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What the Past Thought the Future Would Be Like

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Taking a stroll through old Popular Mechanics and Popular Science-type magazines is always good for a few smiles. Here are ten images worth taking a closer look at:

So whatever happened to the robots we were promised in the 50s and 60s -- you know, the ones that would be helping us around the house? Sure, we've got iRobot Roomba vacuums and Husqvarna's automower, but they don't quite measure up to the one on the cover of this mag. How long until Mitsubishi's wakamaru hits the average home?

Here's one they sort of got right! Personal watercraft (PWC) first hit the scene in the 1960s. In the "˜70s, they quickly became known colloquially as Jetskis after Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. introduced the JET SKI® watercraft. This was the first stand-up PWC. PWC now come in sit-down models that can hold up to 3 people.

Google "ski car" and you'll find a pantload of Web sites recommending the best vehicles to take on a ski weekend. The only true skiing cars were invented almost simultaneously in Russia and New Hampshire in the early 1900s. Both systems fitted track and ski units to existing cars—U.S. inventor, Virgil White, used the Ford Model T. These were forerunners to modern snowmobiles. Fun Fact: The first McDonald's drive-thru accessible by snowmobile was opened in Piteaa, Sweden in 2002.

This futuristic design never came to fruition. The clear plastic top and upholstered armchairs in a living room-like setting promised a smooth ride, however, car production ground to a halt in January 1942 because of World War II. One of the few newly designed cars of 1942 was the Buick Roadmaster convertible. Its list price was $1,700.

The first submarine for personal use was designed in the 1970s by Graham Hawkes. Most personal subs launch from the rear of yachts. Aruba offers submarine tours to tourists on personal submarines and the company, U.S. Submarines, has created the first luxury style sub. For about $30 million you can design and own a Seattle 1000 complete with 5 state rooms.

The first interactive fishing game was, er, cast by Radio Shack in 1977. Since then, the technology and realism of the games have improved. In 2007, Wii released "Hooked!" that uses a fully functional rod controller equipped with a rotating reel to simulate natural fishing.

In 1966, a Motorola engineer invented the pocket TV with a 1-1/8 inch screen. But he died before he was able to convince Motorola to mass produce the invention. D'oh! The first mass produced mini television was created by Panasonic in 1970. It weighed just under 2 pounds and had a 1.4 inch screen. Considered a futuristic flop, Panasonic waited another 10 years before marketing another mini-television.

While it didn't look anything like this cover image, the first motorcycle to break the 300 mph mark was the Yamaha Silverbird in 1975. Believe it or not, way back in 1937, the BMW streamliner motorcycle reached a then-record-breaking speed of 173 mph.

Harold Graham piloted the first untethered flight of the Bell Rocket Belt, invented by Wendall Moore, in 1961. The flying belt could only stay in flight for 20 seconds. Later on in the 60s, the Bell Company recreated the flying belt with a jet turbine that could run for 26 minutes but could barely lift off the ground. In 2008, EAA Airventures launched the Martin Jetpack. Deemed "the world's first practical jetpack," it will be available for private sale in late 2010—guess who's putting it on his Amazon wish list right now?!

The closest man has come to this fantabulous image, is the International Space Station(ISS) that was begun in 1998. The station is still under construction and won't be ready for another year, minimum. It has been continuously manned since 2000. The ISS hovers just 250 miles above Earth, hardly deep space, however it was visited by its first tourist, Dennis Tito, in April 2001.

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A Voice Recognition App Adds Sound Effects While You Read to Your Kids
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Technology is coming for kids’ story time, but maybe not in the way that you think. The future of bedtime stories, as MIT Technology Review describes it, won’t involve tablets or reading off screens, but it will have sound effects.

Novel Effect is an app that uses voice recognition to track the bedtime stories you’re reading to your kids and insert sound effects and music in response to certain cue words. It’s similar to a home assistant, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, except instead of playing music and setting kitchen timers for you, it’s on the ear-out for keywords contained in certain kids’ books.

Four mobile app screenshots side-by-side of the Novel Effect app.
Novel Effect

The app doesn’t work for all titles, but it offers effects for popular books you probably already own, like Where the Wild Things Are, The Hungry Caterpillar, and The Cat in the Hat. When you open the app on your phone, you select which book you plan to read. As you read the physical book out loud, the app listens for where you are in the text and adds sound effects, from dramatic music to monstrous roars.

It’s not going to trigger odd sound effects every time you say the word “caterpillar,” though. (Unlike the Amazon Echos that heard the words “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse” on a TV news report and rushed to fulfill the order.) The words have to correspond to the book you’ve selected in the app, though you don’t have to read the text from the beginning or keep any specific time. The app can recognize where you are in the book no matter where you start or whether you dive off into a tangent about how cool caterpillars are before resuming the story.

Novel Effect is part of Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator for voice recognition technology, and it seems feasible that one day this kind of functionality would be a skill you could enable on your Echo or other voice-controlled assistant. According to MIT Technology Review, the company hopes to allow users to create their own sound effects sometime in the near future.

[h/t MIT Technology Review]

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Volkswagen Introduces Electric Version of Classic Microbus
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Volkswagen

Following the success of the compact Volkswagen Beetle, German automaker Volkswagen expanded its line in 1950 with the release of the Type 2. Customers preferred a less clinical name, opting to call it the camper, the bus, or the transporter. Able to tote mass quantities of counter-culture protesters, the Volkswagen bus became a symbol in antiwar movements of the 1960s before disappearing to the scrap heap of expired popular culture.

Recently, the company has doubled down on claims it would be revisiting it as a smaller vehicle. At a recent presentation at a Pebble Beach charity car expo, Volkswagen announced the bus—previously identified as the I.D. Buzz—would be returning in 2022 as a fully electric and consolidated version of the classic.

A look at the interior of the Volkswagen Microbus
Volkswagen

CEO Herbert Diess said that prototype versions of the vehicle on display at recent trade shows led to encouraging feedback that convinced the company to move forward. The I.D. Buzz is expected to have 369 horsepower, a considerable boost from the 25 of the original, and might implement self-driving elements. The concept car—which may or may not make it to roads with all of the same features—has a retractable wheel and movable seats when autonomy is engaged. The future of cars is looking more and more like a portable living room.

[h/t Inhabitat]

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