The future is now: Visions that came true
Paul Stachniak • June 19, 2020if( has_post_thumbnail( $post_id ) ): ?>
The last time we talked about the future, it was a little less than optimistic. We said that the future Hollywood had promised had never come to pass. And shame on us for thinking a screenwriter from Malibu would have the same ideas as a scientist from MIT.
That said, for every flying DeLorean we grew up with, there has been an equivalent piece of movie magic that found its way into existence. Sometimes by pure luck, and sometimes because that writer from Malibu actually did some research.
So, with that said, here’s the future Hollywood got right!
Futuristic video calls
For his prolific science-fiction monkey comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick decided to take the future seriously. Unlike the more fantastical fare he grew up with, he and author Arthur C. Clarke spent the better part of 1964 researching and developing the world of 2001. Their mission was to develop a future grounded in realism and based on current-day science. Put another way, they took their prognostication seriously.
Perhaps one of their most famous predictions happens in a scene where a father calls his daughter from orbit, over video. Watched through a modern lens, you might take this sequence for granted. But in 1968, it was a wild vision of the future.
Mind you, Kubrick can’t take full credit for the idea. The same year he and Clarke were laying the foundation for their film, Bell Labs premiered the Picturephone at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. That technology never took off commercially.* In fact, video calling itself wouldn’t take off until the mid-2000s thanks to the emergency of webcams and the emergency of platforms like AIM and Skype. And now, almost daily, Americans call home from orbit, over video.
One only needs to look back a decade to find a world without tablets. Now they’re virtually everywhere. And while tablets haven’t become as ubiquitous as their more portable smartphone cousins, they still serve a valuable purpose as the thing used to play Scrabble with your mother.
Tablets, or tablet computing, is also one of the most envisioned items from pop culture of old. Issac Asimov was writing about “calculator pads” as far back as 1951. In the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, a tablet-like device is used to watch a video during a meal break. But the granddaddy of tablet prognostication has to be the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) from the Star Trek series. Beginning with 1966’s Star Trek, giant electronic clipboards can often be spotted in a crew member’s hands. By 1987’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, these devices had shrunk down to a flat, book-sized slate with a touch-screen interface.
It shouldn’t be that surprising then, that the most popular tablet on the market shares its name with Star Trek’s vision of the future.
Futuristic gadget: the computer wristwatch
If we’re being honest, a lot of what science-fiction got right about the future boiled down to miniaturizing computers and putting them into just about any pre-existing plastic shell that you could think of. The smaller the better.
Arguably the coolest, and most sought-after for Boomers, was the Dick Tracey watch. For those born after 1990, Dick Tracey was a comic book detective from the 1930s. His trademark gadget was a two-way wristwatch that could communicate with virtually anyone. It made its first appearance in 1946 and immediately became a staple of modern culture for years.**
Believe me when I say this watch made an impression on a certain generation. Including Apple CEO, Tim Cook, who decades later would debut a similar device called Apple Watch. Mind you, digital wearables weren’t a new category when Apple decided to enter the market. However, Apple Watch was the first to bring two-way communication to the wrist in the same way the 1946 comic strip had envisioned. Or as Cook put it during the device’s unveiling, “I’ve been wanting to do this since I was five years old.”
Futuristic food delivery
In 1995, Hollywood attempted to (as it often does) capitalize on the uncertainty of this new-fangled Internet thing. The result is a forgotten thriller starring Sandra Bullock called The Net. To be clear, The Net was not good. It was a cheap take on the stolen identity trope, repackaged with computer hacking and Dennis Miller.
It is, however, infamous for being one the first films to include online ordering. Early in the movie, the film’s creative team**** make a point to show off how computer savvy Bullock’s character is. After successfully hacking a copy of Wolfenstein 3D (huh?) she recharges by ordering a pizza. Rather than picking up a telephone and putting in a call to the local Pizza Hut, she wheels over to her other computer (she’s computer savvy, remember?) and places an order on Pizza.net.
This was a radical concept at the time. Anyone could order anything over the phone. But a computer?
And while this was many-a-viewer’s first exposure to the concept of online ordering, Pizza.net wasn’t a fictional website invented for an equally fictional film. Rather, a clever nod to an actual website. A year earlier, an enterprising Pizza Hut franchise owner self-funded and launched what would become the world’s first online web store. Incredibly, this means that pizza, specifically Pizza Hut pizza, was the first thing sold online. So while The Net remains an utterly forgettable film, it was the first (like Kubrick) to point us towards the future.
The future awaits
So those are some of the things we got, but we are still waiting for many others. A flying car? Still a fantasy. Though Alexa hasn’t reached the levels of Hal 9000 (yet), pop-culture did make some bold predictions that came true, some of which we’d argue were pretty significant. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.