Good Stuff in Small Packages

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Weather Cube

Weather Cube
Odds 20%
Year 1999
Cost $100/1989 ($140/1999)

"What's the weather like? In the future we won't have to check the newspaper, catch the TV weather report, or even look out the window. We'll simply glance at our weather cubes."

In a sense this is one of the most accurate, even conservative predictions in Future Stuff. I check the weather on my weather cube all the time. Even in 1999 you could check the weather on your weather cube. And if you had Internet access (which I'm guessing the entire market for a Weather Cube did even in 1999), it didn't cost $100: it cost nothing. Because the Weather Cube isn't a separate little machine: it's a piece of structured text that's been given an address on a global information network. It's a feature of the enormous distributed application we call the World Wide Web.

The weather cube described in Future Stuff is a little more mundane. It's a trendy Japanese gadget with an LCD screen that displays a little symbol for what the weather will be like.

The device is actually a microcomputer with a program that's based on forty years of weather patterns... the weather cube uses a semiconductor for readings of current weather conditions and comparisons with past weather data."

The problem is, the weather in Japan is apparently uniform (or easy to predict, or something. I don't know what they're saying here because I've seen Japanese weather reports that went on for five minutes), so it's easy to make this for Japan. For the US you'd need a separate weather cube for each region. Given this, it's no surprise we never got smart weather cubes. Instead we got a dumb conduit to the really smart instruments of the National Weather Service. It's just as easy to find out what the weather's like where you're going, or where someone else is. "If the cube becomes standard equipment in U.S. households, Americans who venture cross-country would do well to leave their cubes at home." The real cube isn't "home"; it's wherever you have Internet access.

OK, enough of that. If you demand physical weather cubes, these guys make 'em.


Pocket Computer

Pocket Computer
Odds 100%
Year 1992
Cost $300/1989 ($350/1992)

In the 1980s it was obvious that computers would continue to get smaller and faster. The obvious end state was a pocket computer, such that I could be the operüter with my pocket computer. "But how do you miniaturize a computer screen without losing most of the image or making the text so tiny that it's unreadable?" According to Future Stuff, you have a one-inch mini screen that "hang[s] down over your eye from a headset". The keyboard is "carried in your pocket."

Nowadays we call that a wearable computer and there aren't any. Steve Lipsey of Reflection Technology (which seems to no longer be around) didn't succeed in popularizing the wearable computer, but other kinds of pocket computers started showing up in 1993, notably the Apple Newton ($700/1993). That didn't work out too well, but in 1996 the Palm Pilot ($300/1996) really took off. Today there are pocket computers everywhere. Many of them double as phones. And they all have really small screens. The secret? Don't try to show 80x24 characters on the screen.


The Electric Train Attaché

The Electric Train Attaché
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $585/1989 ($610/1990)

This product was actually being sold as Future Stuff went to press. They included it either because they genuinely thought it would become a big hit, or because it sounded really cool. It didn't, but it was. It's a little model train set inside a briefcase that runs on a nine-volt battery. It was made by Märklin and sold in "specialty shops" (more special than the shops that sell model trains normally?) and F.A.O. Schwarz.

As Future Stuff points out, it's not much use except as an executive toy. You can't change the configuration, which is about 60% of the fun of model trains. Most of its appeal comes from the moment of surprise when you crack the attaché case to reveal an unexpected treat. It makes me think of other things you could put in an attaché case, like a record player. I envision a 1950s commuter opening his briefcase to reveal a small hi-fi system, whereupon he transmogrifies into a finger-popping, Charlie Parker-listening hipster for the duration of the trip.

Strangely, I can find very little evidence of this neat item's existence. It shows up in a FAQ for Z-scale model trainmaking. Z-scale models are so small you can build your own model in a briefcase. Incidentally, zscale.org admin David Karp is a fellow O'Reilly author. Just thought I'd mention that. He wrote Windows Annoyances and Ebay Hacks.


