Rent-A-Cat & Other Essential Services

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Rent-A-Cat

Rent-A-Cat
Odds 50%
Year 1993
Cost N/A

Come with me to the Anderson Hotel in Wabasha ("Oldest town in Minnesota"), a Registered Historic Place where lonely guests are set upon by companionable cats. This chilling tale is recounted in Blumpoe the Grumpoe meets Arnold the Cat. Also in Future Stuff.

"Hotel owner John Hall had the idea when a guest complained he was so lonely, even his wife's cat would be good company." As of the time of Future Stuff there were fifteen cats that came free with rooms. In 2007 there were six and it was more a bed-and-breakfast thing. Now there are only five and they're holding auditions.

With the overconfidence we've come to expect, Future Stuff predicts that "it won't be long until Holiday Inn and Ramada enter the business," gouging customers for the privilege of having a cat in their room. This didn't happen. But there is a dog rental company in Japan. (Caution: link contains even more magazine writing.) Also, Rent-A-Pet is on Halfbakery, and there was a musical about a fictional puppy-rental dot-com.


Customized Music Cassettes

Customized Music Cassettes
Odds 95%
Year 1990
Cost $0.50-$1.25/1989 ($0.80-$2) per song

"What we have here is a development that promises to revolutoinize the way you buy recorded music." And it only took fifteen years! Future Stuff envisions a music store that will dub onto cassette the songs of your choice from a complete music library ("the entire spectrum of recorded sounds"). All you have to do is fill out a form.

Adjusted for the Internet age, they've described the iTunes music store or any other pay-by-the-track store. What you probably didn't appreciate is that this business model was old enough to appear in Future Stuff, and not as a lame pipe dream. Personics actually installed tape-dubbing kiosks in Tower Records stores, but people weren't really interested in them (partly because of music licensing problems) and the company went bankrupt in 1991. Future Stuff thought that Personics's 2000 albums were "enough for starters", but it probably wasn't.

In 1998 CD World set up kiosks in New York to burn individually-purchased songs to CD. Why did that fail? Because 1998 was the last time someone could say "The Internet doesn't offer instant gratification" with a straight face.

For the patent fiends among you, Personics has a bunch of patents, including "System for encoding sound recordings for high-density storage and high-speed transfers". Pretty good paper trail on this company if you're interested in learning more.


Smart Cards

Smart Cards
Odds 95%
Year 1996
Cost FREE/1989 (FREE*/2007)

Lordy lordy. "Smart Cards will replace most of the magnetic stripe cards you now carry in your wallet." Says who? Jerome Svigals, of course, who is showing up in this book with a frequency previously associated with Hammacher-Schlemmer.

The card will know if you have enough money in your account to buy what you want. Hardware units in stores will read your smart card and not only approve your purchase; the transaction will be immediately registered in your account and onto your card. The card comes with safety precautions like any other credit card--the card won't open for transactions unless your personal code is entered, and it can be cancelled or replaced if it is lost or stolen... Merchants will like them because they'll eliminate those time-wasting and annoying phone calls to check on your credit.

All this happened with debit cards, but again the problem is the idea that this data would be stored on a card under your control, and not on the bank's or credit card company's mainframe. In fairness to the bank and credit card company, storing the data on a card you control would let you hack the balance, especially since also predicted is "your own reader unit for home use ($50/1989), so that you can check the status of your account at any time." That happened too, but only because we got cheap personal computers and networking so that a general-purpose device could act as a "reader unit."

I'm sick of this pseudo-future. Damn smart cards! I wish I may never hear of smart cards again!


Visual Smart Cards

Visual Smart Cards
Odds 95%
Year 1999
Cost $10/$20/1989 ($16-$32/2007)

Well, that didn't work. Visual smart cards "are 'visual' because you can look at the mini-display screen and actually see your transaction take place." I chose that as the lead sentence because the actual lead sentence is: "These Smart Cards come with a built-in pocket calculator." A pocket calculator? There's a word for that! It's called a tiny pocket calculator! My dad had one long before 1989!

