SPECIAL ISSUE, Spring 1995 Volume 145, No. 12
BY BARRETT SEAMAN
It is simple but ingenious, easily accessible - and it gives people what they want without fuss or argument. It is, in short, one of the great conveniences of modern technology: the ATM, or automated-teller machine.
Only a few years ago, getting your hands on real money meant waiting in line at your (and only your) bank, or knowing the corner shopkeeper well enough to cash a personal check. The ATM changed all that, using a fusion of computer chips, telepad, phone line and dispensing mechanism to transform the way people access their money. Armed with only a plastic card and a functioning index finger, a customer can now obtain cash as easily in Tierra del Fuego as in downtown Tulsa.
Yet the ATM's great convenience and relatively humble workings should not obscure the fact that it is in the vanguard of the information age, no less than the Internet, interactive TV or video teleconferencing. By applying technology to people's everyday needs, it epitomizes what Yale University computer scientist David Gelertner calls "the true potential of the information superhighway: making everyday life for most people somewhat easier and less irritating."
To that end, the new age of technology is already well launched, fueled by a long stream of techno-driven goods and services that is flooding the consumer marketplace to change the ways people live and work. So advanced is this transformation that even some of the most recent innovations are already taken for granted.
The heart of the cyberrevolution remains, of course, the personal computer. Cheaper, faster, more versatile and easier-to-use PCs are infiltrating the social fabric. Software like Mosaic and Netscape has made navigating the Internet a lot less daunting for average citizens, who are rushing to buy modems and sign up for online services.
The modern, well-wired home already offers its occupants a head-spinning array of computer-borne activities. Children use CD-ROMS to play games and hear music. Teenagers flock to online services not only to "chat" but also to reach primary schoolwork sources, such as images of original works of art, documents prepared by experts, even possible exchanges of E-mail with the experts themselves. Adults have access to instant stock-market quotes, to online versions of magazines, from Ad Week to Women's Wear Daily, and to a host of "clubs," where people gather to discuss astronomy, genealogy or bicycling.
Using online programs and the Internet's increasingly crowded World Wide Web, one can find not just information about products and services but help in bringing the transactions to a conclusion as well. Real estate agents are discovering online as an efficient way to sell properties. The Homes and Land Publishing Corp.'s Website lists homes nationwide - by state, then by city (there are 110 communities under the Michigan heading alone). The Austin Real Estate Connection in Texas gives information on the full range of home-buying services, from photographs of the houses to the names of builders and mortgage lenders, lawyers and title companies. Using a search program, prospective buyers can enter preferences, such as price range, style, school district and number of bedrooms, and thus narrow the field to homes that meet those criteria.
In some instances, whole communities - even states - are building multipurpose computer networks. For the past 18 months, a partnership between the town of Blacksburg, Virginia, Bell Atlantic and Virginia Tech University has operated a communal network called the Blacksburg Electronic Village. By the end of 1994, the project had hooked up a majority of the town's businesses and 36,000 citizens, including 24,000 students at Virginia Tech, whose campus is situated in town. All these people reach the Internet through a local network that ties Blacksburgians to the town hall, hospitals, stores, restaurants and one another. In time, participating merchants hope to do business using Digicash Corp.'s "E-cash," a form of electronic money.
Computer-connected communities, in various stages of development, are operating in dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada. The entire state of North Carolina has built its own information highway based on a fiber-optic system that links most of the state's departments and services, its public universities and even parts of the penal system. In Mecklenburg County, for example, a video link permits prisoners to "appear" before judges without actually making the trek to the county courthouse.
Convenience remains at the core of any technological application, which is a big reason why television, as a conduit of news and entertainment, still commands impressive loyalty. Operating instructions are crystal clear: turn on the set, select a channel and watch. Where TV is vulnerable, however, is in the area of choice. Traditional network television delivers a packaged product: news at 6:30, sitcom at 8, movie at 9, a pattern that, VCRs notwithstanding, often does not match individual viewers' needs. Communications giants, including Time Warner, Viacom and Comcast, are currently conducting trials of interactive-TV systems that attempt to merge convenience and choice. In Time Warner's Orlando, Florida, test market, for example, participating families are able to choose from a video menu of movies, shopping catalogs, network programming and news - switching from one to another whenever they choose.
