Revisiting Tech Predictions From 30 Years Ago
The Atomic Age’s visions of the future largely focused on household chores (dissolvable plastic dinnerware!), office tech (robot secretaries!), travel (jetpacks!) and space exploration (moon colonies!). But for all the fun in those old videos, most people still expected we’d have books made of only paper and would listen to the radio as a family after a dinner of microwaved algae pellets. For accurate predictions on the future of entertainment technology, we have to move along to the 1980s, when the popularity of portable cassette players and video games gave tech prophets a clearer vision of tomorrow.
This TED Talk, from Nicholas Negroponte at the first TED conference in 1984, really nails several advancements that would come to be. (And with the assistance of a Laserdisc player, to boot.)
1. Touch-sensitive display
Thirty years ago, the mouse was still new, but already it seemed problematic: “[Y]ou find the mouse, and you're going to have to wiggle it a little bit to see where the cursor is on the screen. And then when you finally see where it is, then you've got to move it to get the cursor over there, and then bang. You've got to hit a button or do whatever. That's four separate steps versus typing and then touching and typing and just doing it all in one motion—or one-and-a-half, depending on how you want to count.” But there were ten solutions already in hand. “[F]ingers are a very, very high-resolution input medium. Now, what are some of the other advantages? Well, the one advantage is that you don't have to pick them up.” You can currently find touch-sensitive screens everywhere—including gaming systems, e-readers, phones and cars.
2. High-resolution screens
“[Y]ou think, ‘My God! What a terrible image you get when you look at still pictures on TV.’ Well, it doesn't have to be terrible. ... [W]e've put people 18 inches in front of a TV, and all the artifacts that none of the original designers expected to be seen, all of a sudden, are staring you in the face: the shadow mask, the scan lines, all of that. And they can be treated very easily; there are actually ways of getting rid of them, there are actually ways of just making absolutely beautiful pictures. I'm talking here a little bit about display technologies.” If you remember watching a movie in the ‘80s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that high-resolution TV was something people were dreaming of. With 1080p TVs in most homes and 4K TV/Ultra HD just around the corner, it seems this prediction was right on the money.
“People have this belief—and I share most of it—that we will be using the TV screens or their equivalents for electronic books of the future.” The extremely accurate description of ebook tech in this video is as close as predictions come to being true. Negroponte admits that the technology didn’t exist at the time to make an e-reader with built-in dictionary, search engine and Wi-fi (never mind that two of those three things didn’t exist yet), but his ideas held up anyway, and today you’ll find that many thousands of people read only ebooks, and even more straddle the line between print and digital reading.
4. Search engines and searchable databases
Along with the “new kind of book” comes a new kind of getting info. While Negroponte wasn’t the first to understand that someday we’d have all the info we’d ever need at our fingertips, he did very clearly explain how searching for info works—whether it’s in an ebook or via search engine, from a phone or tablet.
5. Video calling
“[W]e were asked to do a teleconferencing system where you had the following situation: you had five people at five different sites—they were known people—and you had to have these people in teleconference, such that each one was utterly convinced that the other four were physically present.” While the mechanics may be a bit off (no plastic heads with projected faces… yet), video calls are a thing people do now on a regular basis. Additionally, multiplayer online gaming uses a similar system, wherein players can see and hear one another as they play.
6. Realistic game physics
“[I]magine that screen having lots of objects on it and the person has touched an object … and then pushed on it. Now, imagine a program where some of those objects are physically heavy and some are light: one is an anvil on a fuzzy rug and the other one is a ping-pong ball on a sheet of glass. And when you touch it, you have to really push very hard to move that anvil across the screen, and yet you touch the ping-pong ball very lightly and it just scoots across the screen.” Gaming at the time of this video’s filming was extremely simple compared even to gaming 15 years ago. While the prediction wasn’t specific to games, there’s no denying that some of the most addictive apps employ realistically-weighted objects that can be manipulated on a touch-sensitive display.
7. Educational apps and games
The stories of the boy who “couldn’t read” and the girl who recreated her hair in a program after just two days of using a computer are early stories that, at the time, were really unusual. But in the last few years, educational games for kids and children’s apps that teach a specific concept or idea (or even language) have really gained popularity. But it’s not all touch-based silliness—many classrooms currently employ programs to help kids learn math skills, understand scientific processes, and build vocabulary and comprehension. Reading isn’t “absolutely irrelevant” by any stretch of the imagination (you’re doing it right now!), but it is arguably more engaging now for people who learn visually, audibly or through interaction.