The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whisky pods, walking pods, living pods... Are we pod people now?

Clockwise from top left: iPod, Pollution Pods, Tide Pods, WalkingPod. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Peter Byrne/Press Association/AP; Amy Kerkemeyer/Alamy Stock Photo; Under the Weather)

In early October, Glenlivet, a Scottish whisky distillery, introduced its latest booze-delivery vessel: a transparent, sac-like pouch that dissolves in your mouth. Customers would now be able to drink Scotch as if they were eating a Gusher candy. Glenlivet called them “capsules,” but everyone knew what they really were: pods.

They were pods because they looked exactly like Tide Pods, the transparent, saclike pouches of laundry detergent that you’re very much not supposed to eat. Tide Pods, in turn, had been part of a fleet of pod products (poducts?) to enter our atmosphere.

iPods, Airpods and podcasts for our ears. Juul pods for our lungs. Tide Pods for our clothes. Pod is the name of several restaurants, and a new social network. The Pod Hotels, a chain of alternative “microhotels,” offer hip, cozy, compact spaces in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

“Edible Water Pods Could Replace Billions of Plastic Bottles Per Year,” declared the headline of a 2018 article in E: The Environmental Magazine. Engineers hope self-driving “pods” — basically, slower shuttle vans piloted by machines — will reshape city roads. “Pod” housing — basically, dorms for adults — has been proposed as a solution to housing crises in expensive cities where a growing number of people can’t afford to live in normal homes.

Are pods the future?

Is the WalkingPod, which is kind of like a wearable tent, the future? Your feet are on the ground. There are zip-uppable windows for your face, arms and torso. Otherwise you are encased in plastic, like leftover food.

“When I think of a pod, I think of personal space,” said Rick Pescovitz, the CEO of Under the Weather, the sporting-goods company responsible for this particular pod. “With outdoor and even indoor living, younger people want to have a smaller footprint and help the environment.”

Pescovitz admits the WalkingPod is “almost a joke-type item.” But he also says it’s great for sanitation workers, street vendors, ticket-takers, sports spectators, security guards, people who work on oil tankers. . . . And his company sells other pods, too — such as the StadiumPod, which is designed for bleacher-sitters.

Maybe calling something a “pod” is just a marketing gimmick. Because what do person-sized tents have to do with thumb-size capsules full of laundry detergent, or whisky? What is the quality that makes all these things “pods”?

“It comes from the shape that the material takes,” said Rodrigo García González, the co-founder and co-CEO of Notpla, which makes those edible membranes (made of seaweed, by the way) for Glenlivet’s whisky pods.

“It’s like a cocoon, a sleeping cocoon,” said Topi Piispanen, the vice president of the Finnish company GoSleep, which sells (you guessed it!) sleeping pods. Also, privacy pods, which can function as a workspace or a phone booth. “It does resemble an egg shape,” said Piispanen. “The shape represents new life. With our pods, you can revitalize yourself.”

The Conker isn’t exactly an egg shape, but it is also a pod — a living pod. It’s a big, soccer ball-looking enclosure with heated floors and power sockets.

“The strongest three-dimensional shape in the universe is a ball,” says Jag Virdie, director at Conker Living and the mind behind the Conker. “There’s a beautiful constant to it. It’s a modular, future structure.”

A future structure. That might be the best way to understand why we are surrounded by things called pods: We live in the future now.

Or, maybe not yet. Chances are you haven’t come across one of these pods. They’re niche products (though that hasn’t stopped Under the Weather from selling 200,000 pods of various kinds). All the bells and whistles can make pods quite expensive, too. Some go for tens of thousands of dollars. Conker’s living pods haven’t even touched down in the United States yet (they’re coming soon).

The core ideas of pods — efficiency, mobility, replicability — have been central to decades-old futurist movements in architecture and design. Postwar Japan had the Metabolists, best known for the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. The towers hold 140 capsules that work as living or office spaces and can be detached or combined with others. They embodied a utopian idea of being able to plug in and out, making buildings more organic, said Chandler Ahrens, an associate professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis.

Historical parallels pop up the further you dig. Pescovitz’s tentlike WalkingPod resembles the transparent Suitaloon bubble Michael Webb designed in 1967. The Conker living pod is a spiritual successor of the flying-saucer-shaped Futuro houses designed by Matti Suuronen.

“You wonder what’s inside of them,” said Stephen Wallenfels, a Washington-based sci-fi writer and author of the 2009 novel “POD.” “Are they helpful or dangerous? For me, pods represent the unknown.”

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” said Dr. David Bowman to his spaceship’s intelligent computer system in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and pods are so often part of spaceship architecture. Escape pods. Hibernation pods. Medical pods. And it’s not always humans who were using pods to help traverse the ocean of space and colonize new worlds. See: the “pod people” from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

It was the pod bay doors in “2001: A Space Oddyssey” that inspired Vinnie Chieco, now a freelance writer and brand strategist, to come up with the iPod name for Apple’s mp3 player when he worked on the small team brainstorming names for the device in 2001.

It was a handheld, portable gadget that contained smaller things. It was an all-white device, similar to the interior of Dr. Bowman’s ship. It had to connect to a computer to charge and download songs. You could take it with you, but it had to return to the mother ship.

“Like a lot of spaceships in sci-fi, you could get into pods that would detach and reattach,” Chieco said. “And I thought, Wow. That works so well.”

Not everybody thought so, at first. “Are you really aiming to become a glorified consumer gimmicks firm?” one Macrumors forum user of the iPod when it was announced. (Imagine if they had Twitter.)

Glenlivet has faced similar skepticism about its new whisky pods — sorry, capsules. But company officials are optimistic. “We celebrate breaking conventions,” says Miriam Eceolaza, director of Glenlivet. This month, during London Cocktail Week, she says, “People were queuing for two hours to try the capsules.”

Corporate hype. Knee-jerk skepticism. Enthusiastic Brits quaffing scotch and seaweed. Welcome to the future, please enjoy your pods.