(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)
"This is the stuff of comic books, sci-fi magazines, and the dreams of generations of little boys who loved machines." Unfortunately, so it remains. Paul Moller's Moller M400 Skycar, featured in Future Stuff as the Moller 400, currently plans to be FAA certified by December 31, 2008. Interested buyers can get in line to buy one by ponying up a refundable deposit.
This is a good one to start off with because it shows how the authors' primary source for information and estimates is the inventors themselves. The people working on a project tend to be over-optimistic about when it will be done and how well it will be received. In the book, Moller seems pretty realistic about the latter: "While it may seem like the fulfillment of every commuter's fantasy to leave bumper-to-bumper traffic below, Moller believes that the craft's first application wil be performing search-and-rescue missions in isolated areas."
This is also a good one to start with because the product is still being developed. We have fairly detailed specs for the product both in Future Stuff and on the website, so we can do a rough comparison:
|Moller 400 (1989)||Moller M400 (2007)|
|Cruising speed||225 MPH||275 MPH|
|Fuel efficiency||15 MPG||20 MPG (uses ethanol)|
|Deposit amount||$5000/1989 ($8200/2006)||$10000-$100000/2007|
|List price||$100000/1989 ($164000/2006)||$500000-$995000/2007|
|The Water Battery|
"A battery that runs on water, or juice, or Coca-Cola, or even beer and wine sounds too bizarre, right?" Well, "runs on" is not really the right word here. It would indeed be bizarre if a battery derived energy from water, but the Water Battery just uses water as an electrolyte. The real action happens in the metal plates... look, honestly I don't know enough about batteries to accurately explain these things to you, so let me point you to this Discover article from 1986.
By amazing coincidence, that article is about VentuResearch ("Did you mean: venture search"), the same company mentioned in Future Stuff. In the Discover article the product is a watch that runs off a zinc pile. Future Stuff: "A few years ago they made Ripley's Believe it or Not with a watch that was powered [sic] by liquid. The "water watch" was a moderate success with consumers..." Note the repetition in the Discover article of what was probably a standard sales pitch: "Any liquid -- Pepsi, tea, milk, orange juice, water, beer -- will do." I guess Discover and Future Stuff were sponsored by different brands of cola.
The water battery is compatible with traditional batteries. The advantage is that the electrolyte is water, instead of, say, lye. It's got a screw-top cap and when you're not using the battery, you can dump the electrolyte down the sink and the battery will stop deteriorating (Won't the water have dissolved zinc ions in it? Should I worry about that?).
Once you do, "[t]he inside won't corrode because the 'juice' is drained. And the battery doesn't die because it discharges only when there's liquid inside." I'm pretty sure those two statements are identical: the corrosion, not the water, is what powers the battery.
Assuming they got it to work. I can see two reasons why this didn't catch on. First, it's an incremental improvement, not a revolution. When you're not using your boom box, you leave the batteries in. You don't take them out and put them back in a cool dry place. It's unlikely you'll go through the trouble of taking them out and pouring out the electrolyte just to get some extra life out of them. If it made the batteries last ten times longer you might do it, but I suspect the savings is more like 10%.
Second, the design makes a common but dangerous assumption: that people are not morons and will use the product correctly. It's hard to mess up the water watch because you don't have to open it. But if you don't screw the top back on the battery properly, the electrolyte will leak out into your boom box.
|Cost||$7000-$10,000/1989 ($9300-$13,000/1997), including installation|
"A few years ago, it took a bit of a conceptual stretch to imagine a VCR that could record a program while you weren't at home. But just imagine a Smart House, which can operate all appliances from anywhere. And that's just the beginning."
Gimme a break. A few years ago, like 1956, it was easy to imagine combining your existing appliances in vague ways ("Or you can tell your oven to make the TV flash when the roast is done"). What's not easy to imagine is an entirely new appliance like the VCR.
This item is the same dreamlike promises we've been hearing for years, and they're still at it. It's more a sign of corporate decadence than something you'd would want or be able to buy. The ones pushing it this time are the National Homebuilder's Association. According to Future Stuff, all your appliances will communicate over a home network. "Everything will be controlled by a panel on the wall, a video touch screen, a remote control device, a voice recognition system, automatic sensors, and/or by telephone from anywhere in the world." Well, we got the home network, but the only recognizable appliance on it is my "VCR", and I never program it through the network.
