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Tomorrow's World Looks To The Eighties: An Illustrated Guide

The close of the decade is almost upon us, and so it is time for us to join Tomorrow's World, the British Broadcasting Corporations's flagship documentary programme, and look to the future of science and technology.

Tomorrow's World cover

We'll be taking you through each of the gloriously illustrated sections of this period-defining book, checking out the advances that are predicted for the 1980s and seeing how they tally up with the miserable hindsight of three decades.

Without further ado...

Lifestyle

The boundless optimism of the early silicon age shines through in Tomorrow's World's lookahead to how daily life will be transformed by the nascent technologies of integrated circuits and networked telecommunications:

"You will awaken some morning five years hence, speak a few simple words from your bed to your toaster, coffee pot and frying pan, and walk into the kitchen fifteen minutes later to a fully prepared breakfast.

"The same computer that is wired into the walls of your house and built to recognise your voice will turn on lights when you walk into the kitchen and turn them off when you leave."

Sounds idyllic. Sadly, as the authors themselves observe, such predictions are made on a regular basis. Thirty years later, countless automated housing schemes have appeared and often subsequently vanished: the Xanadu Houses (1979-2005), Japan's TRON House (1989-1992), and Honeywell's TotalHome (1992-). Integrating automation into an existing structure is difficult and expensive, and the TRON commentary describes early journalistic objections to intelligent homes, describing the experience as "like a haunted house".

However, miniaturization has today progressed and stabilized to the point where realizing many of these technologies is relatively straightforward. Smart homes and automation (under the sometime-aegis of "domics") are pushing forward, with open-source software making implementation possible for eager hackers. Even Microsoft are chasing the action.

In the living room, Tomorrow's World report on the imminent rollout of interactive television in the form of QUBE. Linking viewers to the TV stations, these home controllers allowed for live interaction for applications such as quiz shows and Comedy Store-style popularity metres. A noble idea, but a false start in this case: seven years later, the Qube network was axed in a cost-cutting exercise, and it took another decade to catch on once again. Today, we have TiVo and countless other interactive TV endeavours (including, of course, the UK's freeview monstrosity that is Rabbit Chat And Date), though it's still hardly commonplace.

Cookery's salvation is on the horizon in the form of "microwaves"; despite resulting in "sausages which are both limp and colourless" and "chicken which looks, and tastes, slightly parched", they're on the money here. However, a bleak warning is given:

The beam is inherently dangerous. Subject your hand, or worse still, your brain, to that agitation and it will be comprehensively addled.

Be careful, readers.

These's also some coverage of infra-red ovens, which it seems are currently returning to fashion.

Finally, the office has the prospect of electronic word-processing systems, capable of digitally storing text before it is printed to paper, saving on materials and obsoleting the typing pool in one fell swoop. Can't really fault this prediction.

Transport

Written shortly after the last Concorde was born, the Tomorrow's World team are a little more cautious in their transport forecasts: removable, high-capacity batteries may begin to give us electric vehicles (well, nearly), and the prototypal Advanced Passenger Train promises high-speed rail travel at over 100mph (which we finally got, two decades later, with the Pendolino, bringing us almost to where the French have been for aeons.

More exciting is their account of an in-car auto-navigation system, using induction loops laid along the length of the road system and bleeping when a turn should be taken. Being then trialled in Germany, such a system could also warn of impending fog, ice or traffic, but must first be "programmed by a traffic policeman".

Natural Power

"What will happen when the oil runs out?", asks Tomorrow's World. Thirty years later, it's still unclear. This chapter is dedicated to renewable power sources, yet it's clear to see that its optimism has thus far failed: at the turn of the millennium, only 3% of UK electricity came from renewable sources, and it's only a couple of percent higher today.

One radical idea, illustrated by this lovely diagram (above), is farming seaweed for biofuel: offshore kelp plants produce micro-organisms on a huge scale, which are then dried and fermented to produce methane. It's still being investigated today.

