Bryan Caplan  

I Lived to See the Future

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In 1982, TSR released a science-fiction role-playing game called Star Frontiers.  The rules weren't great, but I loved the campaign world - so much that I recently started running a new game for my kids using the Star Frontiers universe and the Mutants and Masterminds rules. 

While re-reading the 1982 books, I was amused to see that that one of SF's "futuristic" devices is already obsolete in the real world.  It's called a "chronograph/communicator."

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The Basic Game Rules explains:
This device looks like a large wristwatch, but it can do many things. It is a watch with a lighted face that can be used as a stopwatch; it is a mini-calculator; it is a radio/video communicator that can be used to talk with other characters up to 5 kilometers away. It can be used to summon the police or a rental skimmer, as well.
5 km away!  Can you believe it?

I was also amused by the SF ID card:
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All characters carry an ID card. An ID card can be used only by its owner, because the computers which read ID cards also scan the character's thumbprint.

ID cards are commonly used as credit cards. When a character buys something, his ID card must be inserted into a computer. He places his thumb (or paw, or digit, or pseudopod) on a screen so the character can verify his identity, and then the money is deducted automatically from the character's bank account. This same process is used to pay for monorail rides and rented skimmers. Money can be deposited into an account without the card, but the card is needed to get money out.

OK, thumbprint ID cards aren't common yet, but in 1982 buying stuff by inserting cards into computers seemed almost as remote as personal jetpacks.  But thanks to three decades of economic growth, my kids take digital money for granted, because they've never known a world that worked any other way.

Question for Geeks: Which SF device is coming to the real world next?  The poly-vox is my pick.
A poly-vox is a specialized computer that can be worn around the throat. It translates a message that it hears in one language into another language, and then repeats it. It can learn an unknown language if it can be programmed with key phrases, and then exposed to the language for 1-100 hours (see Language). A character does not need computer skill to use a poly-vox.
P.S. Pictures are taken from Star Frontiers: Basic Game Rules (copyright 1982 TSR Hobbies).


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
guthrie writes:

The Army is already working on Exoskeleton prototypes... that'd be my vote.

Dan Weber writes:

Some of the technology on Star Trek: TNG is already archaic. Watch the excellent episode "Darmok" and realize that with Google they would have solved it in about 10 seconds.

scott clark writes:

Dan Weber,
How would Google have solved the language problem? Assuming the Darmok speakers didn't have their foundational stories up in a place searchable by google, since contact had been so limited between the Federation and whatever that race was called.
It seemed to me the univerasal translator was working perfectly, translating all the nouns and verbs correctly and leaving proper nouns alone. It was just that the Federation had never before bothered to figure out what they were really trying to communicate with those particular combinations of names, places, nouns and verbs.

Dan Weber writes:

The relevant stories were all in the Federation database. But Data and Troi (IIRC) needed to collate themselves together manually. They asked about one keyword, got a list, and then another keyword, got another list, and happened to notice one story being common to both lists.

Today it's pretty obvious that a computer can solve that very easily its own.

Zac Gochenour writes:

A polyvox would be pretty cool, and I suspect you're right that something like that will appear soon.

I think it is funny that many of the devices seem totally unimpressive (eg high-quality sunglasses) and yet "subspace radio" is on the list also with the description "A subspace message crosses one light-year in one hour."

Why does the exoskeleton provide no extra protection to the wearer?

I also think its possible we'd see something like the toxyrad gauge, it doesn't seem too far off from devices that already exist. http://www.delphian.com/electrochemical%20sensors.htm

Mike Hammock writes:

Wow, I loved Star Frontiers. I didn't even think the rules were all that bad, particularly the Zebulon's Guide revised version (although the space combat was extremely clunky). I liked that everything had percentages.

The chronocom (as it's called in the advanced rules) is still nifty in the sense that it's a walkie-talkie crammed into a wristwatch. Sure, cell phones have a long range, but only with antennas and satellites scattered around. The polyvox worked on a remote uninhabited planet, too! Still, it does seem pretty unimaginative. We'll shrink a multifunction walkie-talkie/computer down to wristwatch size before long.

The Phraselator isn't quite as cool as the polyvox, but it's still cool.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phraselator

Looking at the other SF equipment (and ignoring the weapons and defenses, because really, who cares about them?):
http://www.f4fbbs.com/StarFrontiers/rules/ADXTOC/sfadx-23.htm
http://www.f4fbbs.com/StarFrontiers/rules/ZEBTOC/SFZEB-23.HTM#misc

None of it looks terribly futuristic nowe. I guess the Crete Sprayer would be neat.


azmyth writes:

If you've ever played the hard sci fi game Traveller, you'll be struck by how much of the technology listed there seems obsolete. To be fair to the game, it does list seperate technology levels that worlds can be assigned, but even the most advanced stuff seems a bit primitive. It's the only sci fi game where you need to use Kepler's laws to determine travel time between planets.

gahusker writes:

Oh man -- Star Frontiers. I totally forgot about that game. Never before has an Econ blog made me feel like I was in my parent's basement overdosing on Mountain Dew.

Duncan writes:

Eric Raymond points out that the tricorder from Star Trek is now (give or take) reality:

Doc Merlin writes:

The military already uses handheld translators that work like the poly-vox.

Sol writes:

Somewhat surprised to see you are using the M&M rules instead. I got really frustrated with them when I was playing in a superhero game a few years back. In particular, the fact that d20s were rolled by both attacker and defender created a weird situation where my hero would miss his opponent about 80% of the time, but when he did hit would usually knock them back several miles.

Silas Barta writes:

Darmok and your mom at Boril.

botogol writes:

Google is working on Polyvox for Android..

http://mashable.com/2010/02/08/speech-to-speech/#

A New Zealand company is making good progress on exoskeletons
http://dvice.com/archives/2010/07/even-new-zealan.php

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