999
Futuristic items shown and mentioned: modular honeycomb home with computer room; the colonization of Mars; widescreen digital workbench with archived photos; home computers; computer-based bridge games; education room with giant interactive screen; computerized homework; computerized meal planning; automated kitchen with frozen food and microwave oven; computerized climate control; disposable clothing; color-keyed disposable dishes; TV-based shopping; video home monitoring system; online banking and taxes; printers; “home post office” e-mail; Internet-like fault-tolerant network; hydrocultured exotic seafood; computerized music lessons; home health center with computerized recording of vital statistics and exercise recommendations; videoconferencing; computerized chess; home movies in 3D on giant screen with “duping” capability.
Amusing anachronisms: The movie not only failed to predict the then-imminent revolution known as women’s lib but seems to say that fewer women would have jobs outside the home in the future. Also, the home computer appears to be a mainframe with lots of switches and flickering lights.
Backstory: Produced by Philco — then a division of Ford which made TVs and aerospace computers, among other things — this is the Citizen Kane of corporate future-vision movies. (It’s so perfect that some have assumed it must be a hoax.)
It stars Wink Martindale (not yet a beloved game-show elder statesman) and an alien from Star Trek. It goes on and on and makes prediction after prediction. And an impressive percentage of its prognostications have more or less come true.
Despite being set in 1999, the film has an overpowering 1960s vibe, thanks to everything from the fashions and hairstyles to the oddly foreboding music. And the gadgetry all looks more like vintage stereo equipment than anything that really dates from 1999. It’s as if Mad Men somehow fast-forwarded itself and became The Jetsons.
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Telecommunications Services for the 1990’s (British Post Office, 1969)
Year(s) depicted: the 1990s
Futuristic items shown: wideband coaxial cables linking homes with the telecommunications system; videoconferencing; smartcards for identifying yourself to the network; video document-scanning service; electrostatic document printing; cassette-based answering machine; pagers; online banking; computer-based home-buying advisor; telecommuting.
Amusing anachronisms: Black-and-white screens look more like computers from the late 1970s than from the 1990s; apparent lack of QWERTY input.
Backstory: In the 1960s, the British Post Office was also responsible for Great Britain’s phone system, which was later spun off into the company that became British Telecom. It proved that Americans didn’t have a monopoly on tech-utopia thinking by producing this movie. The Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, where it was made, had an impressive résumé: Colossus, the first programmable digital computer, had been built there in 1943.
The movie’s predictions about telecommunications in the 1990s are, on the whole, pretty smart — even if the production values and acting are marginal even by the threadbare standards of the category.
Knowledge Navigator (Apple, 1987)
Year depicted: 2011 or thereabouts (there’s a reference to a 2006 document being about five years old)
Futuristic items shown: folding touch-screen computer with color display; human-like on-screen intelligent agent; flawless voice recognition and synthesis; memory cards; videoconferencing with document-sharing features; fancy what-if graphing engine.
Amusing anachronisms: The Knowledge Navigator’s boxy industrial design seems to have been supervised by the guy responsible for the Apple IIc; 21st-century Apple is shown still using the rainbow-apple logo which Steve Jobs axed in 1998.
Backstory: In 1987, Apple CEO John Sculley published Odyssey, an account, co-written with John Byrne, of his time at Pepsi and Apple. It featured a section on a concept Sculley called the Knowledge Navigator, a “wonderful fantasy machine” which provided instant access to a wealth of information. (Apple’s ambitious-but-unsuccessful 1993 Newton Personal Digital Assistant was an attempt to bring a very rough draft of certain parts of the idea to market.)
In this famous film, which debuted as part of Sculley’s keynote at a 1987 education conference, Apple imagined what its CEO’s brainchild might look and sound like. It was heady stuff — at the time, most PC users weren’t online in any fashion.
A quarter-century later, it’s difficult to understand why anyone inside or outside of Apple would have found the Knowledge Navigator’s bow-tied-butler assistant appealing. But multiple bits and pieces of the gadget depicted in the film have become reality in the form of iPhone and iPad features such as the iPhone 4S’s Siri assistant. Anyone care to hazard a guess as to whether they would have come to market if Sculley had stayed Apple’s CEO and Steve Jobs had remained in exile?
