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The Tech that Never Happens

Short musing about how sometimes great ideas get eroded away by the time they’re possible.

Flying cars. For years and years, the gold standard of the future has been flying cars. They’re a stupid idea, but they’re still what intrigues people when the future is brought up.

This isn’t a post about flying cars, but it’s about other ideas of the future that probably won’t happen.

Augmented Reality

Note: There was a neat post on Augmented Reality: Valve Software: Blogs: Ramblings in Valve Time by Michael Abrash: 20 July 2012: Why You Won’t See Hard AR Anytime Soon, which gave me a reason to think about this a bit.

Consider Augmented Reality (AR). The idea is that you’d have some way of manipulating your visual field with computers. A grocery shopper could easily see the nutritional contents and prices for items on the shelves. A doctor could see medical history for their patient without opening a file. A soldier in combat could easily pick out targets from civilians.

AR may happen, but it probably won’t be used for what we think. By the time a doctor could view the medical file through an AR setup, computers would be sophisticated enough to handle most of the legwork that the doctor would want the data for. We’re moving towards increasingly mechanized warfare, so the drones and warbots will probably preclude soldiers needing to see at all.

As for the grocery shopper, that’s already largely a problem of marketing/anti-consumerism on the part of food producers anyway. Either those market forces will eventually self-extinguish or they will be powerful enough to prevent AR disruptions (except for the few brave souls who roll their own AR software).

Flying Cars

Flying cars are supposed to eliminate traffic while allowing everyone to get everywhere all the time. Ignore the energy needed to overcome gravity. Ignore the traffic problems, the problem of vehicle failure (especially considering we already have major safety issues when we’re just rolling across the ground), and so on.

We’re moving toward a world where you don’t have to go there. That’s a huge step forward. One of the things you learn from software, one of the best lessons, is the cheapest thing to do is nothing. If you can not do something, you’re saving yourself a lot of trouble.

So it’s likely that by the time we have the energy problems solved. By the time we have traffic figured out, and we could build them safely, we won’t actually want flying cars.

That’s not to say we might not build a few just for kicks, but it is to say we’re not using bungee jumping for anything beyond recreation. We’re sure as hell not building giant towers with trebuchets and catch-arms to sling ourselves or our property vast distances, only to be caught and bounced a bit with a bungee jumping cord.

Redesign the World

A quick look at some ideas for improving the world via design, and why they aren’t very good ideas.

One of the habits of my brain is looking at the design of things in the world and trying to improve them. It does this as a thought experiment; I seldom attempt the actual inventions it comes up with. But it’s fun as a mere thought experiment. So today I thought I’d throw some of my (unworkable) designs out here just for posterity.

Before that, though, I should be clear that designs aren’t always about replacements. Sometimes they’re just recognitions of the problems that replacements should solve, with either existing alternatives or unknowns being the replacements.

Doors and Keys


One of the things that’s bothered me over the years has been keys. You have these little fixed bits of metal, and they are supposed to provide you secure access to their corresponding locks. But if you lose them, you’re calling a locksmith. If you break one, you’re calling a locksmith. And then you have to carry them around and match them to the correct lock.

The solution will be electronic locks of some sort, but my favored solution was universal keys that could open any lock. They would have interchangeable teeth with varying numeric or alphabetic annotations, and so even if you never visited a building nor had direct contact with the owner, they could say, “key number 3F8JLM42” and you could set your key and get in. The other benefit would be that it would make re-keying locks a much simpler matter, as if keys were easily changed, the locks could be too.

The necessity of universal locks/the inertia of existing systems means this idea would take a long time to institute. Even if there were a spectacular example of this idea, before it would be instituted electronic locks would win out. The other major downside is that easily-changeable locks doesn’t mean often-changed locks. It’s a common vulnerability for office buildings and the like that use doors with keypad locks that people can guess the lock code by the wear on the keypad.

You also hear stories about people returning to visit such buildings years later, and on a whim they try the old code only to find out it still works.


Every summer when you go outside, you’re losing a bit of energy in the cool air escaping/warm air entering. Same thing in winter, the cold gets in and the warm gets out when you break that door seal.

Large buildings recognize this; they have what I’ll quaintly call airlocks. According to Wikipedia: Airlock: Similar mechanisms, they are also used in buildings holding wealth to slow thieves, and in aviaries to prevent the ingress/egress of species.

But the question is, how difficult would it be to add some semblance of an airlock to other doors during frequent use? How much energy could be saved? If they were common enough, it wouldn’t be very difficult or expensive. But for the most part, the buildings that should have them do and the ones where the savings don’t warrant the feature lack them.

