Monday, September 13, 2010

Technology Unchained or The Symphosizer: 2083’s Answer to the Magic Trackpad

The creators of Star Trek:The Next Generation envisioned a 24th century full of comfortable environments where technology, although heavily utilized, was very much in the background, deemphasized. Gene Roddenberry called this philosophy “technology unchained”. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, however. For almost four years before TNG’s 1987 premiere, Horizons at EPCOT Center had been giving thousands of people per day a three-dimensional look at just such an environment. Let’s take a trip to the world of 2083, as we imagined it in 1983:


The Nova Cite apartment was my favorite Horizons environment. It’s also the one that holds up the best twenty-seven years later. Some production designers tasked with creating a futuristic environment make the mistake of cramming it with complicated-looking futuristic equipment, as if its occupant had just gone on a shopping spree at the local Best Buy. Such displays tend not to age well. The best “future” technology is something that looks simple. Let’s take a closer look at the Symphosizer:


I know, you can’t wait until 2083 so you can have your own periwinkle leisure suit with matching plastic booties

The only visible controls are 14-16 large colored keys that don’t appear to move or depress in any way. It would be easy to deride it as a cross between an old Simon game and a Fisher-Price My First Piano, but its apparent simplicity could very well be deceptive. After all, who in 1983 would believe that a telephone in 2010 would look like this:


. . . or that the computer mouse, a very cutting-edge device in those days, would be replaced by something that looked like this:


Could anyone familiar only with early-1980s technology look at those pictures and get the slightest idea what those devices were or how they worked?  Most likely, they’d simply dismiss them as nonfunctional slabs of plastic and aluminum. So it is with the Symphosizer. If we were to go back and slap an Apple logo on it, most people today would instinctively realize that it must be more complex than it appears. In fact, maybe the “Symphosizer” isn’t really its name. Maybe it’s called the iMusic.

It’s good to know that, in the world of 2083, Steve Jobs (or more likely, his brain downloaded into an iPad) could still be coming up with ideas. Or at least taking credit for them.


  1. Don't you think that the carpet (and other furnishings) would be able to change color automatically? Even based on your outfit of the cool colors of the day?

    Still, imagine playing Symphosizer: Rock Band Edition on your Xbox!

  2. Interesting idea, George. And absolutely no reason why they couldn't. Heck, we could almost do that now, it's just be really expensive. Still, the plastic booties are just stupid-looking. Everyone knows that people in the future wear Marty McFly's self-lacing Nikes.

    I wonder what the control system of tomorrow's XBox might look like. Hopefully it's not a Kinect-like full-body motion control that makes you lurch around like someone undergoing a seizure.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!