More than 20 years ago Apple made two concept videos that show how they where envisioning the future of computers at that time. Long before flat monitors came into the main stream they showed them off in these videos.
Gestures are replacing the mouse, your index finger doing the pointing. Effortless video conferencing and collaboration. A smart search assistant very much like the famous computer voice from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But most impressively of all I find the vision of having all parts of the computer built into the display. Remember, the first iMac was sold 10 years later.
Also Apple did not shy away from making a point that computers should also be usable by people with disabilities even 20 years ago. I have yet to see a concept video by Microsoft that would dare this.
The second concept video entitled “Knowledge Navigator” goes further than that. Here you can actually see the concept of a portable tablet computer. The virtual assistant is still present, now with a face and a bow tie.
First you have a writer with a disadvantaged child, then you meet a university professor who is planning a speech related to the climate crisis. It seems to me that Apple has been plotting to save the world for the past 20 years now.
Usually it is hard to date such concept videos to estimate in which time frame they should become a reality. That might lead to effects like 1985 which we now, 24 years past the due date, we can safely say never happened. But from one scene in “Knowledge Navigator” we can tell that this narrative is set in 2009.
A researcher shows a video showing the growth of the Sahara “for the past 20 years”, ending with the year 2009 showing at the bottom of the screen. Has somebody at Apple foreseen two decades ago that in Summer 2009 apple would release the Mac tablet?
Besides the futuristic voice interface the concept tablet also has a touch screen and a slot for some kind of data storage card. I also found interesting to that the professor does not take his tablet with him when he goes to lunch but has his virtual assistant answer his calls. A departure from today’s communication chains that make us reachable even in work breaks.
If you compare these two videos with the evolution of Mac we witnessed so far there are some striking similarities between vision and reality. The processing and storage parts where moved into the screen, albeit via the detour of building it into a cathode ray tube, for the first iMac. The touch interface was pioneered with the Apple Newton and hit the main stream two years ago with the first iPhone.
Built-in cameras are standard for a long time, so is a microphone. Ultra-small storage is been driven by the iPod and SSDs which can be ordered instead of rotating platter HDDs since last year. The next evolutionary step has to be building in Apple’s multi-touch technology into regular displays, omitting a built-in keyboard and trackpad, as the full screen will become the input surface.
The only technology where we have yet to see any major progress towards is the virtual digital assistant that would help me structure my knowledge, take on some of the communication responsibilities and discover new ideas. We can speculate that enormous processing power will be necessary to simulate an AI that is responsive and smart enough to be really helpful as opposed to being a nuissance.
Currently the chip industry is pushing more towards energy efficiency by going towards lower power and smaller structures. Less energy usage is not only en vogue because of green IT, but you’d hardly be able to rely on an assistant if he runs out of juice after 2 hours.
Apple might not be just a great design company, Steve Jobbs’ crystal ball might also be able to predict the future. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” said Alan Kay, inventor of OOP. Apple has obviously taken his advice.