Anyway, visual smart cards know how much is left in your credit line (I guess they're unhackable, like all other smart cards). You, the operator, use the pocket calculator to input a purchase amount into the smart card. Smart card calculates a "six-digit authorization code" which you show to the merchant. If the amount you punch in exceeds your credit limit, you can have the machine check to see if you can get credit beyond your limit." Or alternately, not buy the thing.

Here's the best part. The merchant then "copies the authorization number from your card onto a conventional credit-card slip and makes an imprint with your card." So not only does the merchant have the buyer's credit card number, they have the buyer's solemn word (in the form of a six-digit number obtained from a device they control) that they can afford what they're buying. And the merchant can write that number down on the paper slip they'll eventually send in to the credit card company! That way, if you were lying about being able to afford whatever you were buying, the credit card company will surely detect it!

All my previous rantings about smart cards are vindicated. This is a big aggravation that looks impressive but adds nothing from a security standpoint. "Authorize your own transactions", indeed! It's probably not even an actual pocket calculator, just a numeric keypad.

There's a really good idea buried here, the OAuth-like idea of generating one-time credit card numbers that authorize one specific transaction. I think I read something recently about one-time-use credit card numbers for online shopping, which is a start. But it's not here, or it got mangled by the Future Stuff writers into something that made no sense.


Computer Shop-At-Home

Computer Shop-At-Home
Odds 100%
Year 1992
Cost $10/1989 ($16/2007) per month

"By now you've heard about computer shopping. A couple of services tried it but failed in the early eighties." Who dares to try where the likes of Comp-U-Store and Viewdata have failed? "[A] system called Prodigy is the one most likely to succeed."

Man, I loved Prodigy. It was my first online community and there I made friends that I still keep in touch with today. Whether it was AD&D or the Hitchhiker's Guide books (or BBSes a bit later), both of my youthful obsessions found a home in a friendly community.

But Future Stuff only sees Prodigy as an online store, which I guess is okay because there's got to be something it sees as an online store, and that's how Prodigy saw itself. I never bought anything on Prodigy because I was a kid who had no money, but many times I yearned to buy a bouquet or plane ticket or something I didn't need or even want on its own terms, because the banner ad--now I realize that's what that was--made it sound like a cool thing to do online. ("The bottom 20 percent of the Prodigy screen is all advertising.")

"You need a modem--the unit that transmits information over the phone wires," says Future Stuff, "and a graphics card, both of which are available at your local computer store." Yes, back then a graphics card was not a given. I didn't get a (CGA, thank you) graphics card for my computer until around the time I got Prodigy, possibly for the same Christmas.

"When you see the coat of your dreams come up on your screen [you're buying coats, you see, in glorious CGA], just hit the ACTION key. The store will process your order and deliver the coat to your door."

In one paragraph we hear about all the other possibilities of Prodigy: "[Y]ou can buy groceries, trade stocks, get stock quotes, make travel reservations, do your banking, and get news and sports information." Not mentioned was the only reason anyone ever signed up for Prodigy: talking to other people on the forums. The forums were a huge cost sink for Prodigy and they tried everything to get people to stop using them so much. Around 1994 they finally succeeded, by getting lots of people to leave Prodigy altogether.

It's pretty redundant for me to summarize the state of the art of online shopping, even with an eye to the future, because it's now ubiquitous. Most medium- to big-ticket purchases I make online. Most small, hard-to-find things I either buy online or obtain through some sort of online barter system like BookMooch. Online trade is a big part of the economy and it's probably not going to get smaller than it is now. Unless civilization collapses.


Drive-Buy Advertisements

Drive-Buy Advertisements
Odds 90%
Year 1990
Cost N/A

"Does the world really need more advertising? Well, need or not, more is on the way." Nice of Future Stuff to warn us all in its blasé way. Drive-Buy technology will put small radio transmitters next to advertisements like the FOR SALE signs on houses. "[Y]ou won't have to get out of your car to get the details. Instead, you'll tune your car radio to the setting indicated on the FOR SALE sign... An appliance store can promote a sale or your supermarket can announce specials."