The new services offer more than video entertainment. Telephone giant U S WEST (a partner in the Orlando experiment as well as others) contributes an interactive elaboration of its printed yellow pages. With the click of a remote, viewers can survey the local restaurant scene, read reviews, peruse the menus and even reserve a table for four at 8. Or they can check local movie theaters - not only for what's playing and when but for what rating a film carries, what the critics are saying and previews of films. Tickets can be bought in advance through a credit-card debit system. "This is not couch-potato stuff," says Sol Trujillo, president of U S WEST Marketing Resources. "It gets the people out."
Indeed, a driving force behind most research and development in the communications field today is mobility. Smaller, lighter, multifunctional devices - and programs to run them - are pouring onto the market, with names like Envoy, Magic Link, Marco, Simon and Zoomer. Most of these devices combine the two basic technologies of the information age: computing and telephony - a union that promises more than the sum of its parts.
The idea is to stuff as much information and as many communications tools as possible into a small package - called a personal digital assistant, or PDA - that will perform dozens of tasks for the user. More advanced versions, weighing less than 2 lbs., can operate off a regular phone line or cellular connection and send and receive faxes, voice mail or E-mail. They can be used to keep appointment schedules, expense ledgers, addresses and phone numbers, as well as large digitized documents.
Some of these devices already include (or soon will) so-called intelligent agents: programs that sort your E-mail, find you a convenient flight and book a seat or remind you of appointments and anniversaries. Electronic secretarial services are already in use in sophisticated paging systems on the market today. Call someone - let's call him Fred - who uses Wildfire, and you will be greeted by a "personal receptionist" who asks you to "tell me your name, and I will try to find Fred for you." Half a minute may go by, but if Fred wants to talk to you - even from his raft in the Colorado River - he will get the message on his cell phone and come on the line. If Fred is too busy negotiating the rapids to talk, you can always leave him a voice-mail message. The reach of phone systems continues to extend across the planet, as cellular transfer stations are built and communications satellites are launched. If Motorola's ambitious Iridium satellite project is ever completed, prospectively in 1998, virtually no place on earth will be out of range. Satellites are also making possible commercial use of the Pentagon-developed global positioning system, which was employed by soldiers using handheld monitors during the Gulf War to pinpoint their location in the desert. Private-boat owners have been using GPS to fix their position at sea for the past decade.
Now, GPS is available in U.S. autos. As of last summer, Oldsmobile buyers could opt for GPS receivers, with accompanying digitized road maps, built right into their dashboards. A motorist lost in the San Fernando Valley can tap into GPS and get an instant position on the digitized map, accurate to the length of a minivan. At its current $1,995 price, GPS is still an expensive option, but rental-car companies are very interested. As prices eventually come down, these locators could become common features in cars.
One of the hottest testing grounds for consumer-related technology is the supermarket. Across the continent, food stores are erupting with radio and infrared data bursts that track pricing changes, inventory and customer buying patterns. Battery-powered shelf labels that receive instant price changes via radio transmitter are currently used in 25 Edwards Super Food Stores in Connecticut; more than 40 European stores employ a solar-powered version that receives pricing data via infrared. Several large food retail operators are exploring the use of "smart cards" and interactive kiosks to provide shoppers with information and keep track of the buying habits of their regular customers, using the information to adjust inventories and to price and promote products better.
Today's hospitals are using communications technology to send digitized images of everything from broken bones to brains from one medical facility to the next. Even medevac units at remote accident locations can send images and data back to base hospitals so that emergency-room teams know exactly what they are dealing with when the patient arrives. Although teleradiology has been around for a decade or so, only now is it moving into the mainstream of medical care, thanks to lower-cost computers, significantly improved clarity of video images and improvements in networking and telecommunications. Many surgeons routinely use sophisticated computer-driven probes and TV imagery to help them in their diagnoses and operations.
All this and more already exists. With a little tweak of the technology here or an imaginative pairing with other technologies there, computer-based devices are likely to affect our lives even more frequently in the months - as well as in the years - ahead.
