Let’s get physical!

We live in a society that is glued to its laptops, iPads, smartphones and pagers. It’s rare when a concert isn’t interrupted by at least one ringtone, and if you don’t update your Facebook status at least five times during the course of a lunch, you’re not being social enough. The pocket and purse have become temporary holders for devices that get taken out again 30 seconds later, because checking email is only done obsessively or not at all (and never not at all). This is a problem, for two reasons. First, we keep wasting lots of time reaching into our pockets to pull out our phones — time that could be better spent playing Angry Birds on our phones. Second, the minimal movement needed to constantly store and un-store these devices prevents our arm muscles from fully atrophying the way nature intended.

Enter The Future. These problems are a thing of the past, because we no longer interact with the world through screens, but instead project our own images into the world. (Think: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”)

Seem too far-fetched? The New York Times just reported that Google is building heads-up display glasses scheduled for release by the end of 2012. The glasses will display live data based on the surroundings, and overlay that data on top of what you see, like the glasses in “The Terminator,” “RoboCop” and pretty much every other sci-fi movie ever. By controlling them with subtle tilts of the head, you can play Fruit Ninja in seminar while the professor sees you as simply nodding enthusiastically or cracking your neck or having a seizure.

But that’s something only you can see. What about projecting images out into the world, like that miniature flickering Princess Leia in “Star Wars”? Researchers at the University of Arizona say they’re close to having the technology for real-time 3D holographic video projection, using the same basic principles that underlie security holograms on drivers’ licenses. Which means that instead of floating in midair, the projections lie on a thin screen, though the researchers are quick to point out the difference between a 3D movie like “Avatar” and this technology, as it allows you to see different perspectives by moving your head. In The Future, Skype will use this technology (though hopefully it’ll have evolved beyond the low-resolution, “Matrix”-green laser images of the UofA demo videos), and people will never again have to suffer the injustice of moving their heads and not having a video’s perspective change. Oh, and nobody will talk on phones anymore, obvi.

In The Future, we’ll react and interact with the digital world through our surroundings, rather than escaping through a tiny screen on something once designed for calling friends and being more social. But don’t worry: we’ll still do a whole lot with the Internet. Take, for example, online shopping. Right now the biggest problems with online shopping are logistical: How quickly will items be shipped? What happens if they don’t arrive at all? What do you do if you want to return something?

Science fiction solves these problems with teleportation, also known (in bad sci-fi plots) as “3D faxing” — sending a tangible object electronically and reconstructing it at the other end. The real-world version of this is called 3D printing, and the concept is simple: send a printer blueprints, and it builds an object by stacking lots of tiny layers of glue-like material. Right now, 3D printing is mostly a way for nerdy people to fabricate 20-sided dice for Dungeons and Dragons, but a company headed by engineer Enrico Dini suggests using it for houses, with a printer the size of a warehouse. The building material is sand mixed with a sort of magic super-strong sand-glue.

Proponents of 3D printing see it as the next generation of online shopping — want a book or a Wenzel or a pet spaniel? Buy the plans online and print it in seconds! — and to an extent this may be the case (3D food printers, for example, already exist). But 3D printing isn’t just for the realm of humans: the GOLEM project in 2000 was a Brandeis University robotics experiment that automated the coevolution of robotic bodies and brains. The project automatically printed real robots, and allowed the cruel physics of the real world to naturally select and evolve the best ones. In The Future, when our smartphones become just a little too smart, that new iPhone will evolve and 3D-print other iPhones, which will print other iPhones, which will finally take over the world. If only Siri believed in birth control …

Comments