We already had this and it's called radio. With its incredible reach, radio allows your supermarket to announce specials even when you're not near the supermarket. Radio! Look for it... IN THE FUTURE!

The company is INR Technologies. There's a 1986 NYT article about INR for back when their only product was "Talking House." Patent #4685133 has some technical details. "'So far, it has been most successful in the real-estate business,' says Steven Rand, INR president." Probably because that's the only time it makes sense to broadcast location-specific advertisements over radio. And even then (as Future Stuff inadvertently points out) you can just get out of your car and pick up a flyer, rather than listen to the radio and write stuff down while trying to stay in a 400-foot radius.


Spy-Satellite Photos

Spy-Satellite Photos
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $3000/1989 ($4900/2007)

"Did you know that anyone [5 examples of "anyone" elided -LR]--yes, anyone can order spy satellite photographs? Christer Larsson and his colleageus at Space Media Network" are selling satellite photos with thirty-meter resolution, letting businesses "peek at their competitors' factory behind the Iron Curtain or in Asia." Their money-losing business ($140k/1989 in losses per year) is subsidized by "a Swedish billionaire and philanthropist... Their goal is a safer environment and world peace."

Space Media Network made a name for themselves releasing pictures of Chernobyl in 1986, "forcing the Soviet Union to publicly acknowledge the catastrophe." Here they are in 1987, exposing the Soviet laser menace. It's all very exciting and Cold War, but $3000 is a lot for a photo and it looks like they were only able to sell them to news organizations. It didn't help that the photos are delayed "for as much as a year until Space Media Network is sure of its findings." They're probably sitting on those Face on Mars photos too.

Today there are many more satellites orbiting earth and we've had more time to collect photos. Terraserver made waves in 1998 by putting up satellite photos of most of the United States. Today, high-quality satellite and arial photos of much of the globe are available for free online, thanks to the deep pockets of Google. Still very cool.

Space Media Network is still around and they're still doing something with satellitlösningar, but I can't tell what.


Diagrammatic Knitting Instructions

Diagrammatic Knitting Instructions
Odds 70%
Year 1994
Cost "Slightly more than other instructions"

Kind of a shame that they put a somewhat realistic probability on this one. Anyway, conventional knitting instructions are hard to understand and require counting. Estelle Leighton's diagrams "show line by line what stiches are required... If a row of knit is required, the instructions will show KKKKKKK... Each stitch can be color-coded for patterns." A similar diagram technique has long been the standard in the cross-stitch world, but diagrammatic knitting instructions never caught on.

Estelle Leighton doesn't show up on the web, unless she's the liberal activist from Chapel Hill. "The [knitting] industry is at an all-time low with so many women out working," she says in 1989. Future Stuff predicts an economic slowdown (won't that affect the availablility of all the other stuff in this book?) which will lead people to knit more. I don't know about that, but knitting has recently undergone a resurgence and become hip. There's even a markup language for knitting instructions, and a description in that language could surely be turned into a diagram.


Vending Machine French Fries

Vending Machine French Fries
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost $0.75-$1/1989 (about the same/2007)

William Bartfield was browsing the classifieds while recovering from surgery and ended up buying a $200 french-fried-potato vending machine. "Five million dollars and countless hours of research and testing later, Bartfield is ready to offer the world Prize Frize."

Five million dollars? What did he do with that money? Also, Prize Frize? Jeepers. Previous attempts at the Frize Prize had failed due to "potato storage and spoilage problems." Bartfield switched from real potatoes to "submarine powder", Basic American Foods's salute to our armed forces in concentrated dehydrated powdered potato form. (See also "Freeze-Dried Compressed Food".) The "computerized vending system" that's the final result of that $5 million rehydrates the potato, "extrude[s it] into french-fry shapes", fries it, and serves you the result. The french fry cup "holds in its recessed bottom ketchup and salt."