Project 2000 (Apple, 1988)
Year depicted: 2000
Futuristic items shown: pocket-sized clamshell computing device with multimedia show-and-tell and scientific visualization software; giant flat-screen classroom screen and smaller workplace flat screen; AirPlay-like video transmission; tablet computer used for adult literacy and education, with 3D animated dinosaurs, voice recognition, voice synthesis and OCR.
Amusing anachronisms: The movie seems to say that the people of 2000 may get their sports news by scanning dead-tree newspapers into tablet computers.
Backstory: Like Knowledge Navigator, this film dates from Apple’s Sculley era, when its dreams were far more exciting than its products. The company held a future-of-education contest called Project 2000, which was judged by such luminaries as Steve Wozniak and Ray Bradbury and won by a tablet device imagined by a team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In most respects that matter, this fantasy tablet is remarkably reminiscent of the iPad which Apple released two decades later.
The Project 2000 film, which intersperses comments from the competition judges with dramatizations, doesn’t show the prize-winning tablet. Instead, it features Sculley’s Knowledge Navigator and a pocket-sized doodad which doesn’t look all that much like anything which actually became popular. It also shows a grade schooler doing multimedia show-and-tell on a big display — a scenario that must have felt like sci-fi in 1988, but which eventually came to be in almost exactly the manner that the movie imagined.
1995 (Hewlett-Packard, 1989)
Year depicted: 1995
Futuristic items shown: flat-screen computer monitors; on-screen intelligent agents; slick drag-and-drop user interface; videoconferencing; giant boardroom flat-screen display for presentations; networked information systems; voice recognition; PC-based voicemail; PC-based video; laptops with color screens and built-in trackballs.
Amusing anachronisms: It’s pretty easy to avoid them when you’re looking out only six years into the future.
Backstory: At first blush, HP’s 17-minute film –the spellbinding tale of “BioChemix Incorporated” and its quest to win the “Layton account” — comes off as a low-rent version of Apple’s Knowledge Navigator. I suspect that it was meant in part to promote NewWave, an HP product of the era that bolted a slicker user interface on top of Windows.
The on-screen agents — including a robot and a woman in a 1980s big-shoulderpad suit — remind us that this is movie dates from the era of Microsoft Bob and Clippy. (I like how “Angie” seems to speak with the voice of an actress trying to sound like she’s a synthesized voice.)
During the real-world version of 1995, HP discontinued NewWave, thereby getting out of the business of building most of the items shown in the movie. But except for those pesky agents, 1995 does a decent job of predicting where business productivity would go in the 1990s.
Starfire (Sun Microsystems, 1992)
Year depicted: 2004
Futuristic items shown: “Sun Video Collaboration Booths” in airports; desks with built-in, touch-screen computing interfaces, fancy multimedia editing features, Silly Putty-like scanning and voice navigation; tablet computers; remote-controlled cameras; point-and-click 3D animation; hydrogen-powered, zero-emissions cars; virtual-reality videoconferencing.
Amusing anachronisms: Princess Diana is said to be a member of the House of Commons in 2004 (okay, that’s more sad than funny); Sun-branded notebooks apparently using extremely high-speed dial-up, complete with dial tones; mention of a “big one” earthquake in LA in 1999.
Backstory: In 1992, Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini — an influential interface designer best known for the 14 years he spent at Apple — was working at Sun Microsystems. He spearheaded the creation of Starfire, which showed Sun products ushering in a new era of business productivity. He also chronicled the project in a book called Tog on Software Design.
Tog says that more than a hundred people collaborated on the movie; it certainly has a deluxe feel, with more fully fleshed-out visualizations of future hardware and software than other films of this ilk, such as HP’s 1995.
It’s a shame that Sun never got the chance to create Starfire‘s gizmos — including the ones that still haven’t arrived — in real life. By 2004, the company, which was instrumental in the rise of the Internet, was too busy fighting for its corporate life to change the world again in the manner that the movie prophesied. Six years later, it was gobbled up by Oracle.
