Tomorrow's world: The gizmos about to change the way we live
Sleeping in nap pods at work, multimedia books, 3D gaming, MPs at our beck and call –and exercise that's actually fun. Whatever next?
Sunday 25 October 2009
The future of architecture
The imagined architecture of the future is a popular cinematic backdrop. And it's not always pretty. Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, with their dizzying skyscrapers, teetering above decaying ground-level cities, send a shiver down the spine. Metropolis, despite a clever, many layered road system weaving through buildings (far superior to the primitive M25) is bleak. Minority Report has terrifyingly interactive shopping malls (Tom Cruise is harassed in one by bullying personalised adverts). Gotham City at least has the Batmobile to cheer things up, while the house in Sleeper has stylish curves – and an orgasmatron.
But are any of them anywhere near the reality of what's to come? There's both good news and bad. Height and curves are definitely in, and while intrusive interactivity will reach a whole new level, there are also gadgets (almost) as brilliant as the orgasmatron in store...
Asked which technology was recently described as "the biggest influence on architecture for a century", one might imagine some sophisticated design software; perhaps a ground-breaking building material... but you'd be wrong. According to experts, wireless communication – our laptops, BlackBerries and iPhones, and the flexible working they allow – is where it's at. "By the year 2020," believes Clive Wilkinson, the architect behind Googleplex, Google's architecturally revolutionary HQ in Los Angeles, "all offices will be considerably different to how they conventionally look now. They'll be more like business lounges in airports, and domestic life and recreation will enter the workplace more."
Proving that wacky work spaces are no longer the preserve of Nathan Barley-esque media enterprises, Wilkinson's Googleplex – arguably a template for the workplace of the future – is a "campus" rather than an office, awash with vibrant colours, pool tables, computer-games rooms, a lap pool on the roof and even staff "nap pods" (the next best thing to the orgasmatron, these sci-fi shaped sleep capsules – pictured opposite – are just as mad-looking). Employees are encouraged to bring in their dogs, there are free restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs, free bicycle hire to get about the place and, inside, scooters for haring up and down corridors. Wilkinson particularly likes the "acoustic tents" – padded, portable work stations designed to pop up in shared spaces for privacy.
As more of us opt to work remotely, Wilkinson believes companies will need such treats to tempt us on to the premises. "Businesses are realising that interaction is the key to innovation," he says, and he freely admits that his designs, accordingly, aim to make the office as enticing as possible (though he can't take the credit, he says, for the nap pods).
Lean, mean and green
Solar panels and ground-source heat pumps are already familiar ideas. But they have nothing on what's around the corner for sustainable architecture. France has just produced the world's first energy-positive building (capable of re-using all office emissions, it also includes 330 rooftop solar panels, plus a solar shield to remove excess heat while letting natural light filter in), so who knows how clever things will get in South Korea, where work is under way on a futuristic stadium for the 2014 Asian Games. While full details are still under wraps, one element of the design is that the flexible stadium will cunningly transform into a public park when not in use.
More radical still is an idea that has environmentally minded architects worldwide in a tizz. "Farmscrapers" may become the solution to a bulging population versus diminishing land. Clever hydro- and aeroponic systems mean very little water will be required to grow crops high up in the sky, saving valuable space and resources. Climate change-tastic.
It's all about you
Cybertecture may sound like something plucked from a Matrix script, but it exists – right here, right now. Well, not right here, but there's a lot of it dotted across the Arab Emirates and it's rather popular in Hong Kong, where its pioneer, James Law, is based. According to Law, cybertecture "integrates technology, multimedia, intelligent systems and user interactivity [that would be you, doing things, then] to create customisable living and working spaces", and his company is responsible for fantastical-sounding constructions including Bahrain Bay, a $2.5bn residential, business and leisure development that aims to be "the world's most connected urban community". Best feature? The facility that lets you select your preferred background music in any public space.
Also on the Law roster is the soon-to-be-completed eco-friendly "Cybertecture Egg" in Mumbai – which looks like London's Gherkin might, had it been built in the 22nd century. The 32,000sq m Egg, which will house 13 floors of offices, will include a feature to wirelessly monitor occupants' health as well as allowing them to customise their views with real-time virtual scenery from anywhere in the world.