Screen Grid References

Screens could have grid references along their sides (or added via software), so that someone can say, “click the red icon at C3” (where C is the horizontal and 3 is the vertical). As a practical matter, there may already be some screens that have these where they’re really needed, and most people aren’t spending too much time telling others where to click without just pointing to the spot.

Cellphone Booths

People don’t complain about people talking on phones all over the place as much as they used to, but probably because they know it won’t stop. But there used to be phone booths because the lines were wired. Still, there would be some opportunity to have booths set up for people to use for mobile conversations without disturbing others. There could be other benefits built in to these booths, such as signal boosters, or dedicated screens, keyboards, and mice for using them as work stations. Wireless providers could give discounts on usage from these booths.

But the convenience of being able to use the mobile device wherever you are probably outweighs any desire to stand in a booth. And people seem to be gradually adjusting to the expectation that everyone around them is talking to someone that’s not there.

Calendars and Time

Good luck with these. You could have the greatest idea ever, but these are so entrenched in the cultures of the world that they are extremely hard to change. I guess we can say the various places that enact Daylight Savings schemes have crashed a barrier, but the feature of those schemes is that they’re periodic and only require minor adjustments (and yet they are harmful (in that they serve no benefit and cause a loss) and do receive resentment).

But they are fun to think about.

Pushing the Envelope

Most inventions only push the envelope (the phrase arrives via aviation, where it means roughly to exceed the known flight parameters of an aircraft). Those that break the damn thing into pieces and use them with mortar to build a mosaic pattern must have large benefits.

Even the big changes mimic the old where they can. That’s why the varied icons on computers are largely analogs of the real world. Radio buttons are based on the old car radios and light switches that allowed you to press any button causing the others to become unpressed.

The default terminal width comes from punched cards (Wikipedia: Punched card: IBM 80-column punched card formats and character codes).

The design of compact fluorescent lightbulbs owes itself to the need to fit in the standardized, legacy bulb sockets.

And so on. We continue to make adaptations based on existing technologies. It does make things easier, but harder too. People get used to particular patterns of reality, and inertia prevents bigger changes from happening quickly. This gives rise to problems like wide-spread obesity. To problems like climate change. To vast overspending and undercoverage in health care. To entrenched corruption in government and banking and other institutions.

The Nature of Unbelieved Change

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan, “Change you can believe in.” I think it works for this phenomena to call it “Unbelieved Change,” meaning change that people didn’t see coming because they didn’t believe it had a chance.

It’s short posts November, so I probably won’t ramble as long this month.

One thing we’ve probably all seen in making changes big and small is that there’s an adjustment period during which we refine. Depending on the change, that period may be short or long.

But one of the things that makes it longer is when the initial change was thought too hard or was neglected in some way. The result is that once the foundation has actually been laid, those affected suddenly give comment to an issue they didn’t expect (ie, how to refine it) and haven’t had ample time to consider.

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan, “Change you can believe in.” I think it works for this phenomena to call it “Unbelieved Change,” meaning change that people didn’t see coming because they didn’t believe it had a chance.

Health reform is a good example. The lack of meaningful reform had entrenched itself as a fact for the USA, and now that something’s been done to move the stone, a lot of people want to refine it (even before many provisions take effect). Some want to simply revert the change, others want to continue on the path laid or go an entirely different way.

The other problem, related, is that the early proposals are often ruled out as blocking the initial change. The Obama administration basically scrapped notions of a public option or single payer system as being too difficult to garner agreement. And yet, they didn’t go for a credit-based system either.

Another area where this phenomena has shown itself is the Arab Spring. Prior to its beginning, most thought that the status quo was to stay as it was. When change finally came, the world’s leaders didn’t have a good idea what the outcome would be, and even today there are some in the West that think it might have been a bad change.

I think the real root of the problem is that many look at the world and see a pinball machine instead of a canvas. They see the world as a mostly-fixed system in which they must hit the bumpers and make the lights blink and sing. There are others that realize the world can be much more flexible, and that deciding what to paint isn’t an unreasonable activity.

The world is a canvas, and the populist movements like Occupy Wall Street recognize that fact, where the politicians often do not. But it’s more complicated; for some issues any given person may think it’s part of the pinball machine or canvas. Most will admit the Constitution is more pinball than paint, but still some seek to amend it. Pretty much everyone admits that defying gravity is equivalent to a TILT event, but some still believed in putting humans in space, even if it merely meant overpowering gravity rather than breaking it.

But we should still consider the impossible at every turn, it builds character.