Friday, March 16, 2007

Back to the Future

I played a video game the other day called Thrillville. It’s a very cute game, geared more toward teen-agers than adults, though it’s based on an idea that took me right back to CommuniCore: building your own roller coaster.

That was one of the absolute highlights of my earliest visit to EPCOT Center – spending time at the computer station, touching the screen and listening to that crazy whistling beaver tell me whether the coaster track I chose was appropriate or not. The most outrageous aspect of your virtual coaster was the ability to have multiple loops; I can tell you this much, the things we “built” back in the early 1980s in Communicore pale in comparison to anything in the real world today!

I’d find it very hard to believe that the makers of Thrillville, or the Roller Coaster Tycoon games before it, didn’t visit EPCOT Center as kids and weren’t influenced by what they saw there. The theme park inspired many people in ways that its designers probably could never have imagined.

Today, the ideas that were on display in Communicore are remarkably commonplace. True, videophones aren’t in every home, but they are in every conference room in the office building in which I work. Talking robots are still for fun, but instead of being on display in theme parks they’re conversation starters in living rooms. “The Age of Information,” as it was called in the earliest Communicore incarnation, isn’t just upon us – we’re deep into it, and it has changed our lives in remarkable ways. Touch screens, scrolling computer graphics and instant polling were state-of-the-art technologies in 1982, now they’re so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable.

Not many visitors to EPCOT Center in the early 1980s would have imagined their lives would be so influenced by the technologies that seemed novel at the time.

What was so appealing about EPCOT, Future World and Communicore was that it imparted a giddy sense of discovery in guests who tried out these technologies.

That’s one of the key elements that feels absent in today’s incarnation of EPCOT.

Every week, it seems, there are magazines and TV shows touting the technologies of tomorrow that are going to influence the way we live. There’s no dearth of material to pull from. I’m not a “techie,” but I realize that most of us are barely aware of the technology that makes our world work.

We live in a highly technical age, even though most people (like me) hardly realize it. Consider that, 25 years ago, the PC, the VCR and even the microwave were only just penetrating consumer consciousness. Now, they’re almost passé. Few could have imagined DVDs, plasma TV screens, the Internet and cell phones becoming so commonplace.

Last time I visited EPCOT, some cast members were riding around on ultra-cool (though not incredibly practical) Segway scooters ... but not even pausing to talk to guests who were pointing at them excitedly. Why wouldn’t they encourage that sense of discovery?

More importantly, couldn’t EPCOT be sold to potential sponsors by Disney as a fantastic way to showcase the technology they’re working on – not technologies that are six months away from being reality or are simply iterations of what we’ve already got, but truly “bleeding-edge” technologies that are going to impact our lives?

It’s a shame Disney doesn’t seem interested in exploiting this possibility at EPCOT – grrrrr, I mean Epcot. With some imagination, ingenuity and passion, Epcot could once again be a place to go to learn what our lives could be, not simply see new applications of Disney characters and video games.

EPCOT Center used to help us see how we were building our future. That future isn’t remotely finished. I’d love to learn more about it.


Anonymous said...

I really wish I would have had the opportunity to experience Communicore. It looks like it was a very nice place to visit. I wish they would have simply updated it more frequently instead to letting it languish and then feel they have to do a radical overhaul. This mistake seems to be repeated over and over again with Disney.

It's really difficult to say what would work these days. There are certainly incredible advances in technology that are worthy of featuring. Unfortunately this is a different time. We are not at the threshold of a world-changing technical revolution as was initiated by the microprocessor back in the late 70's. The technology is not going to stand on it's own as a whiz-bang type of event -- and perhaps it shouldn't.

The ultimate importance is not the technology we create, but what gets done with it. A good example are the Segways you mention. They are really cool technologically, but have they really been applied all that well? I think that any technological exhibit for a new Communicore needs to be presented in a creative way to get that gee-wiz response from guests. It needs to show a unique application for the technology used. The presentation has to be novel to guests, it has to be something with repeat appeal, and it has to be constantly updated to keep it relevant.