But for the ultimate cybertecture pin-up, it has to be Dubai's 23-storey iPad residential tower – an extraordinary looking iPod effigy due to open next year. Apartments come complete with media Jacuzzi (underwater entertainment), iArt (no need to own that Picasso/Matisse/Banksy, just download and project) and iRotation (sick of the view? Move the room).
Yet, despite such futuristic fabulousness, the iPad sounds almost out of date even before its first tenants moved in. It was designed before the launch of the now ubiquitous iPhone – and you can't help thinking that "iHome" would have sounded a tad more, well, modern...
The future of books
Right at the end of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, the author makes a knowing aside to her fashionable readers – the Regency equivalent of early adopters. "The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine... can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity."
There are those who base their objections to electronic books on their lack, in their sad, plastic way, of that tell-tale compression of pages that is so thrilling to the fatally immersed. There are those who state the obvious about never reading ebooks in the bath. Still more speak sensuously of the smell of paper and print, those lovingly battered spines and the faint impression of a beloved dedication written in a long-forgotten hand. Are these people the modern equivalent of the barking old men who once decried the new-fangled "novel"? Or are we hastening together towards the end of all books?
When Amazon started shipping its Kindle to the UK earlier this month, it joined a packed market of electronic book readers. Time will tell whether the magical, wireless $279 device (download a book out of thin air in less than a minute), will replace the Sony Reader as the new favourite. In a pre-emptive strike, Sony has just launched two new versions: the Touch Edition, £249.99 in black and £229.99 in silver; and the Pocket Edition, in silver or pink at £159.99. The sexy Cool-er is aiming to take over the lightweight and trendy end of the market, with a choice of eight colours at £189. Then there is the Iliad, which can hold 41,000 books, or 100 tons of documents. And that's not even counting the Apple iPhone, which seems to be able to do just about anything short of tucking you in before reading the book to you.
The publishing industry, not known for its ability to turn on a sixpence, is scrambling to make products that keep up with this kit. And when even libraries drag themselves into the 21st century and start offering downloadable library books (no more late fines – the book just disappears from your e-reader when your time is up), publishing has to step up. When Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year, her publisher Bloomsbury offered it as a free download for 24 hours. The first "pay what you like" ebook was launched shortly after by Faber. Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty was made available six weeks before publication, to download according to "the Radiohead model". Fevered research by the publisher showed that 20 per cent of visitors to the website downloaded the book; 18 per cent of those paid for it; and the average price was £4.53. One person even paid the £14.99 RRP. But, says a spokeswoman, the campaign was more to do with building publicity than actually selling a book.
So, can ebooks ever be more than a gimmick? Random House's Book and Beyond series aims to prove they can. As well as downloadable books, it offers video clips and interviews with authors – such as a reading by Derren Brown with his Tricks of the Mind at £10.33. Unfortunately, most of these files are too big to be downloaded to an e-reader – they have to be viewed on a PC. Profile has recently teamed up with Spotify to stream an audio version of The 50th Law by Robert Greene and Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent). It will, they say, "capture the synergy between the book and 50 Cent's music fan base". Then there are tales of imminent Time Out e-guides, with "enhanced functionality", easy navigation between sections and "clickthrough" to external websites.
A small publisher that can think on its feet is potentially best placed to make the most of this market. So it's interesting that Canongate has thrown in its lot early with Apple. "You can produce straight up e-versions of everything you publish," explains its digital editor, Dan Franklin, "but the iPhone lets you create something more immersive and advanced – and target a new audience." Its e-version of Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro, released in September, synchs with an unabridged audiobook, scored by the author. So a reader can jump off the bus, immersed in reading the text, and switch to an aural version that picks up where the visual one left off.
The superiority of the iPhone in this respect is not lost on industry observers. "We'll look back with fondness at [this first generation of e-readers] in the same way we do now at those huge mobile phones," laughs Tom Tivnan, the features editor of The Bookseller. "Their real potential hasn't been tapped – though the iPhone is close." Franklin agrees that most e-readers have been rushed on to the burgeoning market before the technology is really ready. "Apple just don't have to do that until whatever they have is ready," he says. Rumours of an Apple "Tablet", the next how-did-I-live-without-it piece of tech, are already causing excitement.
