Culture

What Happened When Popular Mechanics Tried to Predict the Future?

10 Nov 2019 6:00am, by

As the internet celebrated its 50th birthday last month, the website for Popular Mechanics went all in, running a series of special articles in an event they’d dubbed “Internet Week.” It includes a collection of the 1990’s “most cringe-worthy internet guides,” and their list of “the 50 greatest moments in internet history.”

But there was also a fun collection of predictions they’d made about the future — some right and some wrong — offering a poignant reminder of where we thought humanity would be in the 21st century.

“Since 1902, Popular Mechanics has been the authority on how your world works,” explains the site’s About Us page, saying they’ve been dedicated to bringing readers “the latest news on innovations and inventions.”

Popular Mechanics first cover, 1902

Popular Mechanics first cover, 1902

So their compilation of past predictions offers a fascinating chance to look at the hopes we’d had for our future yet to come — and also at an almost-world that never happened, extrapolated into existence from promising technological moments that never quite delivered. There are six predictions from the 1990s, an era when the internet was just beginning to gain popular acceptance, as well as two more predictions dating back to the 1980s (plus one from 2000 and one from 2005).

So what did Popular Mechanics get wrong about the future — and what did they get right?

Virtual Realities

It seems like virtual reality always becomes the subject of a lot of missed predictions. While there were also fairly accurate guesses about new in-flight entertainment options on airplanes, one April 1995 Popular Mechanics article imagined full-fledged virtual reality theme parks, a prediction they’re now describing as a miss. “VR is still emerging in the video game world,” they wrote in October, conceding that “first adopters are driving the growth, but your average consumer probably doesn’t have an Oculus headset. Maybe this future just hasn’t arrived yet.”

And then there’s “January 1997: The Time We Feared The Internet Would Die.” That story warned that “Clogged up, bogged down and gridlocked, the internet is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own success.” (Paraphrasing a famous quote from Yogi Berra, it begins by quipping that “The Internet is so busy that nobody bothers to go online anymore.”) Writing in October, the site now notes that the internet never did collapse, although it’s important to remember that even that 1997 article had hedged its dire pronouncement with a big dose of optimism. “Although the internet’s growing pains are obvious, and the solutions aren’t all easy to implement, the Internet is on its way to becoming as important as the telephone network — too important to be allowed to become a victim of its own success.”

Other predictions bring back some forgotten dead-ends in the history of technology. Once upon a time, back in 1997, there was a product called WebTV. The web (at the time) was mostly static, text-based documents. (“Of course, video exists on the Internet today,” that 1997 article notes, “as small, grainy images that take forever to download.”) At that exact moment in time, WebTV had just been purchased by Microsoft, and it boasted its own proprietary “VideoFlash” technology which worked only on their own “proprietary, non-IP-based network.” (Although on the bright side, “if it gets popular enough, it could relieve some of the congestion on the internet.”) The magazine’s electronics editor picked up his pen to warn that this trend “could tear the Internet in two.” And then their headline writer made that prediction even more emphatic, writing “PC/TV Convergence Will Fracture the Internet.”

Nope. Didn’t happen…

And there’s another ’90s-era technology that seems to have dazzled the magazine’s prognosticators. One 1993 column described the hand-held “personal digital assistants” (or PDAs) of the 1990s by observing proudly that “The Klingons, Ferengi and other races inhabiting the futuristic science-fiction series, Star Trek, The Next Generation, call them PADDs (Personal Access Display Devices).” It was a time when early adopters were enamored with devices like Apple’s handheld Newton, and their October article smilingly summarizes their 1993 argument as “the pen is far superior,” though looking back they now concede that “Based on the smartphones that we have today, that forecast was… rather incorrect. The PDA was a thing for a hot second…”

Most surprisingly, that 1993 article failed to anticipate the voice assistants we now enjoy here in our glorious future — a technology that even Star Trek had envisioned. Although in October the magazine acknowledged that the PDA was “a kind of proto-iPhone,” so they were at least looking at the right class of devices.

It’s often obvious that their predictions of the future are clearly rooted in the technologies of their time. Their next prediction — from January of 1994 — imagined us accessing the information superhighway “through personal communicators of the Apple Newton variety” — so close to predicting the Apple iPhone, but still overly invested in the idea of a stylus-based interface — as well as through our personal computers and through our televisions. (That’s a prediction that’s proven to be uncannily accurate.) It also correctly predicts that the ability of phones to access the internet “is likely to spur the development of many types of wireless devices.” And humorously, it also informs readers that these wonderful devices will be magically able to transmit everything from videos… to faxes.

