Retrotechtacular: The Future’s So Bright, We’re Gonna Need Photochromic Windowpanes

This is a day in the life of the Shaw family in the summer of 1999 as the Philco-Ford Corporation imagined it from the space-age optimism of 1967. It begins with Karen Shaw and her son, James. They’re at the beach, building a sand castle model of their modular, hexagonal house and discussing life. Ominous music plays as they return in flowing caftans to their car, a Ford Seatte-ite XXI with its doors carelessly left open. You might recognize Karen as Marj Dusay, who would later beam aboard the USS Enterprise and remove Spock’s brain.

The father, Mike Shaw, is an astrophysicist working to colonize Mars and to breed giant, hardy peaches in his spare time. He’s played by iconic American game show host Wink Martindale. Oddly enough, Wink’s first gig was hosting a Memphis-based children’s show called Mars Patrol. He went on to fame with classics such as Tic Tac Dough, Card Sharks, Password Plus, and Trivial Pursuit.

Mike calls up some pictures of the parent trees he’s using on a screen that’s connected to the family computer. While many of today’s families have such a device, this beast is almost sentient. We learn throughout the film that it micromanages the family within an inch of their lives by keeping tabs on their physiology, activities, financial matters, and in James’ case, education.

no cheeseburgerThe computer home-schools him two days a week, mostly through a giant flat screen display. Separate consoles give him recorded lectures and test his recall of the material, which is pretty poor. Meanwhile, his mother engages the kitchen console to conjure a tailored menu for the family’s lunch based on their dietary needs and the health records it keeps. She haggles a bit on Mike’s behalf, and the computer goes to work. It selects the frozen portions and runs them through the microwave. Karen’s only job is to transfer the food to plates and pull beverages from dispensers.

After lunch, Karen does some online shopping and Mike grumbles over her purchases and the family’s other expenses from his office. He can check their bank balance, budget, and remaining car payments. Continuing the theme of having a dedicated monitor for each thing, the office has three of them, each seemingly single-purpose. There’s also an electronic post office where he can write a letter to anyone using a stylus on a tablet.

fuel cell hvac

The Shaw’s home is powered by a fuel cell equipped with blinkenlights. It also provides pure water, burns their waste, heats and cools the air, controls humidity, and removes pollen, dust, and bacteria. What it certainly does not do is periodically release a burst of vapor that keeps them calm and docile, occasionally forgetting what year it is or who ground the first telescope.

We don’t want to spoil the whole thing. Watch as Karen uses up her vast amounts of free time throwing pots, and Mike fulfills the computer’s exercise regimen set out for him in a turtleneck for some reason. Bizarre as this film may be, many of the Philco-Ford Corporation’s dreams came true. The analog controls and cordboard-looking switching is amusing, but the idea of chemical vapor cleaning closets is just scary. Bonus: here’s a short video of Walter Cronkite showing off the very same office.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.


39 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Future’s So Bright, We’re Gonna Need Photochromic Windowpanes

    1. Yikes! The music scared the bejesus outta me. Soylent Green, Omega Man, all the doom-ridden views of the future get a look-in here. Poor kid. All he wanted was a brother or sister, or some school friends. Instead his only friend is HAL 9000 and he will end up a serial killer.

  1. A Computerized Communication Console.
    Very interesting to compare a hardware UI driven design concept to a software UI. The CCC had a dedicated console for each function with specialized buttons. Everything required a specific hardware implementation, yet the needs addressed were the same ones we address today. No context sensitive menus, everything is right up front. You need a new screen, go to a different console.
    Too bad nothing has come of that single serving refrigerator concept.
    Also relieved to find out Marj moved on from stealing brains. That was a bit gruesome.

  2. It’s not TOOOOO far off…
    I mean the way we handle food is a bit different. :)
    Mars 1 is in spaceX’s hands.
    Online Learning is happening now with Kahn academy.
    Modular homes are a miss because we need individual artistic beauty.
    The home Computer misses the Cloud revolution, which is really a marketing issue. Since companies like google can sell our data, nobody wants the personal cloud.
    I wish we worked “a few days a week” :)
    Also the idea of your personal incinerator / fusion power source… well that’s a few years off :)

    1. I would pay for a personal cloud, provided it stays personal, which even with non-disclosure agreements can be hacked, especially off-site, so this personal-server home-cloud system they have is very appealing to me.
      Something tells me that I could probably skip a few days of work if I wouldn’t have to pay to blow up wedding parties in Yemen. More options in how we support our society could be a vast improvement for all of us.

  3. I wonder if the separate display for each thing was mainly so that it could be displayed to the public at shows. In the Walter Cronkite demo, the only terminal that displays more than one thing is the weather/stocks one, everything else is just a back-lit single panel, nice and easy to get going at tradeshows and other public demonstrations.

  4. I think we should ask ourselves: If there is anything from this video that we wish we had, what is stopping us from having it?

    The food idea… we have TV Dinners… the issue is that they were marketed so poorly that they are seen as a really LOW class alternative to real food… But are they? I mean some of them I bet arent that bad for you.

    I mean what really kept us from Mars? We could be there today, but not for political cost bickering. If Iran was launching maned missions to Mars, I guarantee you we would be too.

    The medical bed… Scanning for hot spots… I’m not sure if that is medically valid… but if it is, I smell a kickstarter… I mean… we could do a thermal imaging system that maps your body every morning for a few hundred dollars…

    I think one of the biggest differences is that it seems like we work so much more… Think about the fact that when this came out half of our population didn’t work full time… We’ve basically doubled (men and women) the amount of work each family household is doing, but because everyone else did too, noone got any further ahead…

    1. The problem is our present economic systems don’t scale well to reduced labor needs.
      Less work needed to make stuff = “few people earn more + rest out of work”, not “same people work less”.
      This issue will only get worse as time goes on, and sadly, many will blame the tech.

