The normal future: Tomorrow is never as futuristic as we want it to be


How often do technologies that we once thought of as futuristic quickly become normal and boring? We look at how our perceptions will shape the developments of 2015.

Now it is 2015 we are officially be living in the future, at least by the standards of our childhood selves watching Back to the Future.

Here in the future, we have some pretty cool stuff. We can talk to almost anyone on Earth via a video connection that allows us to look them in the eye as we have a conversation.

We can select and download almost any book ever published more-or-less instantly, on a device small enough to fit in our pocket. We can also play games with graphics that at times look almost better than reality, in which we can team up with or take on players from around the globe.

And this is just a small selection. I haven’t even begun to mention the host of health and transport improvements we’ve seen.


Where’s the futuristic wonder?

Despite a lot of the technologies we have being so significant in our lives, we rarely seem to get that sense of wonder about the reality we find ourselves in.

We ride to work in our hybrid car or our underground train, armed with satellite-supported GPS or a tablet the thickness of a premium chocolate bar, and we consider our lives dull.


Even things that initially seem wondrous quickly lose their sheen.

When the iPad first came out it was such an exciting new product that when a friend got it on launch day a group of us took turns to hold it in hushed silence.

Now the iPad in question is dented and forgotten in a drawer and its slimmer grandchild, the iPad Air 2, is just another piece of tech.


Constant technological change

As a generation, we are pretty used to change. Growing up we saw the internet morph from the slow mishmash of enthusiast pages, dancing hamsters and pictures of Sesame Street’s Bert in the company of some of history’s most evil people into the multifaceted wonder it is now.

More importantly, we’ve seen a transformation in skills and knowledge. They used to be things you could only acquire if you happened to have access to the right people or resources, but now you only need the internet, time and bit of commitment to become a pro at almost anything.

These are impressive developments. They represent a future that is not simply a case of the same world in a shinier, more neon finish, but one that has seen a fundamental change in the way people learn and develop.

But instead of focusing on this progress, we bemoan the lack of jetpack or flying car to take us to work, and the fact we aren’t living on a space colony yet.


Context: Why the future is never futuristic enough

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons incredible technologies quickly feel normal is the context in which they exist. Successful tech quickly finds a place in our lives, shaping our realities around it.

It becomes so normal that in some cases, such as with the internet, life as we know it could not exist without it. In this process, it also becomes varied and imperfect. The version you have is slow, it’s buggy, it has an ugly interface. There are better models available, but you just can’t afford them right now.

However, when we think about technologies that could be developed in the future, they feel shiny and exciting because we are thinking about them away from their context, and in their most perfect form. An article about the future is unlikely to focus on the totally uncool, ugly model of driverless car any more than it is going to consider the surveillance tech that develops problems in the rain.


On to 2015

With 2015 upon us, we are seeing technologies that are incredibly impressive, yet somewhat disappointing because they fail to meet up to some fantasy vision. Hendo’s hoverboard, for instance, is remarkable, yet many have spent their time complaining that it would only work on a special surface and is too thick.

Similarly, incremental changes are met with indifference. They aren’t the big, wonderful shiny future so they don’t get people excited.


There are many things that will be developed or discovered over the next year that will change lives, and many of them will receive barely a flicker of recognition from the digital masses. The future is never as shiny and perfect when you get there than it seemed from afar.

But try stopping for a moment and really taking stock, because there’s far more that’s futuristic in your life than you might initially realise.

Images courtesy of Trey Ratcliffe.

The future fracturing of the internet: How access will define the web of tomorrow

The future of the web is a system that is completely different depending on the method of access, to the point where many will think of it as several completely different things, thanks to the future evolution of technologies such as virtual reality.

When the World Wide Web launched a quarter of a century ago, it was accessed on hulking desktop computers in university labs and the homes of the wealthy but nerdy.

Over time this spread, first to more affordable computers and then to laptops and palmtops, and finally on to smartphones and tablets.  Now we expect to be able to access the web in some form from almost every electronic device we own, including TVs, smartwatches, music players and more.

The abilities that the internet has given us have made us almost superhuman. We can find the answer to almost any question in moments, and learn almost any skill just through online resources.

In some countries the internet is now even regarded as a human right, something so important that it would be abhorrent to prevent people from accessing it.


Evolving the web

The internet as we know it know is just a step on the road to what it will become. Just as it has moved far beyond the first web page, so will it continue to change and grow as technology allows.

Most interesting, however, will be the fact that it will evolve to become several different forms of internet, depending on the method of access.

We are already starting to see the embryo of this at present.

CSS3 mobile queries have enabled websites to appear differently depending on the device they are accessed from. While for most websites this just means a simplified version for smartphones, some have gone to greater extremes by tailoring content and in some cases serving completely different designs to suit the audience.

But this is nothing on what we are going to see in the future.

At present, while we might get different sites depending on whether we log on with a tablet or a desktop, we are always accessing the information in basically the same way.

However, our future selves might be accessing the internet through a number of different means, which require the information to be displayed in ways that are virtually incompatible.


Virtual reality and the future of the internet

While some of these technologies are yet to be invented, there are a few that look likely to grow in use and dominance.

The most prominent of these is virtual reality. Oculus Rift is nearing consumer-readiness, and tech giants such as Sony have finally started to wade into the VR pool.

For most, VR is about gaming, but there is also a movement to make it work on the web.

For anyone who has dreamed about a fully immersive internet such as the one portrayed in the Futurama episode A Bicyclops Built for Two, the prospect is very exciting.

The leading work in this area is a project called Janus VR, which is an internet browser developed specifically for the Oculus Rift.

In its most basic form, Janus VR reinterprets the web as 3D spaces, with links as doors and images as pictures on a virtual wall. However, inventor James McCrae has also added Janus-specific code that web designers can add to any site they build.

Users browsing from regular computers won’t see any effects of the code, but if you visit the site with a Rift you could be met with a full 3D world, complete with interactive elements. Other users can even meet you there and communicate over voice or text.

Janus VR is very much in its infancy, buts its potential is obvious and support is growing. Before long it could become a common browsing method with its own set of standards, completely separate from those used for the traditional web.

Hearing the web through virtual assistants

The projected rise of virtual assistants – starting with today’s technologies such as Apple’s Siri and Google Now – also present a possible alternative version of the web.

Chris Brauer, co-director of CAST at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently said that virtual assistants (VAs) would in the future be our primary access point to the web.

We would ask questions of our own personal VAs, who would provide us with answers through their own web searches.

If VAs become this common, web design – or at least a part of it – but undoubtedly evolve to match.

Just as web design trends have closely followed the best approaches to getting a high Google ranking, the web’s content could be increasingly presented in a manner meant for virtual assistants, not humans, to access.

Given that some of us will still wish to access the web through traditional means, this information is likely to end up in its own separate space – a section of the internet only accessible by VAs just as the VR web is only viewable on a VR-compatible browser.


The internet’s fractured future

Undoubtedly there will be other means of access that require different versions of the web for their own suiting, brought about by new developments in technology that are barely ideas at present.

All of this will result in an internet with many faces – although it will all be one system, the code for each access type will be unreadable by the others.

As a result the internet as we use it on different devices will be so radically different that non-techy users will think of it a several completely separate things.

The internet as we know it will be one of several, and may even fade into obscurity as other access methods become more popular.

Featured image courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin. Second inline image: screenshot from Futurama S2E13. Third inline image courtesy of Martin Deutsch.