Inner Space

Slightly out of left-field, a whole chapter dedicated to deep-sea exploration. Perhaps it was popular at the time. First up is several pages dedicated to dredging for "nodules", accumulated nuggets of manganese, nickel, iron, and other valuable minerals which lie on the sea floor. It seems that these were a great hope at the time, but, according to Wikipedia, the prohibitive expense and proliferation of terrestrial resources caused interest in nodule extraction to wane. Shame.

We've also got the prospect of deep-sea rescue missions and the WASP submersible, for a single diver to explore the untapped wealth of the ocean. It seems it was successful in its goals, and one-man submersibles continue to look cooler and cooler.


Media and Telecoms

"One day we all may find it useful to have a facility for sending documents, writing and pictures across the telephone lines". The breathless coverage of the future of telecoms is a winner, particularly the up-and-coming Prestel technology, rolled out by the UK Post Office to provide interactive data through our television sets via telephone lines. The author describes using Prestel for such purposes as to determine whether to adopt a child, as well as for informing your wife that you are not coming home.

We are introduced to technologies such as LaserDisc, home video and the digital audio revolution. There is also a sombre page-long description of the "knuckle-whitening" thrills of the new new loop-the-loop rollercoasters.

Outer Space

Another advance which today remains in the eternal "forthcoming" pipeline is the Powersat, or space-based solar power. Collecting solar energy with satellites from outside the atmosphere and beaming it to earth via non-ionizing EM waves, the theory remains sound; earlier this year, PowerSat corp filed a new patent for space-solar tech.

Likewise the space colony (below), home to the first galactic settlers, estimated to be "well under way within fifteen years". We've had a good shot with Mir, but it's a far cry from the colonies of 10,000 described here.

Whatever Happened To..?

What really brought Tomorrow's World into its own is its championing the off-kilter and quintessentially British inventions which were to define our future age. As a rather sad closer to this look to the future, we hear back from two inventions prototyped earlier in the 1970s.

The 360 Degree Scissors, from Devonshire designer Richard Hawkins, are an ingeniusly simple (if faintly hazardous) concept: with double-sided blades, they can spin round fully to be operated equally effectively by right- or left-handed users. Hawkins took his idea to the show, making repeated journeys to the scissor-forgers of Sheffield to gather support. However, a manufacturing deal with Wilkinson Sword was thwarted at the last minute: it turns out that his idea had been patented over 50 years earlier, through a now-dormant patent, meaning that it could be freely manufactured to a US market and bypassing Hawkins.

The last news is that Hawkins was investing £5,000 of his own capital to manufacture a limited run in the UK. I can't track down any further trace; Richard Hawkins, if you're out there, I'd love to hear from you.

And finally, the Moulton Coach (above). There's no designing the streamlined elegance of this vehicle, constructed from parts in DIY assembly kits and using a simple, rigid frame. Yet, despite passing its wind-tunnel tests and being described by William Woollard as possessing "remarkable" braking power, the coach was deemed to not be cost-effective. The Moulton Coach never went into production.

Livescribe's USB Smartpen records penstrokes and binaural audio

K http://www.livescribe.com/

In another of those episodes that makes you wonder when exactly the Future chose to creep up on you unannounced, Oakland-based startup Livescribe last year launched a device called the Smartpen. It's essentially a ball-point pen, turbocharged with an IR camera in the tip and a microphone, together capable of recording penstrokes and audio -- which can then be collectively transferred to computer via a USB cradle. Entire pages of drawings and text are then accessible onscreen, searchable via OCR and with replayable audio linked to the time of writing. Insane.

Something they don't make such a song and dance over is the fact that its accompanying "3D headset" is equipped with binaural microphones; I imagine it only records in sufficient quality for oral note-taking, but it's still an appealing prospect to have such a compact multifunctional binaural recorder...

Le Mundaneum

As an addendum to my earlier post following an IHT article, here's another thing they picked up from AP last year: The Web That Time Forgot, a report on Belgian taxonomist Paul Otlet and his early sketches towards a global information network - from the early 1930s, anticipating the internet by almost half a century.