So where does this leave the early adopters? Unfortunately, still wrestling with the kit. It took me an afternoon to fight with the technology that was needed to log on to the right websites, download the correct technology, and jump through the hoops that were needed to download my first electronic book onto an e-reader – and once that was completed I still couldn't tell you how it was done. Nor could I repeat the process. Nor would I want to. Which means that, for now, the real benefit of old-school books is not their look, smell or ability to be read in the bath. It is that you can't see your frowning face reflected in paper.
The future of games
There may once have been a time when we all thought the future would mean gleaming surfaces and nanobots brushing our teeth, but those days are surely gone. The future looks grim now. Probably, nothing will gleam at all. There is only one part of it, in fact, which I am at all animated about. This is the computer-gaming part. In this department – at first glance, at least – things are looking up.
One day, likely within half a century, gaming won't mean an acne-plagued teenage boy hammering at an overcomplicated joypad as his unconvincing on-screen avatar gets skewered by an enraged troll. At the very minimum, it will mean ordinary adults and families participating, and utterly mainstream entertainment with the production values that a generation that has grown up with gaming will be bound to expect. If things go well, it could mean a lot more: software almost indistinguishable from reality, portable consoles embedded in sophisticated spectacles, and endlessly variable alternative worlds that demand you press emotional buttons, not plastic ones.
This is all some way off, of course, but there is nothing implausible about the leap forwards required. All of these prospects can be reasonably extrapolated from technologies available now, and 50 years is rather a pessimistic guess at their implementation. Conservative estimates of improvements in computer processor speed has them running 10 times faster in a decade; optimists think they could be going at 100 times their current rate by then. Raymond Kurzweil, the American inventor and futurist, has predicted that by 2029, devices with roughly the same computational power as the human brain will cost about a dollar.
If this all seems like brain-aching stuff, just consider the implications. Gaming systems that are aeons ahead of our current home PCs and consoles will be smaller than a GameBoy. It's quite possible that we won't be watching them on a screen: already, military research is under way into something called a virtual retinal display, which could mean having hyper-realistic graphics downloaded on the fly and projected on to your eyeball from a device held in a pair of funny-looking glasses (and eventually, I like to think, embedded in a particularly grand contact lens). Imagine – you'll never need speak to anyone or read a book on the bus again!
For the seriously impatient, there is plenty to be getting on with. Vuzix's iWear may not be quite as discreet as the futuro-scopes described above, and you have to plug it into your PC, but the principle is the same: a set of goggles that gives the impression of watching a big-screen television, and offers a range of applications in 3D. Over the next year or so, 3D gaming will roll out on a much wider scale, with a rival platform bringing the same sort of technology to console gaming, and, presumably, all kinds of zombies and racing cars into your living-room.
It's quite a thought. 3D has always been a bit of a gimmick, though, and a sense of depth doesn't seem likely to change gaming fundamentally. The glimpse of the near-future that looks likely to have the most profound impact is Microsoft's hotly awaited Project Natal, a motion-control system that compares to the Wii roughly as sign language does to semaphore.
The Nintendo system is a watershed, of course, but it's not terribly sophisticated; it is all too easy to find oneself furiously poking the Wiimote at the telly as someone on-screen casually goes about his entirely unrelated business; Natal will be an altogether subtler, more responsive affair. With this system – an upgrade to the existing Xbox 360 console – no controller is necessary: you just stand in front of the console's video camera, and move in the way your avatar should.
As a technology, this is extraordinary, and as future iterations figure out ever more precise ways of monitoring one's movements, it will only get more jaw-dropping. For the game lover, on the other hand, it's not an unalloyed plus. Microsoft's slogan for the device is "The only experience you need is life experience," and it's plain that the principal reason for Natal's development is the explosion in the non-nerd gaming market that the Wii has brought about: for nerds like myself, though, this is a somewhat chastening development.
