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LOOKING AT THE PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE OF COMPUTING

(Written in 1996 and published in the Utah Statesman newspaper.)

In the late 1960s, what was to become the Internet was born. At that time, the now-popular term “home computer” was nowhere to be found. Computers were scarce. The transistor was still relatively new technology and computing machines did not fit on your desktop. Instead, they dwarved your desk. Computers in this era were reserved for big companies (for dataprocessing), the military, NASA, or for research (at well-to-do schools).

During this early time period in the life of the Internet, the idea of using a computer to do the function of a typewriter was absurd. This was not because the computers lacked the power to store and manipulate text, but because computer resources were so expensive. Time-share systems of that era were carefully scheduled to attempt to squeeze every last CPU cycle into some productive process.

My how things have changed. While CPU time was a precious resource in the late 1960s, we now think nothing of letting our computer sit idle while we sit back, close our eyes, and try to think of another word for “aphrodesiac”

I wonder what the original researchers of the ARPANet (the great grand-daddy to the Internet) would have thought if someone from 1996 showed up showing them a Sony Playstation. Could it have been believable 27 years in the future computers you could hold in your hands would be hundreds, if not thousands, times more powerful than the computing machines putting men on the moon then?

But then again, who would have thought in the 1940s, when vacuum tube- driven room-size computing machines were just barely coming into existence, that computers would be playing a big part in putting men on the moon 30 years later? The 1940s idea of computers included large, energy-inefficient machines that demanded more in maintainence and power costs than the output they were capable of producing. It would probably have been difficult for someone then to imagine using a computing machine to help launch astronauts into space.

Even three years ago, when the World Wide Web was just beginning to see widespread exposure, many Internet veterans frowned upon the thought of using precious network bandwidth for the purpose of transfering trivial text and image data. Yet, three years later, this form of information distribution has become commonplace and an accepted standard.

We can use these constantly resurfacing patterns in technology to hopefully grasp some idea of what the future of computing holds. It goes without saying that computer-related resources will continue to become better and less expensive. For example, Ten years ago you were envy of most computer users if you had a 1200 baud modem. Today, 28,800 baud modems are often more affordable than a 1200 baud modem was then.

It's also safe to assume that 30 years in the future we will be using computers for purposes which we might today think to be unimaginable (or ridiculous, for that matter).

In the last five years, the term multimedia has become tightly associated with personal computing. This concept of incorporating video and audio into computer applications has changed the landscape of computing permanently. While the audible/visible computer experience today is limited to specialized applications or games, it is without a doubt in the next ten years new software products will explore new horizons for this technology. The distinction between computers and traditional forms of audio/video media (such as television) will become vague.

Virtual Reality is not much of a reality at all today. There is a lot of hype surrounding this technology, but the hassles and expense still leave it a distant technology. Who wants to have wires and cables duct-taped to their body while they carry a TV set strapped to their head just so they can extend their hand in a grasping motion to see something vaguely similar on the TV screen?

Sure, VR is in its infancy, but I think in the next 30 years completely immersive virtual reality technology will become commonplace. And it won't just be used by virtual-blood-thirsty teenage males as they play the newest hit VR game, “Murder Everything in Sight XIV.” We will use this technology to communicate with each other, to interact with our computer programs, and who knows what else!

Anyone who has typed for a long period of time knows the hand was not made for keyboards (or mouses, for that matter.) The hand is best used in making gestures. In an immersive virtual reality system, you could put yourself “inside” your term paper, compose it by voice and move paragraphs around with a wave of your hand.

Some futurists envision a future where computers have become so much of a commodity we'll wear computers as clothing. One might ask the question, “Why in the world for?” It takes some creative thought to think of some uses for computer-clothing. One good idea would be a computer system which constantly monitors vital signs, but is not otherwise restricting to the person's lifestyle.

And how about a people tracking system? Something like the &lqduo;comm-badges” that the crew of the starship Enterprise all have in Star Trek. Embedded global positioning systems and communications systems would allow you to always know where you are and how to get to where you're going as well as contact others or find out where they are. “Computer! Where is the nearest restroom?!”

Speculation about the future of computing can be an endless affair. Regardless, it can always be said that computers will continue to do more for less and we will continue to take it all for granted. Unfortunately, looking 30 years in the future is quite difficult to do with any real accuracy, especially considerring what we've seen in the last 30 years.