"When the plug of any appliance is inserted into a socket, a microchip in the plug will tell the socket how much and what kind of energy is needed." Not a heavy-handed metaphor for DRM, folks, an actual proposal. However: "So if a child inserts a paper clip or a finger into the socket, no electricity will be activated." That's a cool idea (when I was a kid I accidentally inserted the tab of a tape measure into a socket, so I have a vested interest in ideas where nothing happens when you do that) and there must be some way to do that without redesigning the electrical plug.
|Cost||Slightly more than regular underwear|
"Okay, here's one for the Gipper: a T-shirt that permanently prevents body odor. Or maybe the Gipper would like a pair of Jockey shorts that "just say no" to jock itch, or a pair of socks that help fight athlete's foot?"
I'm not sure whether the reference is to George Gipp or to Ronald Reagan, but in either event it's not good to restrict your target market to a single person. Especially since there are two products here: a antimicrobial agent that can be incorporated into textiles, and the application of same to make antimicrobial underwear. The latter has had moderate success. Some clothing, mainly sportswear and camping gear has an antimicrobial layer (cf. Wired article from 1999), and a Japanese company called Gunze makes deodorant underwear for put-upon salarymen.
But what of Interface, Inc., the company mentioned in Future Stuff, and its antimicrobial chemical, Intersept? Interface is still around and they make modular carpet squares. This is a very cool invention that sounds more futuristic and practical than much of the stuff in Future Stuff. Unfortunately, Interface first started selling carpet squares in 1974. Future Stuff showcases things that aren't out yet, not existing things that might become better or that aren't getting enough attention.
Today, Interface uses Intersept to treat carpet fibers. Future Stuff makes it sound like the only thing holding back deodorant underwear is EPA approval, but another factor might have been that Interface was mainly a carpet company. (According to their corporate history they were always focused on carpets, but that's what a corporate history would say, so who knows.)
|The Walking TV|
"A television on two legs is robotic design at its most amusing." Indeed, which is why I'm going to go easy on this one. "This television of the future will be able to walk freely from room to room without human help, boogie to MTV, and add drama to action-packed chase scenes by leaning into the curves."
I don't even need to say this, but what the hell. This is totally useless! No one would buy this! But it's cute (there's a color picture on the cover of Future Stuff). It's got these ornithischian feet and it would look funny boogieing to MTV, especially 1995-era MTV after they stopped showing music videos.
This seems to have been less a product and more a student project by Brian Elliot, then at the Art Center College of Design. He's not quoted; it's "Martin Smith, associate chairman of industrial design", who says "I don't know why it couldn't be a product in the nineties."
This is one of the Future Stuff technologies mentioned in Sewer, Gas, and Electric: "an antique Sony Animan, a 19-inch screen perched on pistoning legs of oiled brass." Future Stuff says "Sony hopes to develop the television..." Keep hoping, buddy. However, I could definitely see someone making a homegrown version today.
My wife saw this and said that its spiritual descendants are the Billy Big-Mouth Bass and the fake flower that dances whenever you play music.
|The Most Intelligent Toilet|
"A company called TOTO, Ltd. is the largest manufacturer of toilets in Japan. They are interested in marketing an 'intelligent' toilet that takes your temperature and your blood pressure, analyzes your urine and stool, and weighs you when ever you use it."
This is "The Most" because later on in the book we see "The Intelligent Toilet" and "The More Intelligent Toilet". I guess this one was moved forward in the book because they didn't want to have a fairy-tale-like row of three toilets, each more intelligent than the last. Like the More Intelligent Toilet, the Most Intelligent is a Japanese concept. This particular toilet seems to be for sale now, though I don't think even toilet afficionadoes would buy it unless they also need to take their measurements every day for health reasons. The only thing that's part of the toilet is the urine analyzer (I guess they gave up on stool analysis). You weigh yourself and measure your body fat at the sink, and the blood-pressure cuff just happens to be located next to the toilet. They're just trying to hang out near the toilet because "part of the toilet" makes it sound cool and Japanese.
Basically, other high-tech toilets are much cooler. We'll get to those later.
|The Talking Glove|
This cool glove translates sign language into synthesized speech. The illustration looks a lot like the Nintendo Power Glove, plus some IDIC-looking bling. The inventor is Jim Kramer, not to be confused with Jim Cramer, the host of Mad Money. At the time he was a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford.
