Damn Hoverboards, I Have Bluetooth!

I’ve been thinking about the future recently.

What got me started was the news that Total Recall is getting a reboot. I mused that at least it was a reboot that was coming much longer after the original than the Spider-man reboot, and that in fact it might even be getting rebooted well after the time period setting of the original movie.

Thanks to my twitter-addled life and short attention span, before I even bothered to check this out, I then wondered if we were already past the date in which Back to the Future Part II was set. (I did check it out now, while writing this post, and I couldn’t find a fixed date for the first movie, and the original Philip K Dick story definitely doesn’t mention a date.)

And yikes! We’re only three years away from 2015, which is when the (future bit of) Back to the Future II was set. This got me wondering what would be different if Back to the Future  were to be remade today, with the past sequences thirty years ago and the future sequences in 2042. This is an exercise that would be lots of fun if it was a bunch of fans sitting around and talking about it, but I dread how awful it would be if a reboot actually happened.

We’ll get back to Back to the Future in a bit. Right now, time for the other thing that got me thinking about the future.

Yesterday, this was delivered to my apartment: the Creative D200 speaker bar. The sound quality probably isn’t exceptional, but I’m not an audiophile so I don’t think I’d notice even if it was . The important thing about this speaker bar is that it’s wireless. Not as wireless as I hoped, though. It runs on a power cord and has no batteries, so my hopes of pulling a Lloyd Dobler in Chennai have been cruelly shattered. (I’d even found a cutie with her own balcony! We can ignore the likely outcome of what she’d have done after my boombox manouevering.) But it’s still wireless enough to be absolutely awesome, for it takes the audio input not only through an aux cable port, but also through (this is the part where I rub my hands with glee) Bluetooth.

Here is what this means.

There are mp3 files on my phone. My phone is in my pocket. I am in the bedroom. The speaker, on the other hand, is in the drawing room, and at the far end of the drawing room at that. I can set the songs I am listening to from a device in my pocket, while they’re actually played at the other end of the house, and loud enough for me to hear them anyway.

I asked Beatzo on GTalk if it was wrong of me to be so thrilled about this, and he said “Of course not! Welcome to the future!”

Minor aside. If I had asked Neal Stephenson, he would probably have said it was wrong, considering he is slightly grumpy about how in the past few years, so many people in technology would rather be passionate about making smartphone apps than about making rockets:

When he was asked, toward the end of lunch, where he thought computing might be headed, he paused to rephrase the question. “I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”

Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.

“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”

He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”

Digression over. Now, back to Back to the Future.

We have three years left and portable fusion reactors, flying cars, and hoverboards are nowhere in sight. On the other hand, lots of other things that Back to the Future II showed as commonplace are in fact commonplace: flat screen TVs, ubiquitious videoconferencing, and electronics embedded in all sorts of machinery (though not quite accurate on how exactly this panned out). There’s a wiki on Back to the Future, so you can check out the page on the technology of the fictional 2015, and see for yourself how much it got right and how much it missed. There’s quite a decent hit rate, actually, when you consider how tricky this prediction business is.

So tricky, in fact, that a 1996 movie got one detail about 2063 even more badly wrong than 1985’s Back to the Future II got 2015 wrong. The 1996 movie was Star Trek: First Contact, and the detail in question (and this is where things all come together) is wireless music streaming.

As you see in this clip from the movie, Zefram Cochrane, while launching Earth’s first faster-than-light spacecraft, decides that he wants his tunes, and so slips a tiny octogonal, transparent disc into a music player.  Optical media! Teehee! How quaint!

Okay, more seriously. Bluetooth was created in 1994. Flash storage was also invented at about the same time, but I remember that the first time I ever came across a commercial USB flash drive was in 2004. They both took so long to go mainstream, that back in 2006, the most futuristic thing the writers of Star Trek could conceive about playing music was a tinier, differently shaped CD. We now take the ability to whip out a palm sized device and have it send any music we like to any nearby speakers for granted – but Zefram  Cochrane had to hunt for a particular disk and physically shove it in. Wow.

To be fair, Star Trek’s 2063 is a post-World War dystopia where most of humanity and civilisation has been wiped out, so it’s conceivable that there was a flash memory shortage, or a bluetooth shortage, and the war’s survivors had to resort to optical media all over again. Which makes the story even more remarkable  – this is a world with no Bluetooth, but they were still able to build a faster-than-light propulsion drive. Whatay!



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