Connections – looking back at the future

Maybe it’s because of The Jetsons or the 1964 World’s Fair or Disney’s Tomorrowland, but it’s always fun to look back at our past views of the future. What did we get right? What is laughable today?

I had occasion to work on a more serious future-vision project back in the 90s for AT&T. Connections: AT&T’s Vision of the Future was a 1993 corporate image video that was produced as a short film by Century III, then the resident post house at Universal Studios Florida. I was reminded of this a few years ago when someone sent me a link to the Paleo-Future blog. It’s a fun site that talks about all sorts of futuristic concepts, like “where are our flying cars?” Connections became a topic of a series of posts, including links to all sections of the original video.

The genesis of the video was the need to showcase technology, which AT&T had in the lab, in an entertaining way. It was meant to demonstrate the type of daily impact this technology might have in everyday life a few short years down the road. The project was spearheaded by AT&T executive Henry Bassman, who brought the production to Century III. We were ideally suited for this effort, thanks to our post and effects pipeline in sci-fi/fantasy television production (The Adventures of Superboy, Super Force, Swamp Thing, etc.) and our experience in high-value, corporate image projects. Being on the lot gave us access to Universal’s soundstages and working on these series put us together with leading dramatic directors.

One of these directors was Bob Wiemer, who had worked on a number of the episodes at Universal as well as other shows (Star Trek: The Next Generation, SeaQuest, etc.). Bassman, Wiemer and other principals, including cinematographer Glenn Kershaw, ASC, together with the crew at Century III formed the production and post team behind Connections. It was filmed on 35mm and intended to have all the production value of any prime time TV show. I was the online editor and part of the visual effects team on this show.

The goal of Connections was to present a slice-of-life scenario approximately 20 years into the future. Throughout the course of telling the story, key technology was matter-of-factly used. We are not quite at the 20-year mark, but it’s interesting to see where things have actually gone. In the early 90s, many of the showcased technologies were either in their infancy or non-existent. The Internet was young, the Apple Newton was a model PDA and all TV sets were 4×3 CRTs. Looking back at this video, there’s a lot that you’ll recognize as common reality today and a few things you won’t.

Some that are spot-on, include seat-back airplane TVs, monitors that are 16×9 aspect ratio, role-playing/collaborative video games, the use of PDAs in the form of iPhones, iPads and smart phones. In some cases, the technology is close, but didn’t quite evolve the way it was imagined – at least not yet. For example, Connections displayed the use foldable screens on PDAs. Not here yet. It also showed the use of simultaneous translation, complete with image morphing for lipsync and accurate speech-to-text on screen. Only a small part of that’s a reality. Video gamers interact in many role-playing games, even online, but they have yet to reach the level of virtual reality presented.

Nearly all depicted personal electronic devices demonstrate multimedia convergence. PDAs and cell phones merged into a close representation of today’s iPhone or Droid phone. Home and office computers and televisions are networked systems that tie into the same computing and entertainment options. In one scene, the father is able to access the computer from the widescreen TV set in his bedroom.

One big area that has never made it into practice is the way interaction with the computer was presented. The futurists at AT&T believed that the primary future interface with a computer would be via speech. They felt that the operating system would be represented to us by a customizable, personalized avatar. This was based on their extrapolation from actual artificial intelligence research. Think of Jeeves on steroids. Or maybe Microsoft’s Bob.  Well, maybe not. So far, the technology hasn’t made it that far and people don’t seem to want to adopt that type of a solution.

The following are a some examples of showcased technologies from Connections. Click on any frame for an enlarged view.

In the opening scene, the daughter (an anthropologist) is on a return flight from a trip to the Himalayas. She is on an in-flight 3-way call with her fiancé (in France) and a local artisan, who is making a custom rug for their wedding. This scene depicts videophone communications, 16×9 seat-back in-flight monitors with phone, movie and TV capabilities. Note the simultaneous translation with text, speech and image (lipsync) adjustment for all parties in the call.

The father (a city planner) is looking at a potential urban renewal site. He is using a foldable PDA with built-in camera and videophone. The software renders a CAD version of the possible new building to be constructed. His wife calls and appears on screen. Clearly we are very close to this technology today, when you look at iPhone 4, the iPad and Apple’s new FaceTime videophone application.

The son is playing a virtual reality, interactive role-playing game with two friends. Each player is rendered as a character within the game and displayed that way on the other players’ displays. Virtual reality gloves permit the player to interact with virtual objects on the screen. The game is interrupted by a message from mom, which causes the players to morph back into their normal appearance, while the game is on hold.

The mother appears in his visor as a pre-recorded reminder, letting him know it’s time to do his homework. The son exits the game. One of the friends morphs back into her vampire persona as the game resumes.

Mom and dad pick up the daughter at the airport. They go into a public phone area, which is an open-air booth, employing noise-cancelling technology for quiet and privacy in the air terminal. She activates and places the international call (voice identification) to introduce her new fiancé to her parents. This again depicts simultaneous translation and speech-to-text technology.

The mother (a medical professional) is consulting with a client (a teen athlete with a prosthetic leg) and the orthopedic surgeon. They are discussing possible changes to the design of the limb in a 3-way videophone conference call. Her display is the computer screen, which depicts the live feed of the callers, a CAD rendering of the limb design, along with the computer avatars from the doctor’s and her own computer. The avatars provide useful research information, as well as initiate the call at her voice request.

Mother and daughter are picking a wedding dress. The dress shop has the daughter’s electronic body measurements on file and can use these to display an accurate 3-sided, animated visual of how she will look in the various dress designs. She can interactively make design alterations, which are then instantly modified on screen from one look to the next.

In order to actually produce this shot, the actress was simultaneously filmed with three cameras in a black limbo set. These were synced in post and one wardrobe was morphed into another as a visual effect. By filming the one actress with three cameras, her motions in all three angles maintained perfect sync.

The father visits an advanced, experimental school where all students receive standardized instructions from an off-campus subject specialist. The in-classroom teacher assists any students with questions for personalized assistance. Each student has their own display system. Think of online learning mashed up with the iPad and One Laptop Per Child and you’ll get the idea.

I assembled a short video of excerpts from some of these scenes. Click the link to watch it or watch the full video at the Paleo-Future blog.

AT&T ultimately used the Connections short film in numerous venues to demonstrate how they felt their technology would change lives. The film debuted at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as an opener for a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, commemorating its 25th anniversary re-release.

©2010 Oliver Peters