In 1958 Disney presented their vision of the future in an episode of a TV show entitled Magic Highway USA. Watching it, it becomes evident that this vision was heavily influenced by fordism and the significance of the car to American culture, but it was also clearly an overly optimistic vision. Little of this view has actually come to pass – or even looks ever likely to happen. Compare it now with Microsoft’s equally optimistic, March 2009 vision of the future in 2019. Is Microsoft’s vision realistic? Or will it suffer the same fate as Disney’s predictions?

Perilous and difficult as predictions of the future are, this 5-part series of articles seeks to answer these questions over the week or so by delivering a thoughtful and realistic view on what the new decade may hold in store for us in terms of technological advancement and innovation.

 

Intriguingly, with its release in 2000 the original SIMs computer game accurately foresaw the flat-screen revolution that has taken place over the last decade. While the technology was already around since the late 1990s, SIMs successfully predicted that soon flat-screens would be available to almost every household, paving the way for dominant TV and computer ‘entertainment centres’ in people’s homes. We’ve since seen the rise of digital TV, HD TV and beginnings of Blu-Ray.

 

Now, 2010 is apparently set to be the year of 3D TV.  At the last IFA technology trade show in Berlin, Sony predicted that 3D TV will be ‘in every home’ by the end of 2010, citing the Playstation 3 as the main driving force behind the new technology. Sony has a range of 3D TVs which it plans to roll out this year.  Samsung is clearly thinking along the same lines, with its recent announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas that it would be releasing 3D TVs and Blu-Ray players in stores this year.  LG and Panasonic followed suit, but the one of the most interesting displays was that of Samsung unveiling its 9000-series TVs which come in sizes from 19” to 65”, are capable of, like Toshiba's newest TV releases, upscaling current 2D movies into 3D (a temporary solution Samsung assures us), featuring a touch-screen remote which actually simultaneously plays what on the big screen (so you don’t have to miss a frame as you change channels!) and – last but not least – it’s ultra-thin. Turn it side-ways and you’re in danger of losing your TV.

 

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With 3D finally taking off in cinemas with breathtaking results (cue reference to Disney’s UP and James Cameron’s spectacular Avatar) it’s easy to get swept away in the tide of 3D TV hype. But in spite of big names like Dreamworks committing to release movies for 3D TV, not to mention Disney recreating as many of their movies in 3D as possible, and Sky TV announcing in July that they would launch a 3D TV channel this year along with many other major television providers (such as ESPN who will be primarily showing sports in 3D) it’s hard to see 3D TV really coming into every household such a short time. What you can expect to see for sure are remakes of every big blockbuster in 3D - already George Lucas has confirmed that Star Wars will be converted into 3D for the big-screen as has Peter Jackson for Lord of The Rings (just as soon as he's finished his two-part, yet-untitled Hobbit movie in 2012). 

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The television industry was hit hard by the recession and so it’s clearly clinging onto its own 3D TV hope-hype for all it’s worth, but as many households have only just upgraded to HD it’s hard to see them all suddenly switching. Not to mention the fact that many people just won’t be comfortable with the idea of wearing goggles in order to watch TV (although Intel do now have operable prototype screens requiring no glasses), nor is the current film and TV industry properly trained or equipped in order to plunge into the complex creation of 3D. Only the major satellite providers and big Hollywood names will really be capable of moving into the realm of creating quality 3D, while the television industry is going to have to take a major gamble in order to price 3D television sets low enough to get them into the majority of households – but so far nobody has stepped up to the plate and released their prices. It looks more likely that we’re going to have to wait about five years before we see 3D TV in every household (as happened with the HDTV), although 2010 is definitely the year when the 3D TV technology will hit the market. It’s also more than likely to be successful in the areas of sports viewing and gaming first.

Another technology that is set to soon be integrated into many every-day appliances is that of motion-understanding. Sensors will soon be able to recognise not just the type of motion someone makes, but also the person making it. It’s something the Japanese company Hitachi was quick to take advantage of with its motion-sensing TV, unveiled in autumn 2008; goodbye remote control. So why haven’t we seen this in the shops yet? Perhaps it’s just not that practical or perhaps it’s still on the way. They're expected to hit the market about now, although the last big talk of them was a year ago, at the CES in January of 2009. So keep you're eyes open. Toshiba also announced similar plans at the same CES, but we haven't heard anything more from them either.

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One thing is sure: Microsoft is taking advantage of that same technology to bring us Project Natal. A sort of ‘expansion’ for the Xbox360, Project Natal is set to put Microsoft at the head of the motion-sensing games consoles market if it is half as good as they’ve made it out to be. It’s simply leagues ahead of the current accelerometer technology used with the Nintendo Wii or the PS3 eye-toy. And like Hitachi’s vision, it eliminates the need for a remote control and can distinguish between individual players, but it also contains voice recognition as well as a score of other system features (which you can see in the linked video). Microsoft first revealed Natal last June and it's set to be released in time for Christmas 2010. Natal though is just the beginning – it’s easy to see this same technology having many different applications, blurring the lines of reality and immersing us all in a virtual world on a daily basis. Use the force, Luke.

 

That’s all for now, but in Part 2 of The Future Is Shiny, I discuss the phenomenon of the smartphones, the so-called ‘Superphones’ and the economics of Google. The Future Is Shiny: It’s All Talk! [Part 2] is now online here.

 

Comments

Surprisingly enough, most of the Microsot's vision of the future is largely fiction, because of innovation rather than technology. One that has been a big issue, and still is - just look at Apple, is closs-platforming/cross-company and user-friendliness. Things shown in the video are most physically existent or only a few years behind (9 years is quite realistic for those things to become reality). As it is today, or just a year ago, the examples of Wii and iPhone seem fitting to demonstrate the point of innovation over technology: using accelerometers was done rarely outside the military industry, yet they were publicly available for quite some time; iPhone and it's touchscreen interface is not so much revolutionary (again, was available before on the same scale if not even better), more so cleverly packaged and coded. Now if you take a closer look at those future techs', realisation is that most of them could be - to an extent, of course, some of the techs (ie high-grade e-paper) are still a little bit behind - already done today, if one would have the finance (simple BT or wifi connections between tablets and integrated huge TVs and/or projectors) and the motivation. The touch-sensitive 'tables' exist already today - Win7 to a large extent supports touch-screen fully. There are Youtube videos of MIT students playing semi-virtual D&D on a table-screen. The identification of objects on such screens is considered basic. And it goes on: doctor's eye-camera tool could essentially just be an optimized laser-camera/microscope with a USB outlet to the screen; IDing people entering the house based on heat-signature, weight, weight-patterns, smell, facial recognition and hardware on them (think phone-ID) is possible, if expensive; glass-panel walls look neat but again, possible nowadays with laser-positioning and glass-intergrated displays; real-time translation is fully workable and is being widely used in both Afghanistan and Iraq by the forces. In that sense, the future is here. There are of course some neat things, like the 'digital wallet', 3D-ID with wider 3D usage, borderless-screens and screenshotting the digital wall - but again, one must realise that envisioning the future is what usually innovates future. So yes, I think Microsoft's idea is quite realistic, if not more conservative than it should (no, flying cars is not feasible and very likely never will be).

The Future Is Shiny: Dawn of a New Decade [Part 1]