[FoRK] [IP] AlterNet: Future Schlock (fwd from dave@farber.net)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Mon Jun 7 11:36:30 PDT 2004

----- Forwarded message from David Farber <dave at farber.net> -----

From: David Farber <dave at farber.net>
Date: Mon, 7 Jun 2004 13:20:12 -0400
To: Ip <ip at v2.listbox.com>
Subject: [IP] AlterNet: Future Schlock
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Reply-To: dave at farber.net

Future Schlock

By Bob Ostertag, AlterNet
June 4, 2004

Wired magazine's NextFest 2004 filled San Francisco's Fort Mason 
exhibition center over the weekend with thousands of eager earthlings 
looking to be dazzled by the latest in gee-whiz tech.

I wait through the long line of those of us who had not bought advance 
tix and dive right in. I find myself confronted with a nice young man 
demonstrating the Gummi from Sony, a "bendable, credit-card sized 
computer interface." The idea is that instead of typing, or pressing 
buttons, or moving a joystick, you bend this little credit card thingy. 
Not obvious to you what the advantage of bending a credit card might 
be? Me neither. Unfortunately, I remain unenlightened on this matter, 
because the Gummi had broken. "It worked really well this morning," the 
nice young man pointed out helpfully.

Next door was the Reality Helmet. Supposedly, this helmet takes the 
sounds and images that surround you in the real world and translate 
them into different sounds and images you experience inside the Reality 
Helmet. But when I strap in, all I get was a very static purple image 
with pink in the middle, and a recurring loop of not very interesting 
electronic sound. I try waving my hands in front of it, clapping loudly 
in front of it, and swinging my head from side to side, but nothing I 
can do interrupted the monotonous loop inside the helmet. The problem, 
the man from Reality Helmet explains, is that we were just in the wrong 
environment. Not a good one for the helmet. Right helmet, wrong 

No worries, there are fascinating things everywhere. Nearby, You're the 
Conductor - A Digital Conducting Experience for the Public invited me 
to "Find your inner musician." A video of a symphony orchestra is 
projected on a screen. I am instructed to stand in front of the screen, 
and wave around odd microphone-size thing. The faster I wave the thing, 
the faster the video plays. And the farther I move it from side to 
side, the louder the music gets.

Wow. A volume control.

Hooray. A speed control.

I am told that this project was supposed to give me "a visceral sense 
of what it feels like to conduct a real orchestra." Are you listening, 
Michael Tilson-Thomas? That's what you orchestra conductors do, right? 
Control the speed and volume?

It's occurring to me that orchestra conductors get paid an awful lot 
for controlling an orchestra's speed and volume. Actually, it's 
occurring to me that the people who made this exhibit must know nothing 
about music. Incredibly, the contraption is the result of the combined 
efforts of Immersion Music, Stanford University, and ETH Zurich. Even 
more incredibly, it is booked two years out in museums around the 

"Find your inner musician."

Actually kids, you'd be much better off with a beat-up guitar. Volume 
and speed? Bah. You can learn about dynamics and tempo. And also 
melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, tunings, the feel of a string 
vibrating under your finger, and how differences between your skin and 
fingernails change the sound.

Even a pair of rocks would be an improvement. In addition to your basic 
speed and volume, you can explore rhythm, phrasing, swing, and timbre. 
And you'll have way more fun knocking them together than you will 
waving this black plastic cigar-thingy around.

Say, I should contact some of these museums and offer them a couple of 
rocks. I could cut them a sweet deal.

Anyone else noticing that the marketing of this hi-tech junk is even 
more vacuous than your average corporate drivel?

Next to the canned orchestra is the Intel pavilion, festively adorned 
with banners proclaiming that "In the future, you will not have to 
learn about technology. Technology will learn about you."

"Technology will learn about me?" I ask the Intel rep.

"Yes," he beams.

"Sounds like a nightmare," I answer. There is one of those awkward 

"Yes, there is an element of that," he answers, smile still frozen in 

Next stop: the KBOT by Human Emulation Robotics. KBOTs are somewhat 
lifelike looking heads covered with a stretchy, skin-like material and 
filled with little motors and chips. They are capable of making 
human-like expressions. Think the next-generation of Disneyland's 
Pirates of the Caribbean. The display placard informs us that the 
applications of this technology include "Advertising and Marketing" and 
"High End Toys."

