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April 22, 2014

A Fair-weather View of the Future

Posted by Mitrankur Majumdar (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:29 AM

This Day In History 4-22-1964 The New York Worlds Fair Opens In Manhattan [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHJQJuYt8RI]

To Star Trek fans, it's no surprise that when the first commercially available cell phones really took hold in the 1990s, they were "flip -phones" that had an uncanny resemblance to the communicators used by the fictional crew of the Enterprise. When science fiction visionaries, or even corporations for that matter, have a healthy, optimistic view of what might be in store for society, it's amazing how many of our collective ideas can come to life.

Some 50 years ago, the last major World's Fair opened in New York City and exposed more than 50 million visitors to an array of gadgets and concepts. Most of them came from the corporate pavilions. The World's Fair amazed audiences with a selection of items that seemed so far off into the future to ever become a reality. Here are some of my favorites; you'll be surprised at how many of them were right on the mark.

At the World's Fair, Bell Labs introduced the Picturephone. What's interesting is that although the technology that allows you to see whom you're talking to has existed for half a century, it initially did not catch on. But today, anyone who uses Skype and FaceTime has that first Picturephone to thank for putting the idea into initial use.

Then there's the personal computer itself. At the 1964 Fair, such a machine was considered pretty outlandish. In fact, even 13 years later, in 1977, the founder of Digital Equipment would famously say: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in [his] home." Yet a number of companies set up prototypes of personal computers in their pavilions that would plant the seeds of possibility. Plenty of people enjoyed having their questions answered in an astoundingly short amount of time.

When we see high-tech manufacturing lines or even hospitals in which surgeons make super-accurate incisions with robotic arms, we forget how far the entire field of robotics has come in half a century. In 1964, Disney's corporate pavilion included the "It's a Small World" exhibition, which relied heavily on animatronics to move hundreds of figures. It seemed quaint at the time, but now robotics is practically nothing but that.

Automotive buffs will get a kick out of hearing that the Ford Mustang was largely introduced to the market at the 1964 Fair. Let's not forget that until that time, an automaker had to build a large, heavy, chrome-laden vehicle that got a few miles to a gallon of fuel in order to be commercially successful. The Mustang posited the question: Might drivers value fuel economy, nimble handling, and smaller models over the large land yachts of the past? The answer, as we've seen over the past 50 years, is a resounding yes.

The Fair wasn't a complete success when it came to predicting what society would be using in the future. A few of the corporate pavilions introduced various applications of personal jet propulsion, for example. As neat as a jet pack on your back would be, it never caught on. Although, if you look at the commercial applications of military drone technology (for weather prediction, traffic reports, and even for personal home delivery) it's not a stretch to say that personal flight mechanisms have been successfully developed over the past 50 years.

We might not host large World's Fairs anymore, but, with the rise of cyberspace, I don't think we necessarily need them to trade innovative ideas with other people around the world. We can do so on our personal computers. As long as corporations place value on outside-the-box thinking, and as long as we encourage students to apply their classroom learning to solving the challenges of the world, we have a bright future with plenty of neat ideas ahead of us.

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