A Glimpse of Things to Come

What if you could look into a crystal ball and see the future? Well, futurist Syd Mead has no crystal ball, but he does make a living trying to predict what the future could mean for everything from your toaster to the family car. Michele Norris talks with Mead, who helped design the 2019 world of Blade Runner, about what our lives may look like as we head into 2008 and the years beyond.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's only natural today to look ahead to the coming year. But we're going to look a little bit further to the next five, 20, maybe even 50 years. And for help, we brought in Syd Mead. He calls himself a visual futurist. His job, to predict the look and the feel of tomorrow. He's designed everything from future cars to office spaces for corporate clients. But Syd Mead is perhaps best known for his work in the movies. He designed the elaborate science fiction worlds in films such as "Blade Runner," "Aliens" and "Tron." And he says there's a very real science at the center of his crystal ball.

Mr. SYD MEAD (Visual Futurist): I've been designing for corporations for, well, ever since I graduated from Art Center here in Los Angeles in 1959. And I learned a methodology, which is industrial design. And it's a way of analyzing what the problem actually is and then you design to solve it. And that applies across the board, whether it's a movie, or a TV. show, or electronic games -which is lately what I've been involved in - and the real world.

NORRIS: Can I ask you to join me in looking ahead into the future, since we're at the start of a new year? If you could take out that proverbial crystal ball for us and tell us how you think, what you think we might see in the years ahead? And let's begin by talking about transportation, how might that change in the future, both in terms of mass transit and the cars that we drive to and from work or the shopping center.

Mr. MEAD: The future of travel involves getting their either physically or by electronic means of duplication. And as we perfect the whole art of holography, you will find that a lot of human contact, face-to-face, will be accomplished by telemedia, duplicating the person, much like portrayed in "Star Wars" when Princess Leia appears on his little, tiny holographic figure. And it's reality reduced and then recreated at destination, and it's very valid.

NORRIS: We're going to move on in a minute, but first, put a timeline on that. We would expect to see this kind of technology in 10 years? 20 years?

Mr. MEAD: Within 15, I think quite easily. The danger in predicting is that you predict too conservatively. That's been proven throughout technical history.

NORRIS: Let's talk about the home.

Mr. MEAD: The home? I worked on a project for 20th Century Fox, all the bells and whistles of what we think the future home will look like - wall-sized TV. Take "The Jetsons" and just give it a very nice, high-fashioned gloss and you have that vision. The trouble is, how do you treat a wall-sized screen? Do you put something in front of it? Do you have grandma's dining room projected on it when you're not receiving programs? Do you have a jungle? Do you have animals? Do you have a zoo? How do you treat that wall when you're not watching it? And all that's going to be a fashion and a lifestyle consideration when that capacity becomes available. And it's becoming available very quickly.

NORRIS: Mr. Mead, walk us through the home of the future. What it will look like? What will we see that we don't see now?

Mr. MEAD: What we'll see are - will be the elaboration of what we already have. Bill Gates is housed up in Redmond. He is buying the rights to some of the world's best known paintings. So you will rent the picture on your wide-screen or your wall-screen. You'll rent "Pinkie" or "The Blue Boy" or a Degas or a Rubens. And you'll rent that picture on your wall on your screen for a certain length of time, just like cable TV. So the home will recognize who you are. It'll follow you from room to room. If there's one person, two persons in the room, the lights go on. When you leave, the lights go off.

And it'll be a whole environment that is like living with an entity. And if you think that's scary, think how scary just normal street traffic would be to a horse-and-buggy population back in the early 1900s. And the other factor is, the house will become a place where you are - even when you're not there, the house will talk to people, take orders, refurnish the refrigerator, run the household like a major-domo without actually having an employee that does that.

NORRIS: Run the refrigerator? We're getting low on milk? We're getting low on milk?

Mr. MEAD: Yeah. Exactly. You'll have jackets, clothing that the patterns change, shift. The cars coated with coatings that can be electronically adjusted - they're working on that now - either polarization or actual molecular shift in light refraction capabilities. All of these things…

NORRIS: So you can change the color of your car on command?

Mr. MEAD: On command. Mercedes is working on that. All the car companies are working on a polarized or electrically manipulated coating on the car.

NORRIS: What is the now wow product of the future that will change our lives? The, the cell phone of the future. The thing that will absolutely revolutionize the way we live?

Mr. MEAD: I really think that implants will be the next stage. It sounds scary and it probably is, but implants will allow you to have a device which is a bio-mechanical kind of thing, which uses the energy of the heat of your body to run. And you'll have little patches. And these are little biometric little things that attach to your skin. They fall off in four days or whatever they're programmed. And these are your communication device. They interact with your physical state, your blood contents, your pulse rate. Everything goes into a medical profile all the time.

And I think that will be a big advancement in terms of communication, in terms of monitoring health conditions, in terms of contacting and keeping in contact with the world that is out there beyond that wants to know or has to know how you're doing.

NORRIS: And people will accept this. It sounds rather intrusive.

Mr. MEAD: They're already accepting implants, code chips for their pets and starting to accept it for children. Now, that is scary. And it sounds almost, well, fascistic, but the nightmare scenario is that you'll be required to have one, otherwise you can't go to the bank, you can't get money, you can't communicate with the media world unless you have one.

NORRIS: Now, does that excite you or are you a bit spooked by that?

Mr. MEAD: I'm spooked because you should always have the choice to stay home, not go anywhere and be left alone if that's what you want to do. And if that impacts your whole lifestyle, then that's the lifestyle you've chosen. We call them recluses. Oddly enough, a lot of your science fiction writers, Isaac Asimov, who has left us unfortunately, a great mind, he refused to fly. He was afraid. And this is a man who wrote about rocket ships, you know, streaking through the universe at beyond-light speeds to distant galaxies. He never flew. He was afraid to fly.

NORRIS: Syd Mead, it has been a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. MEAD: Very good. It's an honor to be on NPR.

NORRIS: Come back and talk to us again.

Mr. MEAD: I hope so.

NORRIS: Syd Mead is an illustrator, conceptual designer and futurist. He also helped create some of our most famous science fiction film worlds including "Bladerunner," "Aliens" and "TRON."

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