2002’s Visions From the Future

2002’s Visions From the Future
Image: Gizmodo/Getty, Getty Images

In the future, you’ll be able to inhabit a virtual world, meeting up with friends to chat and lounge around with an avatar you’ve created yourself. This virtual “you” will be customisable and there will be no limits to this amazing world. It all sounds a bit like the future companies like Meta have in mind here in 2022. But it’s also what was being sold as “the future” when Gizmodo was first founded 20 years ago.

We’ve been publishing Gizmodo since the site was founded in the summer of 2002. And we’ve seen the rise and fall of countless technologies. Many of those technologies were mere promises of the future. And they frequently didn’t turn out quite the way they were initially envisioned. But some of the predictions were incredibly accurate.

To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we’re taking a look at visions from 2002.

Face Computer

Photo: Getty Images, Getty ImagesPhoto: Getty Images, Getty Images

If you happened to visit the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 2002, you may have spotted a “consumer wearable” device made by a company called Xybernaut that included a pocket computer, tethered hand switch, and a head-mounted display. Dubbed the Poma, the device retailed for $US1,499 ($2,081), but never found its way into mainstream success.

Users could access “pocket” versions of Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and even a version of Microsoft Word — though we imagine navigating any of it was incredibly difficult with that tethered remote.

What happened to Xybernaut? The founders, Edward and Steven Newman, were investigated by the SEC in 2005 for a ton of illegal shit, including keeping the company’s board in the dark about large sums of money and trying to interfere with audits. The two were forced to resign shortly after that and were indicted for money laundering and securities fraud in 2007.

The GRACE Robot

Brennan Sellner (R) and Dani Goldberg, students at Carnegie Mellon  University, watch GRACE, a prototype mobile robot, as it moves down a  hall July 15, 2002 at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon  University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Chris Hondros, Getty Images)Brennan Sellner (R) and Dani Goldberg, students at Carnegie Mellon University, watch GRACE, a prototype mobile robot, as it moves down a hall July 15, 2002 at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Chris Hondros, Getty Images)

Humans have been waiting for a robot servant for over a century now. But even with the developments in robotics of the 1980s and ‘90s, they were still just a dream. By the early 2000s, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University invented a robot called GRACE that was going to revolutionise the way humans interacted with our robot pals. But it’s still ridiculously primitive from the perspective of 2022.

The August 1, 2002 edition of the Edmonton Journal included a story about this robot from the future, and it wasn’t very humanoid yet. But that was the entire goal. The robot, as you can see above, could move around and had basic vision capabilities. And a cartoon face was staring back at you in an effort to make humans feel at ease.

“In the future, robots will be there to work with us and we need to be able to interact with them normally,” one of the robotic researchers told the Edmonton Journal.

“Think of a firefighter who sends a robot into a burning building. He is worried about saving lives and doesn’t want to be worried about how to make the robot do what it’s supposed to.”

When this reporter visited the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015, he saw plenty of people talking about similar challenges. In fact, whenever the U.S. military is conducting this type of robotics research, the use case presented is almost always saving someone’s life in disaster scenarios. But we know what real the end goal is with these things. It’s not to bring you a Pepsi. It’s world domination.

Second Life

Screenshot: Linden Labs / Wayback Machine, Fair UseScreenshot: Linden Labs / Wayback Machine, Fair Use

If you were flipping through the November 18, 2002 issue of Time magazine at the dentist’s office, you would’ve seen a lot of visions for the future. There were the coolest inventions of the year, according to Time, including a “small” 3.5 megapixel camera that “will produce images as clear as today’s 7MP models.” There was also a short blurb about something called Second Life.

From Time magazine:

Ever want to build a cathedral? Underwater? Change your clothes, your face, your whole body? Fly? You can’t do any of that stuff in real life, but you can do it all and more in Second Life, a startlingly lifelike 3-D virtual world now evolving on the Internet. Unlike other shared online adventures, Second Life isn’t about slaying monsters or zapping aliens. It’s about building things, meeting people and expressing yourself. Even if you already have a life, you may want a second one.

