When I was a kid, 2015 was one of those milestone years people made grand predictions about. By the year 2015, they’d say, we’d be zipping around using jetpacks, vacationing on the moon, and living in houses so intelligent they’d anticipate and fulfill our every desire.
Now that we’ve reached the landmark year, we’re still waiting for a lot of these things to materialize. No jetpacks or lunarcations for us. But homes have gotten smarter in many ways — something we’re going to hear a lot more about as the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show gets under way later this week.
So how do today’s smart homes compare to what we used to think they’d look like? Fortunately we have a time machine — called YouTube — that lets us look back at the future we thought was coming.
While many of these predictions failed to materialize, a surprising number of them did. And some are about to.
One word: Plastics
We start our tour with a nine-minute video of Disneyland’s classic House of the Future exhibit, opened in 1957 and sponsored by the plastics division of the Monsanto Corporation.
Not surprisingly, in Monsanto’s future, pretty much everything that isn’t edible — dishes, countertops, cabinets, walls, floors, ceilings, and even fabrics — is made from plastic.
In the Disney kitchen, separate refrigerators for cold, frozen, and “irradiated” foods descend from overhead cabinets with the push of a button. Press another button and microwave ovens rise from the counter, ready to cook all our food simultaneously “done right and at amazing speeds.” And you’d be cleaning all that plasticware inside an “ultrasonic wave dishwasher” that uses sound instead of water to scrub plates.
In today’s world, refrigerators and microwaves don’t move around much. There are plenty of irradiated foods, but they don’t require special storage. And while ultrasonic washers do exist for jewelry and industrial parts, when it comes to dirty dishes they’re still more concept than reality — a pipe dream without the pipes.
Still, Disney and Monsanto got a couple of things right. The “complete climate control panels” for managing HVAC systems presaged in the video do exist inside smart homes, only instead of push buttons they use touchscreens, and they do a lot more than control the temperature. (Though they do not “direct the scent of roses or salty sea air to every room” — at least, not yet.)
A two-way communications system that uses buttons instead of a dial and doubles as a remote camera for your front door no longer “challenges the imagination”; you can buy one for $200 on Amazon. You might even find one that uses facial recognition to identify people for you.
Partying like it’s 1999
The following 22-minute video, created by the Philco-Ford Corporation in 1967 to mark the company’s 75th birthday, predicted how our homes would look in 1999.
Though the timing is a bit off, the video more or less accurately predicts personal computer terminals, flatscreen TVs, nanny cams, email, virtual schools, online shopping, and electronic banking. It even envisions devices that will measure our bodies’ vital signs and recommend exercise, only this scenario employs a clever couch instead of a smartwatch.
It also predicts a world where “all pertinent information about [a] family, its records, its tastes, its reference material, is stored in … memory banks, available instantly to every member.”
Today we call that Facebook.
On the other hand, the video assumes that by 1999 we’ve colonized Mars, are growing food on the ocean floor, and think nothing of jetting halfway around the globe for a quick round of golf.
But it does make two other predictions that are almost ready for prime time: a closet that automatically cleans our non-disposable clothes using chemical vapor and ultrasonic waves; and an intelligent central heating and cooling system running off a fuel cell.
For $500, you can hang your dress clothes inside a Swash Clothing Care System that uses heat and “precision misting” to clean and de-wrinkle them (sorry, no ultrasound). Companies like Doosan Fuel Cell America and Bloom Energy are selling fuel cells that extract hydrogen from natural gas to generate electricity and heat. The catch? Money. A single heating unit can cost tens of thousands of dollars, making them too expensive for most non-commercial uses.
21st century rocks
For our last episode in 21st-century dreaming, we turn to those stalwarts of family futurism, Jane and George Jetson.
(Compiled by Caglar/YouTube)
It’s easy to remember the things from The Jetsons that didn’t happen — cities in the sky, conveyor belts that move you from room to room, flying cars that fold up into briefcases. The closest we’ve gotten to Rosie the Robot maid is Roomba the robotic vacuum.
Still, it’s surprising how much The Jetsons got right back in 1962. Video phones? Check. 3D flatscreens? Check. Smartwatches? Yep. Cellphones? What do you think that antenna on his boy Elroy’s hat was for?
It even predicted something akin to the Internet, with Elroy getting his school lessons and George reading the day’s headlines on screens that descend from the ceiling. And all of that transpired in real life well before the show’s fictional 2062 setting.
Of course, making your home even a little bit smarter still takes too much money and effort. We are still waiting for the dead-simple solution that allows our various smart devices to work as well in the real world as they do in imaginary ones.
I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. Say, by the year 2025. Or maybe 2035. But definitely before the middle of the century.
And then we’ll get to work on those flying car briefcases.
Send bottled water and lucky rabbits’ feet to Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.