Flat Satellite Antenna

Flat Satellite Antenna
Odds 100%
Year 1992
Cost $600/1989 ($700/1992)

"A flat mini-antenna, 1 inch thick and measuring 2 feet by 1 foot," that can receive from a high-powered satellite. Around 1993 my family got satellite TV and the dish was still a huge NASA-like thing in the backyard that you could watch slowly turning when you changed the channel. Today's dishes still have the dish shape, so we don't call them "antennas", but they've got not much more than 2 square feet of surface area. And they cost under $100/2007, less than a tenth of the inflation-adjusted price predicted in Future Stuff. So the timeline was off, but this was a pretty accurate prediction. Token inaccuracy: the mini-antenna will be available "in a color to match your decor".


Binocular Glasses

Binocular Glasses
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $295/1989

"Dr. William Beecher, an ornithologist... set out more than forty years ago to design the perfect bird-watching binoculars... should be a boon to sports and opera fans and anyone who wears binoculars." Actually they were a boon to people with macular degeneration, thanks to cool design decisions like putting the "mass of the binoculars" (not totally sure what that refers to) in a blind spot. I've seen lots of people wearing these, and this is where they came from.

The Beecher Mirage 7x30, as seen in Future Stuff, costs $425/2007 ($250/1989). You can get off-brand binocular glasses from Hammacher Schlemmer (of course!) for less.

Dr. Beecher died in 2002. Future Stuff says: "Dr. Beecher, who donates his sales profits to charity, has so far resisted the idea of using dealers, because 'that would at least double the price to buyers.'"


Freeze-Dried Compressed Food

Freeze-Dried Compressed Food
Odds 100%
Year 1992
Cost "Varies by Product"

Speaks for itself. Why not take an invention designed for an area (military and space applications) that imposes a significant constraint (storage space), and move it into a general market that doesn't have the constraint? That's... the future! "It's not the same as buying fresh, but it's better than canned," says Joseph Durocher, professor of hotel administration at the University of New Hampshire. He predicts a market for freeze-dried food among big-city apartment dwellers. Well, I'm a big-city apartment dweller, and in fact I don't have a lot of storage space, but I deal with it by locating a secondary storage space two blocks from my house on the way to the subway, where I can buy food as needed.

Durocher also predicts "freeze-dried compressed products someday being used by people living on space platforms and moon colonies." Unlike the apartment thing, THIS MAKES TOTAL SENSE. The problem is that there are no space platforms or moon colonies. As far as I know, the only freeze-dried compressed food on the market today is sold for camping and emergency preparedness.

Oh, a word about "better than canned": I think that's very likely, since canned foods are often heated, which destroys flavor. Freeze-drying involves flash-freezing, and a lot of food (esp. from Trader Joe's) is flash-frozen. They just don't go the extra step of removing all the water from the frozen food to make it smaller.


Smart Pill Bottle

Smart Pill Bottle
Odds 85%
Year 1994
Cost $40/1989 ($50/1994)

At last, cyberpunk smart pills are available! One pill makes me a genius—two, a mega-genius! I'll just open this bottle... oh no! Only the bottle is smart! Curse you, ambiguously applicable adjectives!

In fact, only the bottlecap is smart. "Originally designed to monitor participants in FDA tests of new drugs, the product is a cap designed to fit a standard pill bottle." Every time you open and close the bottle, it registers the time. When you're done with the bottle you give it back to the doctor, who sends it in to bottlecap maker Aprex for analysis.

That's the 1994 state of the art as described in Future Stuff; what does the grim, murky future-of-the-future portend? How about making the cap buzz when it's time to take a pill, and tell you what to do if you miss a dose? That's the future-future Aprex president Keith Mullowney wants to give to our children.

This product was designed for use in FDA trials, when it makes sense to spend an extra $40 per patient to see when they took the medicine. The cumbersome process (patient to doctor to analysis company) could be streamlined, but I doubt patients would do it voluntarily or put up with a $40 deposit on every bottle of medicine.

Aprex is now a division of Aardex, "the experts on patient adherence." They're still chasing this particular rainbow "by integrating a small microcircuit into drug packages," but it looks like they've given up on selling this except for medical trials. I couldn't find any modern information on pricing.