In fact, many of the informational placards the exhibits sport announce 
the technologies' usefulness for "Advertising and Marketing" and "High 
End Toys." (Of course, if the You're the Conductor placard had been 
accurate, the "Applications" field would have read "None.") The other 
common applications are "Military" and "Security." War and play, 
marketing and security, it is getting hard to keep things straight 
these days.

Still pondering the subtle divide between war and fun, I head to the 
"Future of Security" section of the festival. Interesting place, this ? 
except there is nothing here that will make anyone more secure. Quite 
the contrary, in fact.

Most interesting is the kiosk from Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, 
because these guys have some serious stuff to exhibit. "Brain 
fingerprinting can detect whether specific information is stored in a 
person's brain." Brain fingerprinters can show you a series of objects, 
and by monitoring your brain, they can tell which of them you have seen 
before. Kind of like interrogation, but without any questions. 
Americans are going to love this, because torture is not required. None 
of that old-fashioned "Are you gonna talk?" stuff. They don't even need 
you to open your mouth. As long as they can keep your eyes open, they 
can tell what you know.

I'm feeling more secure already.

But the piece de resistance of The Future of Security is the kiosk from 
the US Army, displaying their Future Force Warrior.

Future Force Warrior notional concepts seek to create a lightweight, 
overwhelmingly lethal, fully integrated individual combat system, 
including weapon, head-to-toe individual protection, netted 
communications, soldier worn power sources, and enhanced human 
performance. The program is aimed at providing unsurpassed individual & 
squad lethality, survivability, communications, and responsiveness ? a 
formidable warrior in an invincible team.

Lethality Vision: FFW family of lightweight weapons with advanced fire 
control, optimized for urban combat, and synchronized direct and 
indirect fires from Future Combat System.

Survivability Vision: Ultra-Lightweight, Low Bulk, Multi-Functional, 
Full Spectrum Protective Combat Ensemble.

Sensors & Communications (C4ISR) Vision: Netted FFW small unit/teams 
with robust team communications, state-of-the-art distributed and fused 
sensors, organic tactical intelligence collection assets, enhanced 
situational understanding, embedded training, on-the-move planning, and 
linkage to other force assets.

Power Vision: 72-hour continuous autonomous team operations, high 
density, low weight/volume, self-generating/re-generating, reliable, 
safe power source/system.

Mobility Sustainability and Human Performance: Unconstrained vertical 
and lateral movement at full up combat/assault capability during 
mission execution. Optimized cognitive and physical fightability, 
on-board physiological/medical sensor suite with enhanced prompt 
casualty care.

Hey, I'm feeling secure.

On the lighter side, literally, is the Adidas "Smart Shoe." This is a 
sneaker with a built-in computer that monitors the wearer's stride and 
drives a tiny screw and cable system that adjusts the heel cushion 
depending on the signals sent back by an electric sensor coupled to a 
magnet. I'm not kidding. You can't make stuff like this up. But don't 
take it from me: For $250 these digital shoes can be yours.

Finally, I stop by the car displays. Both GM and GE are on hand, 
showing hydrogen fuel cell car prototypes. They look really cool. They 
have very futuristic lines. Their motors are integrated into their 
chassis. They are the stars of the whole show. The only problem is that 
they are a hoax.

Well, not precisely a hoax, but something close. The only byproduct 
that hydrogen fuel cells generate is water. Nice clean water coming out 
of the tailpipe. Hooray!

The problem is where to get the hydrogen. It doesn't exist by itself 
naturally. It has be to be extracted from other things. This could be 
done in a very dirty way, say, with a coal-fired plant, or it could be 
done with, um... some cleaner technology that does not yet exist. Fuel 
cell cars do not solve the pollution problem, they move it from the 
powering of the car to the manufacture of the fuel.

There were no hydrogen extraction technologies on display at the 

GE not only showed its fuel cell tech, but was actually the sponsor of 
the whole event. "We are especially delighted that GE is the Presenting 
Sponsor of WIRED NextFest," announce Wired Magazine's Editor-in-Chief 
and Publisher on the first page on the festival guide.

GE. Now that rings a bell. Isn't that the same company that San 
Francisco film maker Debra Chasnoff won an Oscar for skewering in her 
film Boycott GE?

And you thought southern California culture was superficial and 
dominated by big corporations. You're living in the past. You are going 
to have to catch up. Fortunately, Wired has a wonderful future to share 
with you.

Bob Ostertag is an electronic music composer.

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