Retro-future

The Boy of the 20th Century, Through 19th-Century Eyes

by Joey deVilla on October 3, 2007

“20th Century Boy” illustration from the 19th century
Click the picture to see it at full size.
Image courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

The caption of this 19th-century lithograph reads: “A LOOK TO THE FUTURE: The boy of the present has a glimpse of the twentieth century boy.”

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Back when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, I loved the Usborne series of books about life in the future. Now that I’m living in the future, I’m trying to find these old books and see how many of their predictions of life today came true. The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games, which I pointed to in an earlier entry, was rather accurate in its predictions of what was in store for video and computer games. The future home tech featured in Usborne’s Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century (whose cover appears below) isn’t too far off the mark either; most of it would be easily found at your local Best Buy.

Cover of the book “Future Cities”

One section in Future Cities is titled Computers in the Home. It describes a home of future, as seen through the eyes of a British author dabbling in sci-fi in the late 1970s. Here’s its introduction:

Computers in the Home

The picture on the right takes you into the living room of a house in the future. The basics will probably be similar — windo9ws, furniture, carpet and TV. There will be one big change though — the number of electronic gadgets in use.

The same computer revolution which has resulted in calculators and digital watches could, through the 1980s and ’90s, revolutionise people’s living habits.

Television is changing from a box to stare at into a useful two-way tool. Electronic newspapers are already available — pushing the button on a handset lets you read ‘pages’ of news, weather, puzzles and quizzes.

TV-telephones should be a practical reality by the mid 1980s. Xerox copying over the telephone already exists. Combining the two could result in millions of office workers being able to work at home if they wish. There is little need to work in a central office if a computer can store records, copiers can send information from place to place and people can talk on TV-telephones.

Many people may prefer to carry on working in an office with others, but for those who are happy at home, the savings in travelling time would be useful. Even better would be the money saved on transport costs to and from work.

Pictured below is a scan of the two-page spread in which the Computers in the Home section appears. It points out some features in a future home, most of which you might find in your own living room today.

Preview image of “Computers in the Home”, as pictured in the late 1970s.
Click to see the full picture at full size.
Image courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

Here’s the accompanying text, with my commentary in italics:

The Electronic Household

This living room has many electronic gadgets which are either in use already or are being developed for people to buy in the 1980s.

1. Giant-size TV

Based on the designs already available, this one has a super-bright screen for daylight viewing and stereo sound system.

(Came true and even was surpassed in some ways. 42-inch plasma screens sell at Costco for about $1000 and TV isn’t just broadcast in stereo, but 5:1 surround.)

2. Electronic video movie camera

Requires no film, just a spool of tape. Within ten years video cameras like this could be replaced by 3-D holographic recorders.

(The bit about tape came true in the 80s and is surpassed today by recorders that write to magnetic and optical disk as well as solid-state memory. Holograms, a “science news” favourite that seemed to crop up in the news once a month, don’t have the future-appeal they did back then.)

3. Flat screen TV

No longer a bulky box, TV has shrunk to a thickness of less than five centimetres. This one is used to order shopping via a computerised shopping centre a few kilometres away. The system takes orders and indicates if any items are in stock.

(Strange how they separated “giant TV” from “flat screen” TV, as if it were an either-or-but-not-both choice. It’s come true, all right: the LCD monitor with which I’m making this entry is a mere 3 centimetres thick, and the head office of Amazon — this entry links to Future Cities in its catalog — is about 3000 kilometres away.)

4. Video disc player

Used for recording off the TV and for replaying favourite films.

(Came true and surpassed with DVDs, Tivo, movies-on-demand and the merging of disc players and videogames.)

5. Domestic robot rolls in with drinks.

One robot, the Quasar, is already on sale in the USA. Reports indicate that it may be little more than a toy, however, so it will be a few years before “Star Wars” robots tramp through our homes.

(Things didn’t turn out as predicted. The Quasar, pictured below, was much less than a toy. In fact, it turned out to be a hoax:

Two photos of the Quasar robot, purportedly doing housekeeping.

We do have the Roomba, though, and we do live in a world where a robot gladiator contest is a viable TV show.)

6. Mail slot

By 1990, most mail will be sent in electronic form. Posting a letter will consist of placing it in front of a copier at your home or post office. The electronic read-out will be flashed up to a satellite, to be beamed to its destination. Like many other electronic ideas, the savings in time and energy could be enormous.

(Two areas in which retro-future predictions break down are how we’ll communicate with our machines and how we’ll communicate with each other. Most models of electronic mail as perceived around 1980 was always some form of tele-copying, where you’d write or type your original letter, which would then be scanned into electronic form and then printed at the post office closest to the receiving party. Even the U.S. Postal Service envisioned this model, since they saw mail, whether physical or electronic as their rightful domain. Remind me to post and article about this sometime.)

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Videogames of the Future, as Predicted 25 Years Ago

by Joey deVilla on August 15, 2007

My friend Miss Fipi Lele sent me a scan from The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games, a children’s book published in 1982:

Excerpt from “Videogames of the Future” a section in “The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games” (1982)
Image courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

I was quite impressed with how many predictions the book got right. Here are some excerpts from the “Videogames in the future” section of the book, followed by examples of the predictions coming true.

Here’s what the Guide had to say about “TV games” in which you can take part in battles. Remember, this was published when the Atari 2600 (which was still called the Atari VCS — short for “Video Computer System”) and the Mattel Intellivision were established consoles and the Colecovision had just been released:

Historical battle game as depicted in the “The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games”.
A TV game with a very large memory will be able to reconstruct detailed pictures of say, the Battle of Waterloo or a space battle, and the players will be able to control far more of the details in the picture than they can today.

Score one point for the Guide. Although the game History Channel: Civil War got poor ratings, it fulfills the prediction. Here’s a screenshot:

Screenshot from the game “History Channel: Civil War”

Here’s the Guide on sports games:

Soccer game as depicted in the “The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games”.
In TV sports games you will probably be able to control each of your team members individually. These games will also have electronically synthesized voices and the referee will tell you when you are offside or given a free kick.

Score another point for the Guide. Here’s FIFA Soccer 2008:

Screen capture from “FIFA Soccer 08″.

The Guide has this to say about multiplayer games:

At present, most computer games are for only one or two players. More powerful computers though, will be able to cope with instructions from a number of people playing at the same time, either as teams against each other, or against the computer.

Another point for the guide! Case in point: a video of gameplay from the Halo 3 multiplayer beta…


Video duration: 9 minutes, 48 seconds.

And finally, here’s what the Guide predicts for handheld games:

Soccer game as depicted in the “The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games”.
Hand-held electronic games will still have liquid-crystal displays, but they will probably be in full colour and will be as detailed and realistic as pictures for a TV programme today.

Yet another point for the Guide: here’s Burnout Dominator for the PSP…

Screenshot of “Burnout Dominator” on the PSP

Late-Breaking Update

Serves me right for not Googling first: the Level Up blog at Sun has a complete set of scans of the book. Check it out!

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