Future Shock

23:55 Thu 24 Jan 2008. Updated: 02:02 25 Jan 2008
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‘Shock’ might be too strong a word, but over the last year or so I’ve really had this “the future has arrived’ feeling. Some trends have been slowly taking shape over years—like the Blade Runner-style huge video billboards. (Of course, all of the technological trends have been taking shape for years, but for some the development has been mostly hidden until they reach a critical point of functionality.)

Video phone capabilities, brought to the mainstream mostly by Skype, were one of the things that triggered this feeling, earlier this year, when I realized that video phoning (something I have no interest in, really) had already taken off among a certain set of users, primarily parents who wanted their kids to see them while they’re travelling. Makes perfect sense, and that demographic also establishes that the technology has definitely arrived. (Amusing that it came as part of the personal computer and the internet, and not as part of the phone per se.)

Last night’s experience wasn’t so positive. I was filling the gas tank of a Zipcar at a Chevron station and the pump had an LCD screen and speakers. Video and audio of someone greeting me played when I started, and video and audio of them saying goodbye played when I finished. In between, weather reports, ads for local news, ads for the gas pump television service itself, and content selected from NBC played on the thing. Apparently NBC has some deal where they repurpose some of their content for these pumps. The ‘station’ had a name, ‘NBC at the Pump’, and even a jingle, NBC’s three notes redone as car horn noises.

Somebody had to come up with all that stuff. The technology, the edited content, the jingle(!), all of it. Somebody had to decide that video as an advertising medium at gas pumps was a good idea.

I’m probably imagining this, but I really, really felt like this pump was pumping gas more slowly than pumps (without the video) that I’d used previously.

The content was pretty bad, of course. I would have loved to have been able to turn it off. I didn’t see that option, although it might have been there somewhere. It just seemed so bizarre. The ubiquity of advertising is hardly news, but still, is every opportunity to hit a captive audience going to be taken?

It felt very like the media/technology future from the first Robocop.

On the way back, Seth and I talked about the phenomenon of feeling like the “future” has arrived. There are other instances, like the fact that we can watch video on devices that are smaller than a pack of cigarettes. There’s shorter-term stuff, for example I used to say years back that I wasn’t going to get a cellphone until a decent device came along that combined PDA, phone, and music player tech—and now one has, although I won’t buy it. Sure, it was obvious that such a device would come along, but the fact that it has somehow marks a mini tech-epoch in my mind.

The other thing is that I used to pay a lot more attention to technological innovation, keeping up with chip speeds and device improvements and so on. I don’t do that anymore, but the advances keep coming, even when one doesn’t pay attention, and suddenly it’s commonplace to watch video on the train or look up Google Maps directions while walking around.

After coming home, I watched a clip that was highlighted on Penny Arcade, and it blew me away and gave me a different kind of future shock, the kind where I’m blown away by how cool a technology is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd3-eiid-Uw. Crazy. Not totally new, but you just know that somebody’s going to get it completely right, soon, and then it’ll be everywhere.

One Response to “Future Shock”

  1. Eoin Says:

    WOW. I have just watched the Jonny Lee video about head tracking with the Wii remote. That is so cool.

    I have been vaguely following the advance (or seemingly lack there of) of VR technology since the 80′s, when I first learnt of it. I have always loved the idea of such emersiveness in games, and indeed other applications (think Minority Report), but until recently, there has been very little movement in the mainstream commercial sector. Until, that is, the Wii came along. When it first was released, I was discussing it, and other VR tech, with some collegues, and I was saying that while VR tech had been commercially available for years(see: http://www.vrealities.com), until it was cheap enough to be bought by the average joe, and there was wide acceptence of it by the games industry(some major games have had the ability to use this tech for a long time, but they have never sold that idea to the public en mass), it was never going to take off. However, whether or not the Wii console was any good was irrelevant, one thing it did herald was the public acceptance of VR control systems and thier willingness to pay a premium for it. Now, I feel, we shall be seeing a lot more of the same. One word…. WOOT!

    Now, one thing that occured to me while watching that video was this. My laptop is a Dell XPS M1210, and it has a built in webcam at the top of the screen. Many of us have webcams, even if they are not integral systems, and many consoles support webcams in one way, shape or form (I know my 360 can use one, and I seem to remember that the Playstation also can). Further more, most web cams can see IR light. Just point your TV remote at your webcam, video camera, or cell phone camera to see this for yourself. What I am circuitously getting at is is that I, for one, already have that hardware for a head tracking system built into my laptop. A pair of IR LED’s would cost about $0.50… I wonder how much those safety glasses would cost ? $5, $10? How much would the average Joe pay for a prebuilt design they could pick up in thier usual gamer shop, on a shelf beside 360 or playstation controlers? All we need now is support for such a system built into the software. And that is where we come in. What we (the public… en mass) start expecting in our tech, is now the driving force of what we shall be seeing in the next releases of software. As a software developer, I couldnt be more excited about this.

    The future is here. Are you ready for it?

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