After all, a football game where I do the running and kicking myself, is bound, in the end, to be far less sophisticated than one where I press a combination of buttons to get someone on screen to do it for me. If it wasn't, only professional footballers would ever have a chance of winning at it. The demonstrations Microsoft has shown so far might more accurately be called toys than games: you splat paint at a wall, or wave at a little boy who waves back, or bounce balls around in what is basically a glorified version of physical Pong – the oldest, and I would say least interesting, computer game of all.
The likes of Rock Band and DJ Hero, brilliant as they are, point in the same direction, a direction that is, for a cackhanded indoors type like myself, rather distressing: a gaming future where the most popular titles drag you off the couch and force you to actually do something. For you normal folk, suspicious of a multi-buttoned joypad and looking for a familial fun factory, this probably sounds marvellous. To me, a world full of cheerful nuclear units using their bodies to play Space Invaders sounds like a horrific dystopia with no room for any of the geekazoid, blood-spattered adventures that I love the most.
The future of citizenship
We may be told we're living in a digital age full of pixelated possibilities, but when it comes to communicating with those in power, the sum total of my electronic interaction boils down to looking at my council website and working out when they're able to take away my old fridge. Beyond that, I've lodged the occasional parliamentary question, and had a cursory look at what my local MP is up to.
Still, British politicians are now doing their best to foster a commanding web presence, hoping that if they stick themselves in front of a webcam they might seem that little bit more approachable to the electorate. But will such "e-democracy" enable them to amass the groundswell of support that helped President Obama to victory in last year's US elections?
According to a recent report by political research and education charity the Hansard Society, the political establishment remains relative luddites when it comes to new media. It found that 77 per cent of MPs don't use social networking tools, and eight per cent haven't even progressed to email. The electorate, too, have some way to go in moving with the technological times. "If you go into the centre of Liverpool or Glasgow, there's 60-odd per cent of people who don't have [the internet]," says Dr Andy Williamson, Director of the society's eDemocracy Programme.
Dr Williamson believes that the soon-to-be-expected introduction of "real" high-speed broadband connections ("Japan has 100mb to the door and we're struggling to get 2mb") will make people more inclined to interact with politicians online. Meanwhile, as experts envisage, the eventual replacement of traditional desktop computers with all-in-one living- room "hubs", which will combine the functions of a TV and a computer, will make contacting an MP as natural and as easy as flicking on an episode of Question Time.
But if we're not wholly up to speed with e-democracy yet, the lines of communication are certainly opening – often in the most unlikely of quarters. On http://lordsoftheblog.net, you can write to any peer with a question about one of their specialist topics. Indeed, it is one of the only sites in the world where you can write direct to a member of government and get a response, according to Dr Williamson. As a result, non-elected peers are actively combating public perception of them as superfluous to the democratic process, as web traffic to the site has boomed at up to 1,500 unique visitors a day in some cases. (In one recent blog conversation, a reader questioned a recent parliamentary gagging order imposed on a national newspaper; Lord Norton instantly replied that he would raise the question following day in parliament.)
Another pioneering democratic service is www.fixmy street.com. Here, members of the public can report problems in their area such as graffiti, fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour to their local council (a neighbour of mine recently complained that scaffolding on an adjacent house could be used by burglars to gain entry to her house). The latest development to the service is an iPhone application that lets users take a picture of the problem in question and send it in to be dealt with, specifying their location via the phone's GPS.
Of course, the natural endpoint of any e-democratic "revolution" would be the introduction of e-voting systems across local and national politics. The major problem, though, is how susceptible these would be to hacking and corruption.
Then there's the matter of data. For better or worse, the Government has huge repositories of the stuff which could be made available for public use: NHS rating systems, for example, allowing patients to make more informed decisions about what medicines or hospitals to use in their treatment. Indeed, the Government has followed President Obama's lead in this area with the recent launch of http://data.gov.uk, a central repository for data based on its transatlantic cousin. According to Williamson, the online population must master what he calls "digital literacy", particularly the skills needed to research and get involved: "Government creates information, and MPs tell us how they are using the internet [so we know how to contact them]. The new tools are going to be conversational. The real revolution is when you start creating content yourself."