Captain Schnemo said...

Unfortunately this is a different time. We are not at the threshold of a world-changing technical revolution as was initiated by the microprocessor back in the late 70's.

I disagree. We just don't know that the next revolution is. I think nanotech (which I don't think gets any mention at all in the current Epcot), but it could be some form of biotech or cybernetics. It's not difficult to imagine having Google hard-wired into our brains, for example (although I still think nanotech is more interesting and potentially groundbreaking).

Now it's obvious that the Internet is changing the world, but in 1982, "cyberspace" was science fiction to most people. In fact, the Internet already existed, and had for years, but very few people understood its potential.

I think the Segways are a bad example, since anyone can buy one and people have heard of them. The next breakthrough is out there, and the fact that we don't know what it is means Epcot isn't doing its job.

I've said it before, but...there is absolutely nothing special about this time. America is always on the brink of the Next Big Thing, whether it was the railroad, the Interstate system, radio, television, whatever....

To say that we aren't on the verge of something big and exciting is to learn nothing from history and fall victim to the cynicism that has infected Epcot to the bone.

JStone423 said...

I agree. Communicore had such an "Age of Technological Enlightenment" back in the day. I used to love the Taxi game with the touchscreens and better that model of the off-shore drilling platform (although, not a fan of big oil the model was really cool). Communicore for some reason alwyas had this air of the futire about it, not felt in today's times.

Anonymous said...

schnemo: You said what I didn't have time to! Nanotech, bioengineering, cybernetics: these are all revolutions (or armageddons) in waiting, and we should be learning more about them -- as well as alternative fuels and other technology that, while currently available, will play an increasingly significant part in our lives. There's plenty of future left for Future World, if Disney even bothers to look.

Anonymous said...

A point of the original Epcot was it told the story of technological progress and what it meant for the story of man. This past to present to future story would spark the imaginations of guest to ask “what’s next”.

The segway is a great discussion point. Its inventor is still ahead of the reality on this item. He imagines not the ultimate scooter, but the transformation of society. Much like cars fueled suburban sprawl, he imagines the segway bringing us closer together.

These are the sort of questions Epcot used to ask. If the tech hurdles of video phones and translators were crossed, would we have an intercontinental virtual classroom? Would a US boy talk about his karate tournament with his “pen pal 2010 style” who is a Japanese boy that shows him video of his baseball game?

Where Epcot used to tell us we spent more time on the moon then the ocean floor, and imagined a seabase alpha, we now get turtle talk and nemo. I don’t think the imagineers care to do the work needed to imagine and present a possible future in the positive manor Walt intended.

Dan said...

I loved Communicore and especially enjoyed the roller-coaster creator, smart1's trivia, and even the goofy travel videos. As kids, we would spend hours in there while my parents sat down and took a break.

I find the Segways pretty annoying and think they are shortsighted. They run demonstrations at my local Science Center, and I see people riding them down the bike trails. The Segways seems to promote lazy behavior.

However, I'm not enough of an expert on the Segways and their proposed future use to say they're useless. If the creator has plans to use them to lessen car travel and work for transportation, that might be a different story. Public transportation is something we need to seriously explore in this country, and maybe Epcot can help promote some innovative ideas. Right now, the Segways seem like an excuse for people who don't want to walk. Hopefully some great innovations will happen in the future, though.

Epcot82 said...

In 1899, Charles Duell said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

To imagine that EPCOT can't amaze people with the future that is yet to be (yes, a redunant phrase, I know) is to imagine that Imagineers are hampered by a lack of foresight and vision.

Are they? Or is Disney management?

Whatever the case, EPCOT now, more than ever, could astound us with visions of things we never even imagined.

Anonymous said...

I should have clarified that I was thinking more of technologies that are entering into the mainstream - technologies that are easily identifiable to Epcot guests and have that tactile gee-whiz appeal. The early 80's saw the introduction of the PC and although the Internet was around, it took inventions such as html and web browsers to make it easy for the common user. Nanotechnology, cybernetics, and bioengineering all are valid emerging technologies that could certainly have a profound impact on our society. They just haven't reached the masses in the same way that the computer did in 1982. Any exhibits for them at Epcot will need to be that much more creative to cater to that mass appeal.