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“You Will” Commercials (AT&T, 1993-1994)
Year depicted: unspecified
Futuristic items shown: digital library with touch-screen reading stations and remote access to e-books; in-dashboard car navigation system; tablet with wireless faxing; in-car toll-paying computer; fancy ATMs that sell concert tickets and renew driver’s licenses; videoconferencing pay phones; voice-activated doors; medical records stored on credit card-sized device; laptops with videoconferencing; on-demand video; online universities; instant supermarket checkouts; wristwatch phones; automated translation; remote home automation; Clippy-like canine assistant.
Amusing anachronisms: Out of all of the above, the amazing technology of tomorrow that everyone latched onto was…the ability to send wireless faxes from the beach. (In the mid-1990s, apparently, faxing was still cool.)
Backstory: Of all the movies here, AT&T’s creations probably had by far the widest audience, because they were actually popular commercials shown on prime-time TV, back in a day when accessing AOL over dial-up was still a novelty.
Directed by a not-yet-famous David Fincher and narrated by Tom Selleck, each spot showed situations involving the gadgets and services of tomorrow, and promised that AT&T would bring them to consumers. Most of them have arrived, and AT&T is indeed involved in many cases as a service provider, though it didn’t invent any of this stuff. (And if you want to get technical about it, today’s AT&T is really the descendant of Southwestern Bell.) In 1993 and 1994, these ads were provocative what-if scenarios showing where technology might take us; today, they’re nostalgic reminders of how far we’ve come.
Information at Your Fingertips (Microsoft, 1994)
Year depicted: 2004, just like Sun’s Starfire
Futuristic items shown: street-corner coffee-dispensing stand with touch-screen display; pocket-sized “wallet PCs”; in-car wireless tablet with maps and videoconferencing; flat-screen kitchen PC with video and networked hypermedia; touchscreen home automation system; interactive TV with on-demand feature and videoconferencing; art store with high-res flat screens displaying DRM-restricted paintings for on-demand printing and Internet downloading; pay phones with webcams; PayPal-like money exchange; school tablet computers with wireless Internet, wireless video transmission and fancy PowerPoint-like presentation software; hospital computer that connects to in-ambulance medical equipment; note-taking tablet with audio-recording and voice-recognition features; desktop computers running unspecified version of Windows with a less app-centric interface.
Amusing anachronisms: a few non-tech-related details tell us that this is the future, such as mention of a female president-elect and a car called the Ford Trapeze. Mostly, however, 2004 looks like 1994. (David Letterman even has the same amount of hair.)
Backstory: In the 1990s, the iconic tech-industry keynotes didn’t involve Steve Jobs or Apple. They were Bill Gates’ yearly addresses at COMDEX in Las Vegas, in which he shared the company’s vision of computing’s future.
In 1990, Gates’ COMDEX keynote was titled “Information at Your Fingertips,” and included demos of concept apps designed to show where PCs would go in the 1990s. For 1994, he upped the ante by coming back to the same premise, but illustrating it with a lavish, lengthy movie about life in Seattle in the year 2004. (YouTube’s copy has a soundtrack which is badly out of sync, which probably enhances the entertainment value.)
Microsoft’s film had a full-blown plot involving a murdered Peruvian sailor, plainclothes cops, art forgeries and a teenaged protagonist, plus a bevy of gee-whizzy gadgets, apps and services; Gates interrupted it every so often to explain the technological breakthroughs it depicted, and broke the fourth wall by chatting with the characters. The specifics are often off — Microsoft thought that pay phones would morph into video-enabled Internet terminals in a way that never quite happened — but in broad strokes, the movie does touch on most of the trends that would matter over the decade to come.
Bonus footage: Here’s Gates’s 1990 COMDEX keynote, which he referenced in his 1994 presentation.
