What’s Next?

We all love technology, right? How else do I write this and both of you read it, or we keep up with the latest bust of our favorite celebrity, or strangers annoy the shit out of us with their incessant cell-phone blathering? It’s a great thing.

I have to admit, I am not up-to-date on most things technological. I’m no Luddite, but as I get older I feel less of a need to know everything happening in the worlds of audio, video, computers, nanotechnology, etc, etc. My time is better spent on other things; freaking out over the ongoing mid-life crisis, say.

I used to be more plugged in when I worked at Weekly Reader. Yes, the venerable children’s newspaper, read in classrooms across the country since 1928. I honed my skills in educational publishing, however meager, at that bastion of knowledge, where giving American kids the truth outweighed any – OK, that’s a lie. If you can believe it, and I’m sure you can, we could not talk about evolution. We could not say dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago, since some of our subscribers came from that blessed part of the country where we still believe Earth is only about 6,000 years old, give or take a few. And if we really published the truth, we would have run the more laughable letters we received from some of our teachers – men and women less able to form a coherent sentence than the average 11-year-old (my target audience at the time, by the way).

Working at Weekly Reader, though, gave me access to an incredible array of newspapers and magazines, which all the editors scoured for article ideas. Technology was always a hot topic with the kids; it scored well in our reader surveys (yes, the whole world is numbers/marketing driven). So I wrote about gee-whiz, whiz-bang stuff like…computers you wear like clothing! Powerful drugs from rain-forest plants/deadly insects/animal dung! (Ok, I made up the last one). And the always-popular flying cars! Invariably, someone somewhere was working on a flying car, and WR duly reported it, going back to about 1957.

I thought about these technological marvels as I headed out to WIRED’s Nextfest, held here at Millennium Park. A blurb in Time Out Chicago promised I’d see a “premier showcase of the global innovations transforming our world.”

Evidently, our innovators are taking it easy, as the entire display fit inside a medium-sized wedding tent. And about half of that was filled with a stage and seating and a few not-so-impressive-looking vehicles. But, for free, I guess I couldn’t expect the 1964 World’s Fair, still the highlight of my life for witnessing the thrill of the new firsthand. (But thank god not all of it came to pass: Would we be better off if the world were filled with creepy animatronic dolls singings “It’s a Small World?”)

Given its size, the Nextfest as a whole did not blow me away. But a few individual exhibits did elicit a “Huh” or “OK, sorta cool.” There was a Playdoh-like substance that hardens on impact. I watched a guy take a hammer and pound the crap out of his friend’s hand after it was ensconced in the glop, and the hittee said he barely felt it. Boeing had a model of a new plane shaped like a manta ray. It will be quieter and more fuel-efficient than current planes, but probably won’t fly for another 15 years. And of course, the military will have it first.

In green technology, Xerox showed off erasable paper and solid inks. With the inks, no plastic cartridges mean less waste. A company called Planilum had luminescent glass plates that can light up a room for decades.

Toyota had a plug-in Prius, which is hardly a new concept, but one that seems closer to becoming an affordable reality. They also showed a device that looked like the Cadillac of Segways, but it won’t be rolling down the street anytime soon.

The exhibits that seemed to attract the most attention were geared toward –  surprise! – entertainment. A game called Brainball pits two contestants against each other in a combat of wits. Or no wits. Electrodes wrapped around their heads detect brain waves. The idea is to be as relaxed as possible, as the calmest player’s waves send a ball across the table to score points. Given my usual level of agita, I did not try to play.

I also did not try what looked like a very cool attraction called the Immersa-Dome. The viewer puts his or her head inside a dome-shaped device. The virtual-reality system then projects a 3-D image all around the dome, the chair moves when appropriate, bursts of air simulating wind tousle the hair. The durn thing even releases smells. The dome’s creator calls the dome and similar products “experiential marketing.” See, it is all about marketing.

What a shock - in the future, sex sells.

What a shock - in the future, sex sells.

So, that’s some of the highlights of the NextFest. Not bad, but no “holy shit, this is going to change the world!” No wearable computers. No flying cars. But thankfully, no animatronic dolls either.

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~ by mburgan on October 9, 2008.

2 Responses to “What’s Next?”

  1. I want one of those packs you strap on your back which allow you to fly around, damn it! I’ve been waiting years!

  2. I think they’re out there, just not cheap. Come by for a visit when you get yours.

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