The future isn't what it used to be. Futurists of yesteryear once predicted that by the year 2000 we'd be driving nuclear-powered cars, eating food in pill form and living in domed cities.
It never happened. But why?
Prognosticating pundits of the past predicted those things because technology could make them possible. They forgot that the fact that something was possible didn't necessarily make it desirable. Technology evolves, but the human brain doesn't. The reason many futurists fail is because they forget to factor in what people want.
If you've been reading the news lately, you've no doubt heard that three amazing technologies that futurists have predicted for decades are now on the brink of being available to consumers: Flying cars, augmented reality glasses and virtual reality computers.
Yes, the technology is real. The products might even ship. But you, personally, are very unlikely to ever buy or use any of them.
Why? Because you won't want to.
Why you won't drive a flying car
Futurists have imagined flying cars for more than 100 years. The dream is about a family car that can take off and fly over the traffic, land at home and park in the garage. One key component of the dream is that the miracle of flight is democratized and available to everyday families.
We've long been told that a real flying car is just a few years from reality. And now we're being told that reality is about to happen.
"The World's First Flying Car is Finally Here," screamed numerous headlines.
And, in fact, the Terrafugia Transition appears to be an impressive vehicle. It has four wheels, foldable wings and takes regular gas, rather than special aviation fuel.
A video released by the company shows the Transition pulling out of a suburban garage, driving on regular roads, stopping to fill up at a local gas station and then proceeding to an airport, where it takes off into the sky.
Yay! We'll all soon be flying to work every day, right? Wrong.
The reason you and I won't own one is that the Terrafugia Transition doesn't fit any of the criteria dangled before our dazzled eyes by futurists. It's not really a flying car.
The Transition is what airplane nerds call a "roadable aircraft." It's an airplane with modifications that make it possible to drive it on streets legally.
Because it's an airplane, all the rules, costs, certifications, training and more apply. You'll need to be an experienced and certified pilot with special training to fly a Transition. You'll have to take off and land at airports, plan your flights and monitor the weather, participate in the air traffic control system, stay within approved airspace and all the rest. The Transition is certified as a "Light Sport Aircraft," so its use is more limited even than a regular Cessna.
The Transition gives you three benefits over airplanes that are not street-legal. First, you don't have to get out of one vehicle and get into another when you arrive at the airport. Second, it's easier to transport (taking a regular airplane by road usually involves removing the wings and renting a trailer). And third, the biggest benefit is that you might not have to rent a car when you arrive at your destination.
Sounds great. But what's the downside?
The Transition is both an inferior car and an inferior airplane. It's much slower and much less safe to drive or fly than ordinary cars and ordinary airplanes. It doesn't handle all that well on roads or in the sky.
It's also expensive, starting at $270,000. If you're going to spend that kind of money, you'd be smarter to buy a sweet BMW and a brand-new Cessna.
The Terrafugia Transition will be enjoyed by a very small number of wealthy, novelty-loving pilots in unique circumstances (they'd have to live somewhere that had great roads near the airport, for example).
You and I will never own one.
Why you won't wear Google's augmented reality glasses
Google this week unveiled a prototype of a Google research initiative called Project Glass.
The goal of the research project is to figure out how to build many of the features of a smartphone into a pair of glasses. Images will be projected into one of your eyeballs, so menus, options, screens, directions and more will appear to hover in the space in front of you. Eye movements, blinking and voice commands will serve as the input.
Google presented a demo of Project Glass in a video that makes the technology look very cool and appealing, but only because it sugarcoats four facts. First, as is the case in all fabricated demos, everything works flawlessly. There are no errors or mistakes on the part of the system, no data download delays at all. The system always correctly guesses what the user wants and provides it to him instantly. Unlike, say, Siri, the voice assistant is accurate and responds instantaneously, and the servers are always available. In reality, such glasses would work like other things do, with errors and delays.
Second, the "experience" shown in the video is not the experience you would have in real life. Images would be projected into one eye but not the other. This will no doubt cause the same discomfort as 3D glasses, a cognitive dissonance where the brain repels the information as presented by the eyes. I believe Project Glass technology will be psychologically uncomfortable to use.
Third, the Google video shows what Project Glass looks like from the wearer's perspective. It doesn't show how idiotic the wearer looks. Augmented-reality glasses would have you looking around like a crazy person, blinking commands like in I Dream of Jeannie and walking around in public talking to no one. Plus, people are very picky about eyewear. Glasses are a fashion accessory like jewelry. Who wants jewelry designed by Google?
And finally, Google's Project Glass has a built-in creepy factor. It's capable of taking pictures and videos. It would allow you to point your camera phone at everyone you talk to, without them ever knowing whether you're recording them or not.
I believe Google 's Project Glass will result in real products, and that some (very nerdy) people will buy and use them. The vast majority of us will not, however.
Why you won't use Microsoft's virtual reality PC
Futurists have been talking for years about virtual reality (VR) -- a virtual environment featuring computer-generated objects that users can see and manipulate. Usually VR involves goggles. But science fiction has always promised no-goggle VR.
Recently, Microsoft demonstrated a technology halfway between goggle-based VR and the Star Trek holodeck. It's called Behind the Screen Overlay technology, and the company presented it at Microsoft TechForum 2012.
Microsoft's VR works via a see-through screen that also projects 3D data -- two images each project to one of the user's eyes. Cameras keep track of the position of the eyes, so the image onscreen can change as the user's head moves to create the illusion of virtual reality.
Cameras in the back of the screen keep track of your hands, similar to the way Kinect for Xbox 360 does.
The overall result is that you see 3D objects as if they're floating in space on the other side of the screen. And your hands can manipulate those virtual objects.
Sounds great, right? But there's no way you'll be using this with Windows 9.
Yes, there could be applications for this kind of technology in specialized research fields. But the evolution of consumer user interfaces is headed in the opposite direction. Displays of the future will be based on touch inputs and they will give haptic feedback.
Everyday users would be irritated by touching nothing and not having any kind of physical sensation feedback.
All of these futuristic technologies -- flying cars, augmented reality glasses and virtual reality desktop displays -- are worthy projects built on awesome technologies.
But don't believe the hype about everybody using this stuff anytime soon. The fantasy is great. But the reality is this: You don't really want it.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.