A peek into the future


Of all the predictions made during the future-happy 1950s -- when it was declared we’d soon have flying cars, robot butlers, rocket-delivered mail and food made from wood pulp -- there was one forward-looking statement that was completely validated.

It was delivered by Criswell, a self-described soothsayer and TV personality, who said, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Otherwise, predicting the future, certainly in the realm of technology, is a risky endeavor.


Still, billions of dollars are spent every year in trying to do just that: predict which products will spark new businesses or even whole new industries.

Here’s a look at proposed technological wonders that are under development in the fields of energy, transportation, television and medicine. Some are far enough along to be aimed at the near term, others are more in the pipe-dream category, but all are serious enough to be funded by corporate, government or academic dollars.

Keep in mind, however, that the most important new technologies for the coming decades might not even have been thought of yet. After all, 1950s futurists didn’t foresee the biggest game changer of our era -- the Internet. It’s where so many of us are spending much of our lives.



* Smart meters: Global warming and volatile energy prices have spurred development of digital meters that provide real-time reports of energy usage. They’re already in use in some parts of the country.

This year, Southern California Edison Co. will begin installing 5.3 million of them for all its residential and small-business customers. The cost: $1.63 billion, to be offset by a 1.5% rate increase until implementation is complete in 2012.

Once they’re in place, consumers will be able to monitor their electricity use via the Internet.

Next up: remote-controlled thermostats and appliances. That can happen as soon as manufacturers agree to a single standard for the control chips, according to Paul Moreno of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which is installing 9.8 million smart meters in Northern California.

* Wireless electricity: Electricity that travels through the air to power lights, computers and other devices sounds like one of those 1950s-style fantasies. But WiTricity Corp., a company spun off from research at MIT, says it’s time to cut the cord. Wireless electricity products using its technology will be available by 2011.

Funded by $5 million from Stata Venture Partners and Argonaut Private Equity, the company has developed a system based on a technology already used in transformers (such as the block-shaped thing on your cellphone charger).

In transformers, power jumps across a tiny gap between two coils. The scientists increased that distance between coils to as much as 7 feet by having them both resonate at the same frequency.

The energy that travels between them is in the form of a magnetic resonance that’s harmless to living beings, WiTricity Chief Executive Eric Giler said.

“To the magnetic field,” Giler said, “you look like air.”

One of the main obstacles will be skepticism about safety. When a post about WiTricity appeared on the technology blog, a reader who wears a pacemaker said she’d never get close to one, and a man writing from Japan wondered whether the system might “nuke someone by mistake.”



* Ground: Cars are getting smarter. We drivers remain, well, about as smart as we ever were.

Researchers are pushing to provide drivers with better, faster information to avoid crashes and speed traffic flow.

One major effort is dubbed IntelliDrive. Funded by the federal government and major automobile manufacturers, and overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the program will begin tests of a traffic warning system in San Francisco next month.

Participating drivers will receive signals on their cellphones alerting them to bottlenecks approximately 60 seconds ahead. The phone will say, “Slow traffic ahead” through its speaker phone or headset, and a message will appear on its screen.

“We call it situational awareness,” said Jim Misener, executive director of California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways. “It’s not for braking hard but for warning you in advance.”

The operators of the program will use traffic information from several existing sources, including Caltrans, and crunch it to provide the real-time warnings. Only cellphones using Windows-based operating systems will be able to download the software to take part in the test -- which leaves out iPhones and BlackBerrys, among others.

A video showing how it works is at www.intellidrive

The ultimate goal is a dashboard warning system, fed by sensors in cars and along highways, to alert drivers of potential hazards all around them, including blind spots.

Far more radical programs take at least some control of cars away from drivers. The proposed RUF system based in Denmark is called a dual-mode program because a vehicle incorporating its design can be driven like a regular car or joined to a mass transit system reminiscent of kids’ slot-car toys.

In that system, elevated monorail-style tracks would be built alongside major freeways, but instead of carrying trains, they’d ferry cars. Motorists would drive onto the tracks that fit into slots cut into the bottoms of their cars. That’s when the automated system takes over, whisking the vehicles in single file as if they were on a fast-moving conveyor belt.

The RUF system’s name comes from a Danish expression denoting fast movement. But in an investment brochure aimed at English speakers, inventor Palle Jensen said it could also stand for Rapid Urban Flexible.

No matter what the name, RUF would be a difficult sell to a city government. A study on building the system infrastructure in Los Angeles estimated the cost would be $10 billion. The proposed system can be viewed at

* Commercial aviation: NASA allocated $12.4 million in research grants last year to Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and others to develop so-called N+3 concepts -- proposed aircraft designs for three generations, aeronautically speaking, in the future. That would put them into operation in the 2030-35 period.

