Imagining the future has become a national hobby in these final weeks before we celebrate the new millennium. Time magazine, true to its eponymous mission, has devoted several issues to imaginative if occasionally screwy coverage of what science and technology will bring us in the 21st century.
But for corporate America, futurology is a dollars and cents proposition (make that dollars and dimes, because the penny surely won't last). When companies try to imagine the future, they think not in terms of airy concepts but about the specific products they'll be trying to sell us. And it's a mind-bending list:
* Maytag is imagining kitchens that will morph into different forms, depending on who has entered the room. If the kitchen senses Dad, it'll be pizza and paper plates. For Mom, perhaps an instant salad bar will appear, with veggies direct from the kitchen's organic garden.
Maytag also envisions interactive doorways that will be programmed to represent the family's personality (a worrying thought at our house, at least) and offer personalized greetings to visitors, predicts Joseph Ungari, Maytag's director of industrial design.
Products will be constantly interacting with the environment, Ungari explains. Our clothes will refresh themselves--with fabrics that can restore creases and seek out stains and remove them. And our homes will be like living systems, anticipating wind storms and climate changes and adjusting for light and shadow.
* Nike is designing a weightless "zero-ounce" shoe (too bad they can't build a zero-ounce body). And for those who really want to run like the wind, Nike imagineers are thinking about "magnetic shoes" that will allow the wearer to float above the ground. Ray Riley, Nike's director of equipment research and development, wonders if the company someday will even need to make shoes at all: What about surgical implants embedded in the skin?
Soon we'll be able to buy running shoes that give us instant feedback about just how slowly we are moving. Nike is also planning a line of "smart wear" that can change with our body temperatures or the seasons. Perhaps someday, Riley explains, these smart clothes will function as a second set of muscles, pushing us along faster or offering extra resistance.
And here's a wicked idea on the Nike drawing board: Interactive apparel, which turns every T-shirt into an electronic billboard. You can program a personal message. Or, suggests Riley, 21st century kids can sell space on their T-shirts to companies like Coca-Cola or McDonald's--and use the extra income, presumably, to buy a Coke or a Big Mac.
* A consulting company called Design Continuum is conceiving new products for the health care industry. Gianfranco Zaccai, the company's president, predicts that pervasive computing will mean we're always in touch with a doctor--or at least, with an electronic proxy.
In the future, says Zaccai, we'll be able to monitor our health constantly, with sensors that are embedded in our homes, cars, offices, schools, gyms, pharmacies, doctors' offices and hospitals. Our health information will be stored in "personal data vaults," along with our DNA information. These data will be analyzed through artificial intelligence programs, and any anomalies will be flagged and communicated to doctors and patients.
We'll have have a fantastic new range of tools, predicts Zaccai--including ingestable biosensors that roam our bodies looking for disease. Even drunk-driving fatalities will be preventable, he hopes, thanks to breath analyzers in our cars that won't turn on the ignition if we're tipsy.
These visions of the future were on display last week at a conference in New York on "Pervasive Computing," sponsored by IBM and the Industrial Design Society of America. The idea was to bring together the computer wizards with the people who have to make technology fit stylishly and usefully into our lives.
Like most discussions of the future, this one had a Buck Rogers flavor, and you just know some of these ideas will never happen. We're all still waiting for the personal helicopters and driverless cars that were forecast 40 years ago, for example. But I'd bet a pair of zero-ounce Nikes on two of the themes that ran through the conference:
First, as IBM's Mark Bregman says, the next stage of the computer revolution will be about making technology simpler and more reliable--with the complexity hidden from the user. It's ridiculous, when you think about it, how often today's PCs freeze up and networks crash. With any hope, that kludginess will soon be a distant memory.
"People don't want more computers," says Bregman, who heads IBM's pervasive computing division. "What they want is for the infrastructure to become invisible."
Second, people in the techno-saturated 21st century will be looking for ways to express their individuality. Whether it's in the configuration of our customized doorway or the extreme sports we play (or, predicts Riley, simulate) we'll be looking for ways to announce our unique humanity. And we'll be doing it with computers.