the future according to spielberg: minority report and the world of ubiquitous computing
Steven Spielberg's hit summer movie presages the world of ubiquitous computing, circa 2054.
Surprisingly, from newspapers that update themselves via wireless networks, to holographic greeters at the Gap, the technology that will shape that world is much closer than you think.
The creative team behind a hit summer movie about "pre-cogs" with a creepy power of precognition might qualify as prophets themselves.
Steven Spielberg's noir-ish sci-fi thriller Minority Report depicts the world of 2054, and casts Tom Cruise as John Anderton, the head of the District of Columbia's Department of Pre-Crime, which uses psychics to predict murders before they happen.
Based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, the movie is at times unabashedly didactic and occasionally pedestrian. But it conjures up enough third-act plot twists and wicked-cool action scenes to keep things sufficiently interesting. And it provides Cruise with ample opportunity to stretch the only character he seems to play in movies - himself - movingly.
Still, what makes the film captivating isn't plot, but production value. In a feat of creative and technological genius, the filmmakers immerse viewers in a consumer-driven world of ubiquitous computing 50 years hence.
"Steven wanted to portray a future that was based around a familiar, market-based western society in approximately 50 years time," says Alex McDowell, the film's production designer.
McDowell used input from a three-day think tank Spielberg convened in 1999 to gather insights from 23 top futurists.
"The goal was to create a realistic view of a plausible future," says Peter Schwartz, the head of the Minority Report think tank, and chairman of Emeryville-based consultancy Global Business Network.
Projecting out from today's marketing and media technologies - Web cookies, GPS devices, Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, TiVo personal video recorders, and barcode scanners - the filmmakers give shape to an advertising-saturated society where billboards call out to you on a first-name basis. Newspapers deliver news instantly over a broadband wireless network. Holographic hosts greet you at retail stores where biometric retina scans deduct the cost of goods from your bank account. And cereal boxes broadcast animated commercials.
"We set off in a direction of a wirelessly-networked, ubiquitously-connected urban environment," says McDowell. "We looked at trends in mass-market culture in place today, and took them to their limit - creating a world where omnipresent, one-to-one advertising recognizes you, and sells directly to you as an individual."
Amazingly, the technologies portrayed in the film are far from science fiction. In fact, many are currently in development. And they're coming much sooner than you think.
report from tomorrow
Wireless newspapers and magazines that stream news updates - like the USA Today seen in the film - are extensions of 'digital paper' technologies currently being developed by Cambridge, Mass-based tech company E-Ink and major corporate labs like HP Labs in Palo Alto.
"You'll start to see these things in the next 10 to 15 years," says Russ Wilcox, general manager and co-founder of E-Ink.
We're not talking tablet PCs here, but paper, or something very close to it, that can receive updates over a wireless network and can be folded under your arm, slipped into a briefcase, or used to line a birdcage.
Called Electronic Ink, the technology uses electricity to move microcapsules of pigmentation painted on a paper-thin plastic to create moving images. Today, the company is working on new technology that will be able to print cheap transistors and, someday, tiny antennas, directly into the "paper" - making it a receiver for displaying images and sounds.
"The idea is a computer display that looks and feels just like a newspaper but has a little receiver built into it," says Wilcox. "It would receive wireless updates so you always have a newspaper that's up to date."
The same technologies could enable cereal boxes to play television commercials, like the film's "Pine & Oats" packaging that broadcasts animated characters singing the product's theme song.
E-Ink's Ink-in-Motion technology, for instance, provided rudimentary animated advertising on plasti-paper displays for Coca-Cola at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
life as pop-up ad
Meanwhile, today's GPS and wireless network technologies may one day lead to the place-based, personalized advertising that provides a backdrop for the film's city scenes.
In the movie, retina scans monitor subway passengers and automatically collect their fare. Posters, billboards and gonfalons talk directly to individual consumers.
On one level, these sorts of futuristic applications help the movie tell a cautionary tale about the trajectory of today's rampant consumerism; a stratified, mass-mediated society where the elite actually pay to avoid advertising, and where wireless network-and-biometrics-enabled marketing displays incessantly pitch product to a hapless proletariat.
At one point, after Anderton pays a black market surgeon to replace his eyes with someone else's in order to avoid being tracked by police, a holographic greeter cheerfully exclaims, "Hello Mr. Yakimoto, welcome back to the Gap. How did those assorted tank tops work out?"
"We're clearly moving in this direction in all forms of marketing already," says Schwartz. "The infrastructure behind identifying and mapping an individual's preference, consumer behavior, history, and so on is in its most primitive forms on the Web today."
Experts believe that in real life, however, the type of retina scans used to identify individuals are at least 50 years away, and will likely never be used for commercial purposes. Instead, personalized transactions will likely be enabled by other wireless technologies.
"The movie makes it seem very hard to get around retina scans, but [today], you could get by them just by wearing dark enough sunglasses," says Joe Laszlo, a senior analyst for research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. "You wouldn't actually have to have your eyes ripped out and replaced."
Rather, Laszlo says, RFID tags, miniature sensors and other technologies will be employed.
For instance, GPS-based technologies are used by wireless carriers to target ads to users in specific locations. And new Wi-Fi based Location Enabled Networks (LENs) carve up a wireless network into discrete segments that target users passing through a specified location. As users pass access points, content can be served up based on their position.
Of course, for all their commercial potential, these technologies are not free of ethical considerations - a point the movie drives home with a heavy hand.
"Andy Warhol talked about everyone getting fifteen minutes of fame," says Schwartz. "If we're not careful, everyone may end up with 15 minutes of privacy."
"The industry will need to create ways for people to opt-in or out of these services," he adds. "As a society, we'll have to make a set of judgments about not gathering information about people in a routine way."
Indeed, if there's anything that makes the film especially prescient, it's its timing.
Though the movie was filmed well before September 11, Report's riff on proactively stopping crime before it happens is strangely analogous to the Bush administration's new policy to preemptively strike against terrorists.
And while biometrics may not find their way into commercial applications any time soon, facial recognition scanners are already being rolled out in airports nationwide in the name of security.
"After 9-11, we have a real trade-off to make," says Schwartz. "Many people are expecting the government to detect these kinds of destructive forces, but there will be a societal cost. My view of the need for privacy may be different than [Attorney General] John Ashcroft's."
Of course, says McDowell, that's what good science fiction is all about.
"The thing about this genre is that it provides an opportunity to hold a mirror up to the future and extrapolate from things that are happening now in terms of advertising, and loss of civil liberties, and bring them to their logical or illogical extremes," he says. "It lets us see where things might go, and either steer things in that direction - or steer them completely away."
In other words, keeping tomorrow safe for both commerce and privacy may mean listening to the pre-cogs among us.
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