Instead of focusing on building bigger, faster commercial jets, most of these efforts are aimed at designing aircraft that will be quieter, less polluting and more fuel efficient.

One NASA-funded project, which is experimenting with natural gas as fuel, is designing an aircraft that will fly at speeds approximately 10% slower than current norms.

Other projects are looking at biofuels. Earlier this year, Continental Airlines Inc. powered a test flight in part with a blend of fuel derived from algae and the jatropha weed.

* Space elevator: What if you could get to the final frontier by simply pressing an “Up” button?

It’s in the gee-whiz category of future tech, but two university research groups have done work that could lead to elevators stretching from Earth to the edge of space.

At the University of Cambridge, scientists are developing carbon-based fibers far stronger than anything on the market. A practical use would be for lightweight bulletproof vests.

But some dreamers say it’s so strong, it could be used to make the ultimate elevator.

Meanwhile, a group at York University in Toronto says a better way to go is an inflatable tower, 9 miles high, made of already available materials filled with helium and other gases. The York team built a 2,000:1 scale model in a stairwell.

So why an elevator?

Because launching a vehicle from terra firma, as we now do it, is tremendously expensive and requires massive amounts of energy. An elevator would eliminate that step by delivering humans and materials to the edge of space, where the pull of gravity is far weaker. Waiting spaceships could then take over for the second leg of the journey.

Let’s just hope the arrival and departure announcement system at this transport station in the sky would be better than at most bus stations. A years-long flight to Neptune would be no fun if you meant to instead take the red-eye to Mars.



* 3-D TV: Plenty of experiments have been staged in presenting television programming in 3-D, but they’ve been novelties.

Manufacturers hope that high-definition imagery and electronic shutter glasses will make 3-D palatable enough to make it a regular part of viewing. Indeed, in Britain, the satellite-delivered Sky TV service said it would launch an all-3-D channel next year.

But is the average person ready to don dorky glasses to watch TV (without them, the 3-D picture is just a blur)? Especially when said glasses, even if digital, can bring on feelings akin to seasickness?

That’s what happened when Panasonic Corp. showed off its new 3-D system at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. Hopefully the nausea problem will be solved before the product makes it into homes.

* Laser plasma: Using a powerful, pulsed laser, Burton Inc. in Japan has made a projector that produces 3-D images that hang in the air. So far, it can show only points of light that can be combined to spell out letters or make a geometric pattern, and glasses are needed to view them.

But Burton Chief Executive Hidei Kimura said the company hopes to soon demonstrate “real 3-D images inside of the closed space covered by [a] glass dome.”

* Touchable holograms: This is real “Star Trek” territory.

At the Siggraph trade show in New Orleans in August, a University of Tokyo research group demonstrated holographic images that could be touched. Sort of.

The images were made, as with all holograms, of light. But as you reached in to touch them, an electronic tracking system (adapted from a Wii game controller) and ultrasound generator worked together to provide a tactile sensation where the object appeared.

A demonstration is at

One of the most clever demonstrations involved holograms of raindrops that participants could feel dropping on their hands.

It has been often noted that the porn industry drives a lot of the innovation in high-tech entertainment. No more need be said about what one day it could do with this.



* Robot instruments: At the University of Nebraska, doctors Dmitry Oleynikov and Shane Farritor developed a set of surgery instruments so small, they can be inserted into the body and then remote-controlled from outside.

Oleynikov is used to the comparisons to the sci-fi movie “Fantastic Voyage,” in which a team of doctors gets miniaturized to go inside a patient.

“Except with us,” Oleynikov said, “the surgeon does not get shrunk.”

One use, he said, would be to send an instrument through a patient’s mouth and down the esophagus to make a small hole in the stomach. From there it could remove the gallbladder or appendix. Light could be provided by a second mini-robot.

The idea is to make surgery far less invasive.

The researchers have raised $1 million so far. They’re looking to raise about $10 million more to fund greater miniaturization and refinements to get the instruments ready for human trials.

* Nanosurgery: If this works, it could revolutionize the practice of medicine.

The idea is to be able to practice surgery so precisely that a cell or even molecule could be repaired or manipulated.

It’s not a new idea. In 1959, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman suggested that tools be used to make smaller tools, and then those tools used to make yet smaller tools and so forth.

Eventually, tools would be created so small, they could target individual diseased cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

Dreamers of the future have imagined that this could lead to triumphing over a foe as horrific as cancer.

And that would be a whole lot better than any flying car.




Countdown to the future

Some technologies mentioned here will have no real future; others could pan out. Here are dates developers are shooting for.

* Wireless electricity first products: 2011

* Surgical mini-robot tests on humans: 2011

* IntelliDrive initial tests complete: 2013

* N+3 commercial aircraft join fleets: 2035

* Space elevator: No date. Volunteer testers could be tough to find.