      As for medical scanning beds, I often wondered if you could get an accurate “weightmap” of a body from piezo electric sensors in a huge mesh. Obviously not very accurate, but it would be fascinating too see how peoples weight distribution changes over time.

      1. This is absolutely not the case. Current “High” Unemployment is on the the order of 10%, thus all we need to do to reduce unemployment to zero is work 10% less.

        Everyone I know who has a job is currently working 45 – 50 hour weeks. And none of them are willing to take a 10% pay cut or front up to the boss and refuse to work the extra hours.

        The sad thing is that 10% of our income is going in taxes to pay for the food stamps, dole payments, medical and retirement expenses of the unemployed, so at the end of the day the extra hours are being wasted.

        If everyone were to simply take the 10% pay cut, and cut their hours by ten percent we would find that we were no worse off financially as the government could cut taxes or increase services.

        All we are doing by working the extra 10% is making that ten percent of the population destitute. We owe it to our country to go home on time.

        1. Working less might help those who are unemployed because they are skilled workers, and can’t find a position that utilizes their skills.

          But a portion of those who are unemployed are so because they’re umemployable. Some for good reasons like disabilities. Though it seems like a growing number are unemployable because they’re simply too irresponsible to perform any job at all. How often is your fast food order wrong these days? Or you’re stuck in line at the grocery for 20 minutes because half the employees didn’t show up for work? The more you lower the unemployment rate, the more you lower employee quality, because you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Halving unemployment would be a nightmare. Frankly I think the rate needs to be a few percent higher..

        2. Working less hours per week would indeed provide more positions for those who are unemployed and would greatly reduce stress related illnesses in the work place.
          It also would increase the per hour productivity of American workers as well.
          Presently Norway,Germany,and France clobber the US here.
          Really going back to a 40 hour or less work week would be win win for both employees and employers.
          The only reason people oppose cutting back hours to 1960s levels it is because they are ignorant.

          1. “Working less hours per week would indeed provide more positions for those who are unemployed…”
            No one would be working extra hours, so they could cut back hours unless there’s work to be done. In the event there’s enough work for current employees to work extra hours, there’s enough work to hire additional employees, I’ll address why additional employees aren’t being hired in larger numbers, even if the work is there when I include additional quotes.
            “The only reason people oppose cutting back hours to 1960s levels it is because they are ignorant”. Unfortunate the US labor force has been kept ignorant about their overall value particularly to those who employ others the for the capital labor does generate. However employers aren’t ignorant for the reason I give below.

            “Really going back to a 40 hour or less work week would be win win for both employees and employers”. Not really. That’s a loss for employers. Until a threshold is crossed, an employee willing to work overtime is a money maker for an employer compared to hiring a new employee to do the work that’s done via overtime hours. Unless both current employees and new employees hired to to keep production maintain at existing are paid a just wage , it’s not a win for employees.

            Not that I’m saying mutually beneficial change is impossible, but it’s going to be a long process with hard fought battles.

    2. A better question is why don’t we see more of this today?
      Even if it is wildly wrong dreaming is an important part of innovation. Today when we look to the future it often seems like look to all the negatives.

  5. I had to mute the video serveral times to see if I have a tinitus or some very high pitch comes from the audiotrack. It was the video. But now that I finished the video, I have one as well :/

    1. Yep. Horrible.
      It’s a shame the video wasn’t cleaned up at all, there are bad skips all over it, vertical lines, bad audio sync, the works. Looks like it might need a re-digitisation from source and a good clean up.
      Fascinating video though.

  6. Ah yea, I remember 1999, driving the space car, growing giant peaches, watching the computer teach little Jimmy and greeting the wife when she came home from a hard day of stealing brains, good times, good times, great drugs!

  7. Odd mixture of 60’s movie/TV scenes entered my mind while watching this video:

    During the opening beach scene when the wierd music started playing, I fully expected Charlton Heston to ride up along the beach, jump off his horse, and start pounding the sand and cursing….

    In the exercise room, the computer voice kept reminding me of Nomad (Star Trek TOS, “The Changling”) or Landru (Star Trek TOS, “The Return of the Archons”)…

    And every time Mom was working on the computer, I would imagine her saying :Brain, brain! What is brain!?!?!”.

  8. Real computers have switches and lights.

    Quite the vision of the future. 2001 was a lot more accurate, only a few years later.
    I guess that’s why we don’t see more stuff with “Philco-Ford” logos around the house nowadays, huh?

  9. 01:15 : those silly wimmins, they just don’t understand… Looks like certain notions of women’s relationships with technologies (cough, cough… sexism) was expected to be alive and well in the future. Guess that gets added to the list of “yup, they got it”.

    I keep hoping we’ll evolve one of these days…

  10. “Mommy, why didn’t Daddy come home from his golf trip in Mexico?”

    “Because this is your father’s birthday, and he was sent to Festival for reprocessing into the collective.”

    “That’s great! I can’t wait until I’m old enough to be reprocessed! Mommy, when are you being reprocessed?”

    “Next year, honey. Now take your mind pill and never speak of this again.”

  11. “Do you remember the future”-Salvador Dali
    GM had Futurerama! From ’39 worlds fair “the highways of the future will bypass the slums leading directly into the city, all of this possible by 1960”

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.