The future of exercise
No more sweating on the cross-trainer or gasping on the treadmill. No more muscle burn or aching limbs. Well, sort of. It's a vision of exercise many of us like to envision, but the bad news is that, for the moment, there is no magic bullet that allows you to simply sit back and relax while getting fit. But the good news is that a new crop of exercise equipment promises to make work-outs more fun and more efficient.
Right now, many of us hit the gym with a vague work-out plan based on the received wisdom that a bit of cardio and a few crunches will keep us in shape. The results can be difficult to quantify – particularly since old-fashioned measurements such as weight make no allowance for specifics such as ratio of muscle to fat – and motivation dips accordingly.
All that will change, however, thanks to tools such as InBody (www.derwenthealthcare.com), a precise body- composition analysis machine that takes just a few minutes to give a detailed statistical picture of what's going on inside you, taking in everything from the fat around your internal organs to water retention and the muscle mass on each limb.
It was with some trepidation that I stepped on to the machine at the Body Clinic in Harrods and gripped the hand-held electrodes, unsure I wanted to see the truth crystallised in figures. As I suspected, my body fat was too high, but the more dangerous, visceral fat around my internal organs was low (obviously a good thing, but hard not to wish I was hiding a little more around my kidneys when in Topshop's changing rooms).
Such information allows you to attack your exercise regime from the right angle. So, for instance, someone with low muscle mass and high body fat can immediately work on building the necessary muscle to enable them to take on a weight-bearing cardio activity such as running.
And once you do start exercising, you can go back for another analysis to see what should be some motivating changes in your stats that won't show on the scales. Local health authorities are apparently snapping up the machine, so expect one to arrive in a public gym near you soon.
Providing similar insight into the body's exercise and nutritional requirements is the Ki armband, a high-precision calorie-counter and pedometer. Developed in America to monitor patients in intensive care or comas, it has just arrived in the UK as an interactive support tool for everyone from serial dieters to professional athletes.
The armband comes with a log-in to the Ki Performance website (www.kiperformance. co.uk), where you create a profile based on your vital statistics, levels of activity and average daily calorie intake. The software tots up the daily calorie deficit or surplus you need to lose or gain your desired amount of weight and the amount and intensity of activity required. Every day you log what you've eaten on the site and plug the armband into your computer to upload your activity data, resulting in an array of charts tracking your progress.
For people, like myself, who work on the Bridget Jones assumption that you burn no calories outside a gym and are therefore prone to doomed-to-failure starvation diets, it's an empowering piece of kit. You see the visual proof that it is perfectly possible to offset the odd treat with incremental lifestyle changes such as extra walking, and it comes with a pocket display unit to keep you updated on your stats.
Another bit of new kit suggests it will be when you actually get to the gym that the fun starts. The Trixter Xdream exercise bike (www.trixter.net) represents the first stage in the merging of proper gym equipment and gaming. Each bike comes with an individual computer screen on which you can log in and select a trail, terrain, bike and, for the less seriously minded, different colour top for your avatar. Sensors in the handlebars, pedals, seat and brakes then allow your progress to be accurately portrayed on screen via your avatar as you navigate the course, with plenty of potential for going off-piste and some nasty-looking falls.
Every user is obliged to start on the beginners' trails, racing against either virtual riders or real-life fellow Xdream-ers, and you have to "win" to progress to the next level, so the more competitive you are, the more intense your work-out is likely to be. The resistance on the pedals and handlebars increases and decreases to mimic an interval training work-out, and at advanced and pro levels your choice of virtual bike will make a big difference to the handling.
I've never been a fan of either exercise bikes or computer games, but it's amazing how much difference a little competition made when I tried the Xdream at The Third Space gym in Soho (www.thethirdspace.com). Despite being far more tiring than a standard gym bike due to the upper body work-out from the weighted handlebars, the graphics are engaging, so that by the time you register the sweat you've worked up, you are (hopefully) celebrating your virtual victory.
Of course, as smug sporty types will tell you, keeping fit requires nothing more than a pair of running shoes – but for those who need a little carrot-and-stick encouragement, technology might have part of the answer. The rest – getting yourself to your nearest Xdream, bothering to upload your Ki statistics – is, as ever, up to you.
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