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or "electric telescopes," as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a "réseau," which might be translated as "network" — or arguably, "web."

The article quotes technojournalist Kevin Kelly, part of his research for a forthcoming book on the future of technology. Kelly has previously written about Otlet in relation to a documentary film about his life and his "Mundaneum" informative archive, which included such mind-boggling features as a primitive search engine (with submissions submitted to its archivist team by post).

There's also a free documentary on Otlet available on archive.org.

Such impressive technical foresight recalls the 17th century (!) writings of Francis Bacon, who describes, in New Atlantis, a future utopia:

We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances."

— Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)

Bird migrations tracked over 5,000mi with 1.5g sensors

Read a couple of weeks ago but forgotten until now: the IHT reports on a Science article [subscription required] in which Toronto researchers track the migration patterns of birds over thousands of miles, using tiny backpacks that are light enough for songbirds to carry but still accurate enough to track movement remotely within a few miles.

One of their key novel findings is the distance that such birds can travel in one day: up to 370 miles, much larger than previously thought.

One boggles at the potential future uses of such technologies.

Obama to nominate net neutrality advocate to head FCC

K http://www.theregister.co.uk/.../genachowski_next_fcc_chair/

The Register reports today that Barack Obama is to nominate Julius Genachowski, net neutrality advocate and his campaign's tech advisor, as the next head of the FCC. As the body responsible for regulating all communications in the US, including internet traffic, this is critical to the debate over network neutrality and should hopefully make these regulations a reality, securing the openness of information that has thus far characterised the net (though undoubtedly the debate will rage on).

Though net neutrality is less of a big deal in the UK due to the larger marketplace for ISPs that the average consumer has to select from, there's a good chance that the knock-on effects of this scenario will have ripples over here, as this article suggests. It's certainly a step forward for America's current fence-sitting communications policies.

What will happen to such travesties as the "PATRIOT" Act, dirtily slipped through Congress in the wake of 9/11 and enabling all manner of novel underhanded surveillance techniques, remains to be seen...

Sixense TrueMotion 3D controller

Recently demoed at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a control device that could rival the Wiimote for gestural input: Sixense's TrueMotion, which uses a wireless handset coupled with a (presumably USB) base station to determine motion and position information. The big leap here is the latter: the Wiimote's accelerometer can only give relative motion data, and absolute 3D positioning is nigh on impossible to derive from this without some inaccuracy and drift. Some positional info could be gleaned using the Wiimote's IR LEDs, but this was still less than ideal and had the inherent limitations of a line-of-sight system.

The TrueMotion device functions by locating the handset within a magnetic field, which appears to give snappy and precise location data. It reminds me of the Ascension Flock of Birds sensor, which I briefly played with a couple of years back, albeit without the clunky serial I/O and hefty pricetag: the TrueMotion is estimated at $100 for a base station and handset. There's an interesting interview with one of the Sixense chaps over at Engineering TV.

I'm looking forward to get more info on this as it sounds like a potentially paradigm-changing controller for audio and video. Transmission range? Multiple devices/base stations? Proprietary drivers? We shall see, as it is due to hit the market later this year.

Ada Lovelace day

24th March has been declared Ada Lovelace day (twitter), a blogospheric event to draw attention to groundbreaking work being done by women in technology, in homage to Babbage's undersung partner (though it must be said she has become a cause celebre in recent years). I've committed to writing something for it, which only seems fitting after the heavy influence that Sadie Plant's techno-feminist tome Zeroes and Ones had on Subtext. Many thrilling possibilities, and a good motivation to write.

Ghost in the machine

The unspoken reliance on being wired into the system only becomes visible when the wires are severed -- which is unfortunately my current situation, as I watch my laptop go through the latest of its death-throes, beginning with optical drive issues and now mutating into what I suspect to be logic board or IDE controller failure. Whatever, I'm laptopless for the moment, so only checking email sporadically.

Inevitably, the part of me that secretly wants to escape technology is rejoicing, as it's finally allowed the time to pick up one of the many unread books that seem to continually accumulate next to my bed...