The elevator pitch for Second Life sounds nearly identical to the pitch Meta, the company previously known as Facebook, is currently making for its own metaverse. But just how much success will Meta find? That part remains to be seen.

The Sims

Screenshot: Time magazine / EA GamesScreenshot: Time magazine / EA Games

But Second Life wasn’t the only game in town when it came to living online. The November 25, 2002 issue of Time magazine included an article called Sim Nation, about the video game The Sims getting online capabilities. And the way Time talked about concerns surrounding online communities was accidentally prescient.

From Time magazine:

The Sims Online is a new virtual frontier. Is a video game just what this divided nation needs?

[…]

Next month, when video-game titan Electronic Arts launches The Sims Online, it will become something more than a game. Using the Internet, The Sims Online will enable millions of individual Sims to live, work and hang out together in a shared virtual world very much like our own. Result: a daring collective social experiment that could tell us some interesting things about who we are as a country. We’re about to witness the birth of Simulation Nation.

What were Americans so polarised about in the fall of 2002? The Iraq War, which the George W. Bush administration was laying the groundwork for. Between 52-59% of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, according to Pew Research, while between 35-43% opposed. Bombs would start falling on Baghdad in March of 2003 and anywhere from 1 million to 2.4 million Iraqis died as a result of the war.

Needless to say, the U.S. is just as polarised today, with a truly unhinged Supreme Court gutting hard-won human rights that have been tremendously popular in the past 50 years. And social media is just as polarised, even if we’re not necessarily living in an alternate reality that looks like The Sims or Second Life.

Robot Dog

2002’s Visions From the Future

Robotic pets have been a vision of the future for longer than you can probably guess. But most iterations have been pretty disappointing, to say the least.

This robotic “guard dog,” was released by Japan’s Sanyo Electric and was supposed to cost about $US750 ($1,041) U.S. at the time, or roughly $US1,200 ($1,666) adjusted for inflation. But this dog, just like the robotic pets of the 2020s, aren’t putting flesh-and-blood pooches out of work anytime soon.

Drones

US Marines salute near a Northrop Grumman RQ-8A Fire Scout prototype  unmanned helicopter during the playing of the National Anthem at the 7th  annual Marine West 2002 Military Exposition, January 16, 2002, at Camp  Pendleton, CA (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)US Marines salute near a Northrop Grumman RQ-8A Fire Scout prototype unmanned helicopter during the playing of the National Anthem at the 7th annual Marine West 2002 Military Exposition, January 16, 2002, at Camp Pendleton, CA (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

Uncrewed aircraft, commonly called drones, have been in use in some fashion or another for decades. Surveillance drones were used in the 1970s during the Vietnam War and were even brought home to the U.S. after the conflict to help monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.

But it wasn’t until the early 2000s and the so-called War on Terror that development of weaponised drones really took off. The photo above shows off the Northrop Grumman RQ-8A Fire Scout, a drone developed for the Marines.

Predictions From Kids

Screenshot: Newspapers.comScreenshot: Newspapers.com

Kids don’t necessarily have the most accurate vision for the future. But they generally have the most interesting. Whether it’s the 1970s or the 1990s, kids often reflect the greatest hopes and darkest fears of any given generation’s look at tomorrow. In the 1970s, it was robot presidents and pollution. In the 1990s, it was hover cars and computerised desks.

But what did the kids of 2002 imagine for the future? The January 22, 2002 issue of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times published the predictions of kids and they’re a fascinating snapshot of the generation.

Some excerpts from the kids:

  • “Homes will be similar to ours now except the alarm system will be a robotic microchip.”
  • “Museums will have big collections of new dinosaur bones and other bones.”
  • “The music rage will mostly be techno.”
  • “Due to carelessness, 90 per cent of all people will have contracted a sexually transmitted disease in some point in their life.”
  • “Minimum wage will go up to $US8.35 ($12) an hour.”

While museums certainly have big collections of new dinosaur bones, that minimum wage prediction didn’t quite pan out. The federal minimum wage was just $US5.15 ($7) per hour in 2002, roughly $US8.37 ($12) adjusted for inflation. But here in 2022, the federal minimum wage is stuck at $US7.25 ($10), the same as it’s been since 2009.