Digital display screens visible above highways, warning of icy bridges ahead and detours, will become even more ubiquitous and varied. So will the long-awaited telescreen for seeing and being seen by those you talk with on the telephone. Carl Ledbetter, president of AT&T's Consumer Products division, predicts that "in a decade, every phone will have a screen on it." At Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California, where the PC, on-screen icons and the laser printer originated, Mark Weiser, manager of the computer science laboratory, envisions a world in which flat-panel screens bearing a multitude of images will be household regulars. They will range from tiny ones, costing perhaps $5 each and plastered everywhere, to wall-size ones for viewing video. The smaller ones, says Weiser, are "where you'll plan your grocery list or do your homework. They'll be the equivalent of Post-it notes on the refrigerator or the crumpled-up notepaper in your pocket."
In Weiser's world, people will wake up to a tiny bedside screen that gives the time and the weather forecast and even displays news headlines or sports scores. Pocket-size screens would also serve as remote controls for larger screens in the bedroom or living room, where family members will use them variously to watch TV, read the newspaper (which will be customized for each member's personal interests) or draw up the family grocery list.
To get themselves through the day, people will carry pocket-size Personal Assistants, called smart badges or smart cards, encoded with basic information that uniquely identifies them. Simple versions of such devices would allow their carriers to walk through security checkpoints - a concept already being tested in a section of the Paris Metro, where commuters need never remove the card from their pockets.
In future supermarkets, consumers will shop without having to pay cash or sign credit-card receipts. An infrared or microwave "interrogator" could register each consumer as soon as he or she enters a store and be ready with account information when the time comes to pay. Supermarket futurist Gary Lind, a partner at Arnold Ward Studios/Lind Design in Hempstead, New York, envisions "intelligent carts" that will use optical lasers to scan bar codes automatically as items are moved in or out of a shopping cart, thus enabling customers to keep a running tab. These carts might even be programmed to organize the customer's shopping expedition through the store, by scanning a handwritten list and sorting out the fastest route through the aisles.
The process of Home Shopping, now a three-part cable-TV, 800-number and credit-card transaction, is poised to move to a higher level of interactivity. Next: interactive-TV programs and in-store kiosks known as "electronic mirrors" with holographic images that enable buyers to see what clothes look like on them without actually trying anything on. Computer catalogs of homes will someday include virtual-reality "tours" of each room in a house.
Not all of this will take commercial root. The marketplace, for example, will weed out even technically feasible devices if they prove too complicated for the average consumer to use. For the next decade at least, the key to the consumer's heart will be less in the technology itself than in the masking of technology to make it more user-friendly.
The exceptions will be those applications that save lives or promote public welfare. Exotic technologies, like virtual reality, can lower the overall cost of complex medical procedures. A VR-like "data fusion system" developed by Medical Media Systems in Hanover, New Hampshire, enables doctors to re-create remote organs, like the liver, and "watch" the endoscopic removal of a tumor. Tests on animals are under way now; human trials begin in July. Even at $80,000, the system is cost efficient.
Far simpler combinations of technologies could be used to create highly efficient urban-transportation systems. Buses, subways and private cars would be superfluous under a plan proffered by Nobel laureate Arno Penzias at Bell Laboratories. In his vision, a fleet of passenger vans, each equipped with a global-positioning system and cellular phone (plus whatever amenities its operator chose to offer) - all linked by computer to a central dispatching program, would provide total customized coverage of every street and every neighborhood in town, 24 hours a day.
Through the computer and the cell phones, drivers would receive destination instructions; using GPS, dispatchers would keep tabs on the real-time progress of each vehicle. Passengers would call up the service, be met with minimum delay, transfer only if necessary and relax while professional drivers took them to their desired destination - say, that quaint little farmers' market on the far side of town, where the vegetables are always fresh but they don't take credit cards. In that case, you'd better hope there's an ATM around.
Reported by John F. Dickerson and Jeffery C. Rubin/New York, David S. Jackson/San Francisco and Lisa H. Towle/Raleigh
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
This document was last modified 16:34:04 EDT Thu 6 Apr 95.
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