In 1993, AT&T launched a series of “You Will” TV ads, predicting the not-too-distant future. I had long forgotten these ads, but upon seeing them again, I instantly remembered watching them back in 1993. I remember seeing them and thinking of all the concepts as “futuristic”, but not entirely alien, which was the point of the ads.

Here we are, 16 years later, and it’s amazing how many of the technologies showcased in the ads are commonplace in today’s world, and in many cases, incredibly close in implementation details. Let’s look at the claims:

  • “Borrowed a book from thousands of miles away” – Highly available, moderate usage. While Project Gutenberg was started long before the 1993 ad, it paved the way for e-books in the late 90s. Today, you can buy a Kindle, load it with books and take it anywhere, surpassing the ad’s vision of scanned books on a large computer in a central library setting.
  • “Crossed the country without stopping for directions” – Highly available, high usage. This is probably the claim that takes the least interpretation. What is presented in the ad is spot-on identical to today’s in-car GPS navigation devices, from the 3D road interface to the voice turn-by-turn instructions.
  • “Sent someone a fax from the beach” – Highly available, extremely high usage. While the fax concept is dated, the overall concept is in heavy use today. I can whip out my iPhone on the beach and talk to a friend, send someone a letter, a short message, or even announce to the world how awesome it is here in 2009. (No, I didn’t write this from the beach. But I could have!)
  • “Paid a toll without slowing down” – Highly available, moderate usage. Again, the demonstration is close to what we have now, but today’s technology even surpasses that. Many metro areas use systems like FasTrak, where you simply mount a transponder in the car and drive through a special lane. You don’t even have to swipe a card in your car, though you do have to “slow down”, just not stop.
  • “Bought concert tickets from cash machines” – It’s complicated. So, many venues do have ATM-like devices that let you buy tickets, and real ATMs are starting to offer non-bank-related services, but the two concepts haven’t been combined. However, remember this is 1993. Most people aren’t on “The Internet” yet, and just didn’t imagine a global network where you could visit a site like Ticketmaster from your home computer or mobile device and order tickets that way. So today, you can’t order concert tickets from a cash machine, but why bother when you can order concert tickets from your cellphone?
  • “Tucked your baby in from a phone booth” – Highly available, low-moderate usage. What’s this “phone booth” they’re talking about? The concept of a videophone as a hardware device has been talked about for decades. The technology has been around for a long time, but has never entered public adoption. What has been more widely adpoted has been “webcams” over instant messaging networks, allowing for personal video communication. Also, while almost unheard of in the US, in Asia video chat integrated into cellphones are commonplace.
  • “Opened doors with the sound of your voice” – Moderately available, unused according to strict interpretation. While voice recognition is certainly available, I can think of nowhere where it’s been used as a door lock, except in the movies. However, modify the wording a bit, and you’ve got a recent system: With Toyota’s Smart Key System (SKS), I can walk up to my Prius, pull on the door’s handle, a proximity sensor recognizes that the key is in my pocket, and it unlocks automatically for me.
  • “Carried your medical history in your wallet” – Mostly unavailable. While the various bits of technology are available for something like this, privacy and security concerns have killed any sort of global standardization of a system like this. However, we’re starting to get there on the backend. It’s starting to get to the point where your doctor, hospital and pharmacist have access to the same information through their own computer networks.
  • “Attended a meeting in your bare feet” – Highly available, high usage. Business-class videoconferencing and document sharing services such as WebEx are widely used today. And once again, high-speed wireless devices make it even easier to do so from a beach house, as in the example.
  • “Watched the movie you wanted to the minute you wanted to” – Highly available, moderate-high usage. YouTube popularized the idea of video on the Internet, but those are mostly clips, not movies. Netflix’s streaming service can be thanked for that, and the system used in the commercial looks very close to, say, Netflix on an Xbox 360. However, let’s remember a system that predates this by years: on-demand movies over cable. The selection usually isn’t great, but it fits the experience offered by the commercial. This is probably one of the few examples in all of these that evolved without the Internet’s help.
  • “Learned special things from far away places” – Highly available, extremely high usage. Again, the example in the commercial is dated. While universities do offer video-based teaching similar to the example offered in the commercial, the Internet as a whole has itself become a learning tool that has far exceeded the expectations of anyone, even given the research-oriented origins of the Internet.

On a related note, I remember a similar commercial from the 90s, but I don’t remember the company, and it would be nearly impossible to search for. Here’s the setup:

A young, shifty man in a long trenchcoat enters a supermarket. He moves quickly through the lanes, taking items and stuffing them into his coat, constantly looking around. When he’s finished, he heads toward the door, passing through a large arch. The arch beeps as he walks through it, and a security guard stops him. “Excuse me,” says the guard. The man looks around nervously. “You forgot your receipt,” says the guard as he hands the man a slip of paper that came out of the arch. The man walks out of the supermarket.

That is what RFID was supposed to have done. The technology is here, but again, concerns about privacy have made the idea very unpopular at the consumer level.