Back to the Future

Reading these old articles brings nostalgic reminders of a long-gone era when the word “internet” was still capitalized.

Popular Mechanics - screenshot of text from 1994

That 1994 article talks about movies-on-demand, online classes, and even doctor visits via video phone calls — all predictions that came to pass. It also correctly predicts that the TV shows you watch will be tracked in order to make recommendations — though it also can’t resist making an inevitable comparison. “In the near future, television will have the sort of learning capabilities exhibited now by-products like Apple’s Newton personal communicator.”

And at another point, that article also imagines us printing out a hard copy of our newspaper, as well as simply accessing it on our wirelessly-enabled computers — or on our “Newton-type personal communicators.”

Fortunately, here in our actual future, you can find that 1994 article online (archived by Google Books).

But one of the most interesting moments of all in this collection is a 2005 issue trying to predict technology in the year 2025. A note from the editor brags that their predictions are at least right more often than not. “We may not have invented the internet, but we did predict, way back in 1950, that we’d someday shop via our TV screens.”

Inevitably, they then went on to make a few wildly incorrect predictions. “We will go to Mars, says the acting chief of NASA… Hydrogen will fuel at least some of our cars. And space hotels really will tether chocolates to their zero-g pillows.” There are just five more years left for those elaborate predictions to come true — although to be fair, the space tourism industry seems to be gathering steam. In the final days of October, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson rang the opening bell for the New York Stock Exchange, a stunt recognizing his company as the first commercial spaceflight company ever listed on the exchange. According to news reports, the company hopes to begin flights next year, and already has 603 customers who’ve signed up for the $250,000 flights into the upper atmosphere (where they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness). So who knows where we’ll be in 2025?

Although interestingly, that 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics predicted Virgin Galactic would carry its first paying passengers into suborbital flight in the year 2008…

And that 2005 issue also makes another very specific prediction. “By 2025, a million bucks may buy a real vacation: five days in low Earth orbit. The hotel could resemble the International Space Station, or it might be an easier-to-launch inflatable structure.” And though so far all we have is the Roomba, they also predicted that by 2025, “Robots will clean our houses and fight our battles.” (In fact, the Roomba was already being marketed in 2005, the article notes, so this probably seemed like a safe guess.)

That article even predicted we’d play soccer with robots and drive cars with four motors. But they were extrapolating from the already-in-existence Robot Soccer World Cup (or RoboCup), which by 2005 had already seen 387 teams of soccer-playing (from 37 different countries) competing for a world title. Launched in 1997, it has announced one overarching goal. “By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.”

That special 2005 issue also envisioned a refrigerator that scanned bar codes on food so it could automatically display a list of everything inside — along with its expiration date — and even create shopping lists. And there’s even a humorous section where they envision homeowner problems of the year 2025. “Last week after moving a wall section… I noticed my Internet connection had failed. Now I have to reboot my house several times a day to reconnect…” (It turns out the problem was caused by distortion originating from the moveable wall section with the hot and cold running water.) It also predicts air taxis by 2025 — and while it seems like humanity is taking its first steps in that direction, their prediction was more specific. “By 2025, a fleet of 13,500 economical four-passenger microjets will offer air-taxi service for the price of an economy-class airline ticket. To visit Dubuque from Bozeman, a passenger will hop on a microjet and fly direct without ever switching at a hub.”

But it’s inspiring to note that there are also some remarkably correct predictions in 2005. “By 2025, people will access a universe of movies, news and more from nearly anywhere, as easily as we make cellphone calls today.” It also predicts national ID cards, water-saving “dual-flush” toilets, and voice-controlled TVs.

It’s fascinating to read predictions — in 2005 — that we’ll move “from today’s entertainment-is-a-thing world into the entertainment-is-a-service world of the future.” V. Michael Bove Jr., who in 2005 was the director of MIT’s Media Lab, predicted that “You’ll pay a certain amount of money and have access to a huge pool of stuff,” adding “and it is going to follow you around.” That’s a pretty good definition of the consumer cloud.

Or, as Popular Mechanics envisioned it in 2005, “A ubiquitous supernetwork will recognize your all-in-one portable device —which may be no larger than a locker or watch — to provide access to music and video almost anywhere….”

Perhaps more amazing than the technologies we humans invent is our ability to predict them before they’ve even arrived…


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