Prize Frize is another one of those companies that now shows up mainly in the names of lawsuits, like "Encino Bus Management Inc. v. Prize Frize, Inc." and: Prize Frize v. Matrix, in which Prize Frize sued about twenty-five other companies (inc. "Baltkor International") for, "through a series of unfair, unlawful and collusive actions, depriv[ing] Prize Frize of its ownership of, among other things, four patents." The Prize Frize saga apparently set precedents for what happens to your IP when your company goes bankrupt. The Matrix decision says that "a full recitation of the procedural history of this case might task even the most avid devotees of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce," so I won't attempt to summarize what those precedents actually mean, but this law blog seems to have a handle on it.

If I could take just one lesson away from this sordid story, it would be this: if your idea for vending machine french fries comes from a classified ad selling a used french fry vending machine, you don't have the world's most original idea. You're going to have competitors, possibly up to twenty-five competitors, and it's not going to work to spend five million up front, get some patents, and sue your twenty-five competitors for infringing. You need to start a customer base right away and stay ahead of the competition by improving on your design as you go. Patents won't protect you. Speaking of which, here are the four patents that built and destroyed Prize Frize, most notably Apparatus for preparing fried potato products.

Today you can get a french fry vending machine... whoa. No! Prize Frize arch-rival Tasty Fries was still in business as of 2003, but in 2005 (love this headline) "Judge Says French Fry Machine Maker Dispensed Only Stock Fraud". The whole thing was a scam and they never vended a single french fry. They've been delisted and their website is run by a domain squatter.

Okay, now the one lesson I'd like to take away from this sordid story is that the whole french fry vending machine concept is cursed and I should have nothing to do with it. I would think that roadside french fry carts would be a logical precursor to fully-automated french fry vending machines--similar to Antarctic dry-runs for Mars missions--but we seem impatient to skip right to the vending machines.

That said, there is Patatas Chef, a Spanish company that uses frozen fries instead of trying to build them from powder. That's a common technique among those who dare to vend french fries, but it tends to require larger machines and more maintenance than the powder technique. Patatas Chef have a nice website with some technical information, but at this point I'm twice bitten and I don't see any evidence that any of these machines have been installed in public places.

PS: Check out American Basic Foods's list of recipes for every daypart! Your geneshare units will emit thanks!


Music Therapy

Music Therapy
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost "$900/1989 ($1500/2007) for a week treatment, $16,900/1989 ($28,000/2007) for the system"

It's taken the world nearly three hundred years to catch up with the advice of William Congreve, who eloquently pointed out that 'Music hath sharms to soothe a savage breast.' What Congreve obviously meant was that the right tune could alleviate tension, stress, anger, anxiety, or depression." Don't you have some photos that need captioning?

Jerry Hampton of Indiana has invented the Biosonics System, which relies on SCIENCE! "Science," he says, "has proven that frequencies found pleasurable automatically induce relaxation." Instead of putting on primitive "relaxing music", man of the future will relax using "soothing frequencies" while lying "in a darkened room on a therapeutic table suspended within a geometirical, aluminum, resonating frame called a Vector." It monitors your aura (ie. electromagnetic field) and customizes your frequencies appropriately. "A series of seminars or experiential workships is conducted... Called the Discovery Program... costs $900..." This is sounding less and less like "science", and more like "New Age-y Learning Annex ripoff." Also like the Audium, which is pretty cool if you've never been there.

Jerry Hampton's Biosonics product (and his well-named company, Innovation of Indiana) are no longer around, but biosonics.com sells things like tuning forks tuned to the Fibonacci sequence, which would make a great gift idea for the xkcd fan in your life except it's being sold to help with "trauma and addiction issues", not because that's an awesome thing to have. Or try biosonics.net, which challenges you to harness "the power of subliminal CD's [sic]" and Microsoft Office Live. Biosonics also seems to be the study of animal communications.


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, October 23 2014, 13:00:04 Nowhere Standard Time.

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

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