Rants & Essays

A Peek Into the Future

By Paul Somerson

It's fine to speculate about the future. It's even better to experience it yourself. So we were all (mouse) ears to hear about Walt Disney World's Innoventions - a new Epcot exhibit featuring technology leaders like Apple, AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Silicon Graphics, and offering "a special sneak preview of products for the near future."

Maybe we should have been worried that the same Disney press blurb also hyped attractions like "Disney Presents Bill Nye the Science Guy…He'll…blow steam out of his nose…pound nails with a frozen banana…" But we couldn't pass up a chance to see the future firsthand.

Epcot was lush and green, the result of the daily tropical deluge that had turned the place into an ankle-deep lake. We slogged our way into the exhibit through the roiling mosh pit of waterlogged future-seekers in cheap yellow Disney rain ponchos.

Some future. It was pretty much limited to a simulated home with fancy thermostats, a coffin-sized AT&T telephone with enormous buttons, a dated picturephone, and a ton of video games and geeky educational software. Few actual products were on display. Instead, everywhere we saw printed signs that were short on devices and long on promises.

Tumbling 3-D images on rows of IBM displays caught my eye. As my finger pressed the screen where it said "Touch Here," the system crashed. An omen?

Nearby was a chance to go behind the scenes to see previously secret workings in a laboratory as computer graphics "wizards" developed a virtual reality attraction. Silicon Graphics logos were plastered all over the place. But when we tried to enter, Disney goons spotted our press camera and barred the door.

We explained that we had made previous arrangements with the PR department. We showed them the entrance passes the PR folks had left for us at the main gate. We flashed the Disney PR card the press representative had sent us. No joy.

These folks were mean. They're the kind who would shotgun Bambi, then tear out his heart and stomp on it. Only after hours of phone calls back to the mouse politburo did they grudgingly relent.

Once inside, we watched an unsuspecting victim struggle inside his insect-like virtual-reality helmet. A monitor above his head displayed what he was seeing. He obviously hadn't quite gotten the swing of things and kept careening across the virtual city, smashing hopelessly into walls. Not much future here.

Near the exit were a few Apple workers toying with an inoperative global positioning tracker. We asked about other futuristic hand-held devices. They led us over to the Hammacher Schlemmer area beside theirs.

A pair of night vision goggles sat on a shelf. "Could we take a photo of those?"

Panic. The word must have gotten around. "No! I'm not authorizing you to take a picture!"

"But aren't those just the ones on sale in every Hammacher Schlemmer catalog in the country, and in the gift shop next door?"

"Yes, but I absolutely can't authorize you to take a picture."

We turned the corner. A Disney cop materialized from out of the shadows and blocked our path.

So far, the whole visit had been a bust - and we were about to be busted. "I'd like to see some ID, boys."

Clots of tourists all around us were strobing their Instamatics like groupies at a Metallica concert. "Are you going to stop these people from using their cameras, too?"

"Yes, if we have to! Every single one!" He wandered off with our paperwork.

It's a tough mouse-eat-mouse world out there. What were they so intensely afraid of? "The Shocking Expose': COMPUTER MAGAZINE BLOWS LID OFF THEME PARK RACKET!"

The Disney cop returned. It was clear that even after making arrangements and flying 3,000 miles, we were not welcome. We quickly headed for the exits.

I turned to my photographer, a highly respected photojournalist who had spent some time in Iraq documenting the plight of the Kurds. He had told me how the police were everywhere over there, and how you had to really be on your toes to avoid getting into serious trouble. I asked him if he had been hassled more in Iraq or at Disney.

"Disney."

Maybe this really was the future. Long lines. Video screens everywhere. Rampant commercialism. Everything overpriced. Lots of unfulfilled expectations. A consumer market expressed mostly as violent, expensive, kiddie games. Broken promises. Secret police popping out of the woodwork.

Walt must be spinning in his stainless steel cryotank time capsule.