Watch Pager

Watch Pager
Odds 95%
Year 1990
Cost $150-$200/1989 for the watch; $12/1989 per month for the service

Pagers are too big and clumsy! Fortunately, the watch pager fits inside a digital watch. "When someone calls, your watch... will gently flash one of several messages: Call home, call the office, call the following number, or it will flash a code from 0 to 9 for best friends and other frequent callers."

At least one pager watch was actually created: the 1998 Timex Beepwear Pro. An alphanumeric pager, it cost $129/1998 (compare $200-$270/1998 predicted inflation-adjusted price) and service started at $9/1998 per month (compare $16/1998 predicted).

Today, pagers are mostly dead. They're as big as they always were; they just have more features. Future Stuff had a golden opportunity to predict the rise of mobile phones, but the architecture of the book prevented it. Mobile phones already existed in 1989; they were just really big and clunky. A pager watch was a new kind of product, so it got into the book. The pager watch idea was killed off not by an even newer product, but by an existing product becoming much smaller and cheaper.


Puddle Detector

Puddle Detector
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost $12/1988 ($13/1991)

This is an invention of Lillian Lukas for the blind: a battery-operated machine that snaps onto a cane and beeps when it touches water. Rather than sell the devices (an onerous undertaking), Lukas and her parents "send a diagram and instructions to workshops for the blind."

I have no idea how useful this is over an ordinary cane, and I can't find the diagrams (or any information about it) online, but it sounds easy to reverse-engineer.


The Pocket Printer

The Pocket Printer
Odds 95%
Year 1990
Cost $300/1989 ($315/1990)

How will the Pocket Computer produce hard copy? With the Pocket Printer! Actually the Casio Digital Writer has its own keyboard and display; it's a little word processor on top of everything else. It prints with a wand: "two small wheels on either side of the wand allow the printing head to be rolled [by you? automatically?] straight and smooth over the paper."

The Digital Writer was actually released in late 1988 ("handy word-processor for printing anywhere"). It seems to have sunk without a trace. For some reason, the few Google search results it gets all come from Argentina.

The Digital Writer idea was a victim of two of the great trends unobserved by Future Stuff: the miniaturization of existing technologies (in this case the printer and personal computer) and the rise of electronic communication (which reduced the need for hard copy while you were on the go). But it has spiritual descendents. There are robots and bicycle rigs that paint graffiti in a way that reminds me a lot of the Digital Writer's rolling wand.


Computer Alarmcard

Computer Alarmcard
Odds 85%
Year 1991
Cost $120/1989 ($130/1991)

The Alarmcard (patent #4908608) is an anti-theft device for PCs. It plugs "into personal computers" (ie. into the bus) and sounds an alarm if someone moves the computer without removing the card.

The Alarmcard never caught on (I can't even tell if it was ever released), and it looks like inventor D'Arcy Dawe still works in the insurance industry. But there are lots of anti-theft products for laptops (much more stealable than 1989 PCs, but also much more likely to be moved legitimately), including some built into the machines themselves.


Portable Oven

Portable Oven
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $30/1989 ($30/1990)

The portable oven looks like the insulated bags that pizza deliverers carry pizza boxes in (though I've noticed that in many pornographic movies, the pizza deliverer is just holding the pizza box sloppily in one hand, giving the whole scene an air of unreality). "Slightly larger than a TV dinner," it's got an electrical plug and can heat up to 280 degrees Fahrenheit; not enough to bake something, but enough to warm something up. There's a model for home use ("Hot plate? No, no hot plate, this is just a tiny insulated pizza bag!") and a 12-volt model for use in the RV.

There are many kinds of 12-volt portable ovens available today, and prices are around $40/2007 ($25/1989), but they look nothing like insulated pizza bags. They look like toaster ovens. It may be a stretch, but I'm gonna say they are toaster ovens.

Watkins, Inc. the company that made the Porta-Oven, is nowhere to be found on the web. I can't tell whether or not the product was ever sold, but judging from the picture they at least had a prototype.


Personal Betting Machine

Personal Betting Machine
Odds 75%
Year 1997
Cost $200/1989 ($260/1997)

"An American invention in Hong Kong has revolutionized that colony's horse-racing industry. Odds are good that by the time China reclaims Hong Kong, it will change the way Americans wager as well."