Anonymous said...

But it's about much more than exhibits. When EPCOT Center first opened, it was built around practical applications of technologies that, in most cases, were still years away from mass use, things like touch-screen terminals, fiber optic communications, video conferencing, etc., etc. It would be great to see EPCOT approach sponsors to put their technologies INTO USE, not just have them in exhibits in Communicore.

Captain Schnemo said...

Great point, anonymous. Those World Key kiosks fascinated me, in that I could see the potential for a whole new way to conveniently arrange and display information. It was really the predecessor to HTML (although a lot cooler).

Nanotech sounds weird and spooky at this point although people have been buying stain-free "nano" pants for years now. Explaining the real world applications would most definitely fuel interest and research into the area in the same way Walt was largely responsible for creating interest in the space program. It really only takes one cultural element (a movie, or even a talked-about attraction) to get people used to the idea, and suddenly it wouldn't seem like such fringe tech.

Tron was a silly movie, but it fired up a generation of nerds and I'm sure is responsible for many kids going into CGI and computer science in general.

A popular movie could transform the way we think about the future in months. But everyone is so down on the future lately, that we don't even care that our personal tech is generations behind Japan's. There was a reason there was a collective yawn from Japan when the iPhone was introduced. It was so "welcome to three years ago".

In a society where it took 11 years for a decent GUI to catch on (Windows 95 = MacOS '84), you could certainly come up with some bleeding edge attractions that would captivate the public for some time. What we have now, though, is showcase of stuff that's currently available at the local electronics store. That's not futurism, that's presentism, and no one friggin' cares.

I'm kind of all over the map on this one, but I'm just so sick of Disney (and other American institutions) feeding off cynicism and lowering expectations to the point that they can give people mediocre product and make them feel like they've been done a favor.

Anonymous said...

You are right Schnemo. I’m all over the place on this one also. Please don’t give me an exhibit to show me anything I can buy at Best Buy now. Last time I was at Inovetions, There was a section that had game boys with Disney games in them.

No one was by them because:
1. The Disney fans probably already had those games
2. Parents weren’t going to waste that $67 park ticket watching their kid play game boy
3. Wasn’t their supposed to be something new, innovative, or interesting here?

Frankly in 1983, what I remembered was a lot of broken touchscreens, and not “getting” a lot of the concepts (I was 13). But I did get the message of the park for which comminicore was just another piece marching in the same direction. Technology has taken us on an amazing journey and it’s not done! Other ways of saying it include “If we can dream it, we can do it” and “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow”.

Communicore and Inoventions have always had hit or miss displays. The problem is so much of the rest of the park doesn’t even try to spark our imagination of the future.

Anonymous said...

CommuniCore was boring, and was outdated withing two years.

Anonymous said...

CommuniCore was boring, and was outdated within two years.

Anonymous said...

I think finding the right technology for Innoventions is a matter of finding the message that Epcot should be telling. Maybe for the average person it's hard to see how gadgets change our lives because we are so used to them... but what about the potential for technology to make our lives simpler and less cluttered, to make the earth greener and the places around us more aesthetic and yet functional, to create a better life and living condition for people around the world... I think that we still have dreams and hopes that Epcot could exploit... If they could tap into those hopes, they would have a better marketing tool than they would ever get from filling a space with video games and products that have already hit the market.

Personally, I think that they are missing an opportunity with the Innoventions space: The most cutting-edge technology and ideas right now tend to come out of universities (including interactive and entertainment ideas). If they gave the opportunity for universities to display their most recent inventions and ideas, you would have "sponsors" excited about keeping the exhibits fresh and cutting-edge... along with Disney's flair for providing great display design. You would get people even more excited about Epcot because their son/grandchild/aunt/cousin has work on display at Epcot, and it would be fun for everyone to take a trip and see the display while visiting the rest of the "World".

Just my $0.02