Productivity Future Vision (Microsoft, 2009)
Years depicted: 2014-2019 or thereabouts
Futuristic items shown: giant virtual touch-screen mirrors that link schools in different parts of the world; fancy airplane touchscreen computers (presumably in first class only); whisper-thin credit card-size touch-screen phones that can be used in pairs and which sport built-in projectors; Minority Report-style interface for office productivity; augmented reality glasses; stylus-driven interface built into an office tabletop; virtual whiteboard; smart coffee cup; newspaper made of flexible e-paper; smart home HVAC system; mysterious magic wand-like remote control device; and related technologies.
Amusing anachronisms: too soon to judge
Backstory: In the last few years, there’s been a new boon in corporate-sponsored tech-utopia films. Stylistically, they’ve settled on a remarkably similar approach. The production values are impressive, and there’s no hokey narration or dialog. Just good-looking, prosperous young people using elegant-looking gadgets that feel like they might be just a few years out, accompanied by a tasteful musical score. It feels a bit as though the entire planet is going to become one humongous Apple Store — even though Apple isn’t one of the companies making these movies.
Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision is a good example of the genre. (So its sequel, released in 2011.) The company has come a long way from Bill Gates’ 1994 COMDEX video, at least when it comes to visualizing imaginary products. And just as the 1994 film depicted a world in which everything was an extension of Windows 3.1, Productivity Future Vision is about one in which a descendent of Windows 8’s Metro interface is all around us.
It’s futuristic, all right. Strangely soothing, too. But now as in 1994, it’s unclear whether making these movies plays any useful role in turning the products they show into commercial products. Remind me to rate this one for accuracy once 2019 rolls around, would you?
Nokia Mixed Reality (Nokia, 2009)
Year depicted: not specified
Futuristic items shown: bedroom window that doubles as a digital display; augmented-reality eyeglasses with features such as weather and chat; 3D audio headset; “haptic wrist device.”
Amusing anachronisms: The lady who stars in this appears to be using Nokia’s N97, a Symbian smartphone with QWERTY keyboard which was a tad retro even in 2009.
Backstory: Nokia made this video, based on work done by the Nokia Research Center, for its Nokia World conference in Stuttgart, Germany. In the years since its production, the company has decided to bet everything on Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, rendering this hypothetical “future vision” at least partially obsolete. But that’s okay. A real Nokia product, its 41-megapixel camera phone, is at least as cool than anything shown in the movie.
A Day Made of Glass 2 (Corning, 2012)
Year(s) depicted: “the near future”
Futuristic items depicted: tablet computing device with projected 3D interface; bedroom mirror that doubles as a digital display, with wardrobe-selecting app; tablet that can beam music to car computer; color-shifting dashboard; car windows with touch-screen control; elementary school with photovoltaic-glass roof and giant displays in hallways; translucent educational tablets with augmented-reality features; classrooms with touch-enabled display walls; Microsoft Surface-like computing tables for educational use; anti-bacterial medical tablets; smart glass walls in hospital room, with videoconferencing features; full-body scanning system with augmented-reality 3D interface; giant all-weather, augmented reality smart glass walls in state park; massive flat-screen TV.
Amusing anachronisms: too soon to judge
Backstory: In 2011, Corning released A Day Made of Glass, a video about a world in which nearly every flat surface is a touch screen made out of Corning glass. It was a YouTube blockbuster, racking up more than eighteen million views to date. So the company produced this sequel — and a special edition with more explanation of what’s going on — set on the same day as the first film and mostly involving a schoolgirl’s glass-centric life. The most memorable moment, however, shows a doctor lifting a virtual-reality brain out of a real patient’s skull — kids, don’t try this at home.
A Day Made of Glass 2 appears to be set in the same tasteful universe as Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision and Nokia Mixed Reality: You could splice them together into one movie and it would make sense, more or less. They all depict one version of the future, and like earlier ones, it’s heavily influenced by where technology happens to be right now. Would these recent videos exist in the same form if Apple had never come up with the iPhone and iPad? We’ll never know.
For everything that’s changed since GM’s 1940 To New Horizons, much has remained the same about these kinds of productions. (The specific scenarios are often eerily familiar — Glass 2, like Apple’s Project 2000, features animated 3D dinosaurs.) Even the movies which were pretty mundane in the first place are fun to revisit: What they tell us about our past, it turns out, is at least as important as anything they can tell us about our future.
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