So begins the back-cover copy for this 1995 John le Carré novel. No, wait, so begins the Future Stuff description of the Portabet. It's a handheld terminal to a specialized betting network. Another specialized network, another specialized client, another invention made moot by cheap computers and the Internet.

There are still off-track betting parlors, but if you want to make bets over a network you use the Web. The march of technology destroyed not the old-fashioned way of doing things, but the in-between specialized devices that Future Stuff focuses on.

Computer Underground Digest's "Syndicate Report" has a 1987 article on Portabet ("Horse-Racing Fanatics Bet Via Modem").


Hand-Held Sports Monitor

Hand-Held Sports Monitor
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $350/1989 ($370/1990), $45-$65/1989 ($47-$68/1990) per month for service

Beeper Plus presents a customized Motorola pager that streams sports scores to your pocket, if you live in one of the 16 target cities. Cleverly named the "Sports Page". It gets its data via satellite and can double as a personal pager. Bonus: weather information!

Do I need to spell it out for you? Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! Watch the general-purpose Internet crush a mountain of specialized one-off applications!

Except... The Sports Page is still around. They still sell customized Motorola pagers: about $100/2007 for a cheap pager and 2 months service. They haven't even tried to adapt to the Internet or SMS era.

"Done be one of the guys asking someone else what is the score of the game. Be the one telling them the Score with your sports pagers from the SPORTSpage."

Who's that interested in the ongoing score of the game and isn't watching the game and doesn't have Internet access? What target audience could Beeper Plus, now BeepMe Las Vegas, be thinking of?

Oh, I get it.


The World's Smallest Weather Station

The World's Smallest Weather Station
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $160/1989 ($170/1990)

Hedging their bets a bit, since there must always be a world's smallest weather station. But is it this one? Contrary to what you might think this is not a repeat of the Weather Cube. It's a device for measuring the weather: "wind speed, wind direction, and air temperature." Mount part A "on a home antenna or sailboat mast" and it sends data to part B, the "hand-held station".

The weather station in Future Stuff is made by Digitar, which has since been acquired by Davis Instruments. Future Tech doesn't give the model number, but today's closest fit feature-wise is the recently-discontinued Weather Monitor II, which costs $265/2007: that's about the same as $160/1989. Plus, the Weather Monitor II came with software that hooks up to your PC, so you can get your data off of the hand-held station.


Portable Voice-Activated Translator

Portable Voice-Activated Translator
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost $2,000/1989 ($2200/1991)

"Voice" (Patent #4984177) is an automatic phrasebook: it can recognize a set list of phrases, look them up in its dictionary, and print or say the phrase in Spanish, French, German, or Italian. Here's a 1989 article about it from Nation's Business.

I can't find any indication that Voice made it into stores. Steve Rondel, who started the company that made Voice, is now the founder of Conversay, which does "speech technology for mobile devices." One thing that comes across through my research is that Rondel really hates keyboard input. In Future Stuff he says "Voice makes a laptop computer with a keyboard look like a dinosaur."

Today a speaking translator computer costs $100-$200/2007 ($70-140/1991) and handles over 10 languages. Moore's Law in action!


Prayer Wristwatch

Prayer Wristwatch
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $95/1989 ($100/1990)

"Powered by two tiny microprocessors and a 12K memory, this amazing timepiece points to Mecca, chimes ten minutes before prayer calls, and flashes the date according to the Muslim calendar."

These still exist, and some of them look pretty slick. Strangely I was unable to find prayer watches (aka Azan watches) in online megastores. There are a couple on Amazon but they've been discontinued. Casio used to make one; discontinued. But specialized Islamic stores sell them from $45/2007 ($24/1989). ASR Inc., the company mentioned in Future Stuff, is still in business and sells a plastic watch at a similar price. Metal watches are about twice as much. Some prayer watches include compasses that point to Mecca, but ASR's watch calibrates from the current location of the sun instead:

The watch has no built-in compass. Compasses are inherently inaccurate, especially within buildings and in mountainous areas.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Thursday, April 24 2014, 03:00:06 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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