Futurist thoughts from the past

I jotted these on a napkin–well, on my Palm Pilot[1]–back in 1999 through 2001. I was trying to see into the future. It’s odd to see how ‘normal’ these ideas look now.


First, a series of ruminations as I walked around MIT campus after reading up on Steve Mann‘s Wearcam.

Useful calendar + you-context on phone = win

Well, yes. Though we’re still not seeing thorough use of location, we do have decent person-integration (e.g., shared calendars that auto-update people); we also don’t have good apps that, for example, help you reschedule and notify others instantly on the basis of a real-world interruption.

Always-on video phone in outward-facing chest holster = 80% of a
  wearcam. But why? + how to aggregate video? Users will find uses.

We’re still not at always-on; battery, bandwidth, and storage constraints forbid it. But there are some experiments; the fellow who recorded a year’s worth of data from his house, the grad student at MIT who tried to data mine his timeline, and so forth. The problem is that it’s mostly boring stuff, unless you happen to be starring in a Film Noir setting.

Always on video link -> distributed workgroups wherever, and always.
  One step past Star Trek communicators.

A few years later I realized that you need two cameras, one on you, one on the work. The possibilities here are pretty amazing, but completely underutilized. I think of this every time I see a flag-man working with a crane: why doesn’t that flagman also have a video link sending data to the crane operator?

But the other powerful idea here was that workgroups become truly ad-hoc, on-demand. Need to make a decision about widgets? Ask Frank, your widget expert, who of course you can see is free in five minutes. Then, when the decision has passed, you and Frank go your separate ways; there’s no expectation of long-term ‘teams’.

What I didn’t anticipate was how enormous the pool of potential recruits could be. Twitter is a good example–famous people throw out questions, and a thousand (or a million!) potential helpers see them and respond. We still don’t have a good way to organize  responses there–but a site like Stack Overflow does a good job. I can usually get a programming question answered there in a manner of minutes, or a more abstract one answered in a few hours.

Problems: managing privacy, grouping, private time.
Scheduling = context recognition. Managing context and Managing Me.

This is still a thorny set of issues. People have a hard time enumerating their context and constraints, let alone telling them to a computer. I do use my shared calendars to help me “manage me”. And privacy is a huge problem–not just protecting privacy, but specifying what you want to be private, to whom, and when. There’s a big gulf of execution here (not to mention a gulf of evaluation in understanding who knows what–for which see my old Interface paper.

Automatic recognition of local schedule transitions by eavesdropping
  + location + sensing others + explicit scheduling. E.g., recognize
  when you leave for work, switch IM to Away; when you arrive at work,
  log into work IM, change status. Phone rings / office conversation,
  auto-set IM to Away again.

I think you can download an Android app that would do things like this. The unexpected constraint is how much battery life it sucks down to be running location services constantly.

Then, a pair of unrelated thoughts:

Persistent, place-locked video-conference linking two houses
  (or more, in a shared commons). Always there -- peripheral awareness,
  in a personal setting. Selecting and "seating" (where to put houses)
  become issues if you share across multiple houses.

We’re almost there. The crucial bit is the display, and wall-sized displays still aren’t cheap enough at high res. So perhaps we could have a “window” to another house–more like a mirror, really. The important part of this was that it was always on–if you wanted privacy, you’d “draw the shade”, but the default would be to be connected. As my friends moved around the globe, this idea stayed appealing. It’d be neat to have a room in my house where I could sit with my friends who are a thousand miles away and just chat, or read a book, or even just ignore each other.

In the future, only poor people and scientists have desktops; they are
  like tractors or trucks, specialized, overpowered.
  Laptops are cars? PDAs are bicycles/shoes?

I think Steve Jobs has agreed with me on this last one (“the desktop PC industry is dead”). When was the last time you used a dedicated desktop? Was it for some special purpose? It’s astonishing how much processing power they are managing to sneak into even the ‘consumer-level’ Apple desktops.

I underestimated just how personal ‘phones’ would be; they’re more like underwear now than bicycles. (For one thing, I assumed phones would be more like phones and less like iPhones–i.e., that you’d be carrying a phone and a PDA.)

Finally, one more, this one from more like 2003, when I first encountered wikis:

Put a wiki on my palm. Auto versioning is new central feature of
  editing (inf review, annotation, attribution, collab dtdp updates)

Translating this from thesis-speak, I was quite excited to note that wikis solved a conundrum in balancing representation features, namely, that of allowing infinite review without overloading the user with an infinite number of versions by allowing annotation and attribution. (Imagine only having a directory full of files, each with the same name but different time stamps.) “Collab dtdp” is “collaborative different-time/different-place”, the idea that wiki rollback allows gentle merging of collisions when different people edit at the same time. Version control for the passes, as it were. I can’t help but notice that Mac OS X Lion now introduces[2] the concept of automatic versioning.


Anyway, it’s fun to see how these ideas have come to pass. For some of them, it still feels like we’re “only a year away”, ten years on.

[1] Back then I had one of the first “networked” Palm Pilots, the truly ungainly Palm VII, which had a flip-out antenna to connect to the cell phone network at a blistering 56k or something.

[2] Borrowed from VAX/VMS, of course, and with a brief stop-over in Time Machine, which did a bastardized version of history-retention that really works poorly, most notably throwing away the oldest revisions when you run out of space, rather than doing something smart like throwing away intermediaries. (The old versions of long-lived files tend to be quite a far edit-distance from the current version, and may be important archeologically.)

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One thought on “Futurist thoughts from the past

  1. “When was the last time you used a dedicated desktop?”

    Er, right now. My work requires something pretty high-end, though, since the dataset is too big to fit in RAM on any reasonable laptop. I will admit I no longer have a desktop at home; when my motherboard died last spring, I gave up on trying to resurrect it again, and my laptop was getting old anyway.

    “the truly ungainly Palm VII, which had a flip-out antenna to connect to the cell phone network at a blistering 56k or something”

    I had one of those. It was nowhere near 56kbps. I can’t find proper specs right now—one person is claiming 8kbps, but it must’ve been slower than that. It didn’t do actual Web browsing; you installed a package on the device which was basically one or more HTML forms and templates, and the device would send and receive data, not HTML. Typical data exchange was probably less than 1KB, and it wasn’t fast.

    Oh, and here’s a review saying that it was $10/mo for 50KB/mo, or $25/mo for $150KB/mo.

    I remember the first time I saw a book I wanted at Borders, but pulled out the Palm VII and bought it on Amazon instead. Insert ominous thunder here.

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