Jim then formed a company called Virtual Technologies: here he is talking about haptics in Wired in 1998. Sometime after that the company was bought by Immersion.
I'm guessing the talking glove idea didn't work out, because a little while ago Tim O'Reilly got wind of an NSF grant for designing a very similar system.
The proposed instrumentation overcomes limitations posed by previous inventions that could not interpret palm orientation, an essential component for recognizing distinct signs, by using digital accelerometers mounted on fingers and the back of the palm.
|Ultrasonic 3-D clothes|
This invention includes a bit of shortsightedness that's surprisingly rare in this book: the idea that it would be the 1980s forever. The promise is "garments molded—not stiched—into three-dimensional shapes and produced in a mere forty-five seconds." Molded garments? 1989 was the probably the last year you could think of a garment as having any noticable three-dimensional profile.
Maybe I'm being too hard on the idea. "The garment will lie flat when finished, 'but will have a memory of the 3-D shape in which it was created,'" giving a better fit. That's Brett Stern of New York-based Symagery, holder of patent #4,645,629. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people were satisfied with the standard-sized clothes made by cheap labor in developing countries.
Here's a report produced for the DOE's Office of Scientific and Technical Information about Symagery. It doesn't look like they're still around; the only Symagery I can find now is a Canadian company that got bought by Psion Teklogix, which makes little handheld computers.
"By the end of the year 2000, customers will choose colors, fabrics, and details by computer, have body scans, and get the finished outfit, all in a matter of minutes... designers will develop "looks" in clothes, but it will be the customer, using a computer, who picks the colors, fabrics, and details." We kind of have this today: some online stores show you clothes based on this kind of criteria, with a larger selection than you'd see in a store. But they're not custom-made.
|The Walking Desk|
"[A] computer work station that stands higher than a regular desk and has a treadmil, stationary bike, and stair climber installed underneath." Walk while you work! "[T]he Walking Desk comes with a compact disc player for listening to calming music and a color monitor for viewing relaxing nature scenes." You provide your own computer.
Inventor Nathan Edelson makes the fairly prescient observation that "Over the next ten years, ninety percent of us will be doing some form of computerized office work. Unless we bring some new ideas to bear on the way this work is performed, it's going to continue to make us very sick." However, what new ideas we brought to bear had mostly to do with the shape of keyboards and positioning of chairs. Buying a mini-gym for every employee was too much money.
Amazingly, Edelson did the most intelligent thing you could possibly do with this idea. He junked the part where it's a fully integrated exercise system (cf. Smart House) with soothing audiovisuals, and started selling just the desk. Smart Computing reports that in 1992, Edelson was selling a desk which lets the user move around while working. "The desk can be used with exercise bikes, step machines and treadmills for more extensive physical movement." You provide your own computer and your own exercise mechanism. The desk folds up. Total cost: $300/1992.
The Edelson Computing Desk System is discontinued and I suspect Edelson's company has gone out of business. But I've seen similar ideas recently, though they may have been prototypes or jokes. The whole thing reminds me of the executive desk Woody Allen tests in Bananas.
|Cost||Under $100/1989 ($110/1991)|
Maybe I spoke too soon about the '80s fallacy. "[Donald Spector's] swimming togs will do more than reveal parts of the body. They will reveal the temperature of some of the parts the suits are concealing." That's great, but 1991 is about four years too late. Portions of the suit will be made of a temperature-sensitive material that gives you an infrared picture of what's underneath. Today we have airport security machines for that.
Donald Spector has many inventions to his name, including various aroma-dispensing mechanisms (my fave such) and the ill-fated Balzac Baloon Ball.
Peurile bonus: Spector's temperature-sensitive fabric patent is cited by the patent for the bralike "Device for Aid in Detecting Breast Cancer", which Google Patent Search thinks is called "DEVICE FOR AID IN DETECTING BREAST".
Update: Reader Evan connects this with Hypercolor, a maker of temperature sensitive color-changing shirts in the late 80s. He says: "As I remember, they were more popular with girls? The shirts became an instant excuse for physical semi-sexual hazing and they didn't last long in my school."
"Virtual World is a little hard to grasp, so hang on! What we're talking about is the ability to visit faraway places or even different eras without leaving your living room. You will need special equipment and clothing. But the effect will be out of this world."
