Future Schlock

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 reality.

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 country.

"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 moments.

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

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 NextFest.

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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