So begins one of my favorite Future Stuff entries, a detailed description of virtual reality complete with sophisticated haptics and Second-Life-like shared environments through "an ordinary phone jack". "This is the future of home entertainment. You are in the 'Virtual World.' You are experiencing 'Virtual Reality.'"
This entry has a certain myopia we're going to see with a lot of this high-tech stuff (we already saw it with the Smart House). The myopia has nothing to do with virtual reality itself (which is catching on with a small audience as of about 2006, though without the special gear), but with the delivery mechanism:
"Once suited up, 'previews' will apepar in your special goggles. All the possible worlds you can visit appear before you like aquariums lined up in a pet shop... If you have it in your home, you'll pay a once-a-month 'reality bill' for the amount of time you spend in Virtual World."
The vision seems to be an online service that delivers virtual reality data over the phone line. This is a plausible idea for the 1980s—one early idea for online shopping was as a virtual reality mall. But there's no idea that one service might offer multiple features, or be a platform for higher-level services (as we'll see much, much later when we come to *Prodigy).
Future Stuff showcased people who had ideas about the future, and in many cases the ideas were accurate, but no one seems to have had the idea that all this stuff would work on a common platform. If you wanted to integrate something with something else, you had to hope the National Homebuilder's Association had considered it while they were figuring out the monolithic Smart Home system. Lots of these ideas never made it as products, simply because powerful general-purpose computers and the Internet had them as features or emergent properties.
Dactyl Nightmare, my personal gold standard for virtual reality entertainment, was released in 1991. It was sold to arcades and cost $1/1991 per minute. Future Stuff credits Jaron Lanier, who's still around, with the idea for Virtual World.
|Frozen Beverage Mug|
Another of my favorites. Ice is molded into a mug shape with a wooden handle. They're sold on the beach, presumably with drinks in them. If people throw them away it's not a big problem, because the only litter is the handle. The retail price is for a mug, not the mold.
Two problems with this. If it really adds $1 to the cost of a drink, people aren't going to buy it. But I think that's an overestimate. The cost of the ice cubes in a drink is negligible. The big cost is going to be storing the molded mugs in your beachside drink stand until you use them. If they're made elsewhere, that's a big cost too. So who knows.
Second, ice melts. The ice mug melts in forty-five minutes. Ice mug inventor Saul Freedman (who I can't find on the web) rebuts: "With ice cream, if you don't eat it in five minutes, it will be all over your lap. Besides, how long do you hold a paper cup that's filled with soda?" This almost convinced me, except for the fact that people often set down paper cups full of soda and forget about them. Fall asleep on the beach with an ice mug next to you and you'll wake up to a big sticky mess.
The closest equivalents to this invention are plastic mugs with liquid encased inside them. Freeze them and they keep a drink cold until the encased liquid melts. I used to just put a plastic cup in the freezer for the same purpose.
This is fabric that's been treated with polyethylene glycol, "the same polymer used for temperature control in spacecraft." (Also used in laxatives and Dr. Pepper, apparently.) The chemical absorbs heat when it's hot and releases the heat when it cools down. This is not terribly exciting and it looks like nothing came of it. ("A limitation is that the fabric runs hot or cold for only half an hour at a time.") Sorry. I can't even find the patent ("from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.")
|The Flying Car|
I hope you were waiting for this one. "Of all the wacky, crazy, and wonderful inventions in this book, the Aerocar may be the wackiest, craziest, and wonderfulest of all."
Unlike the unpractical flying cars we've been promised since the Renaissance, Molt Taylor's Aerocar is an actual car (a Honda) modified so that you can attach wings and a tail to it. When you're not flying, the wings and tail turn into a trailer. It's "more than meets the eye." IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.
Taylor died in 1995, which seems to have put an end to the Aerocar. This page has the Aerocar domain name and carries on his legacy with a different design that latches on to the car.
Like Paul Moller of the Levitation Vehicle, Taylor is more realistic about the Aerocar's prospects than many of his potential customers:
In need of more financing, he doesn't yet know when Aerocars will be available for distributors, and he admits that the government is hoping it's not too soon. "The problem," he explained, "is how anyone is going to control thousands or even millions of flying cars."
So why did he spend more than three decades developing his dream? "I just figured if I didn't do this, some other son of a gun would!"
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 Tuesday, April 28 2015, 03:00:45 Nowhere Standard Time.