The future is closer than we think
THE VISAPHONE, 1961: "Either party would be able to switch off the image transmission if desired..."
Imagine, if you will, a visaphone — a contraption where, according to the above comic, ‘your picture would be transmitted along the wires, together with your voice; and of course you’d receive a picture from the other end, also.’
Not a big deal in 2017, when 77 percent of Americans have a smartphone. But it was a spectacular fantasy in 1961, when 20% of U.S. households had no telephone — let alone an ever-present presence in your pocket that can video call the furthest corners of the world.
Illustrator Arthur Radebaugh, who envisioned and illustrated the visaphone—and numerous other futuristic visions—was born in Detroit. He began as an industrial designer for auto ads in the 30s, going on to design sleek ad campaigns for Chrysler and Coca-Cola. Radebaugh’s syndicated comic strip Closer Than We Think ran from 1958 to 1963, delighting up to 19 million readers at its peak with visions he called “halfway between science fiction and designs for modern living.”
But by the time of his death in 1974, he’d faded away into obscurity. There isn’t a single known video of him or even an audio recording of his voice — though filmmaker Brett Ryan Bonowicz has been searching for years. Bonowicz’s documentary film, Closer Than We Think, opened in December. He’s inspired by Radebaugh’s design elements and ideas—and the optimism throughout.
That optimism happened after WW2, Bonowicz notes. Radebaugh’s pre-war work (including covers for Motor Magazine), is stark, with harsh lines. But after the war, in a world teetering on whether society would continue to exist, his work changed—and so did his signature, from a more formal Art Deco style to a futuristic look.
The comic strips are brightly colored with bold lines, presenting innovative infrastructure, transportation options, contraptions and gadgets that are either here or… in Radebaugh’s immortal words: closer than we think. “A number of his predictions have come true,” Bonowicz told IBM. “They’re not exactly what we have — but his ideas are correct.” So how much did Radebaugh get right?
We asked Miro Holecy, a transportation and national infrastructure CTO in IBM’s Global Center of Competence for Government, to look at the artist’s comic strips and weigh in. He — like many people today — had never heard of Radebaugh, but marveled at the visionary comics. The ‘safe navigation of aircraft’ courtesy of the ‘computers of the future’ in Radebaugh’s Computer Navigation? Obviously already happening.
Same for electric vehicles. Above, a small electric car ‘run by batteries, boasting hot rod agility’ is out for a jaunty weekend drive to a local roadside fruit stand. GM’s EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle, was released in 1996—and it’s predicted that by 2025, one in six new cars will be electric.
Radebaugh’s ‘robot driving’ concept— a combination of automonous driving and electric vehicles— is one of Bonowicz’s favorites. Radebaugh depicts the car as front loading, “almost like personal railroads.”
“He got it mostly right, but not quite,” Bonowicz said. “It’s fascinating.”
Holecy said that one of the first big pushes we’ll see in autonomous vehicles will be in mass transport systems: “There’s a general trend that cities would like to take the streets back to bikes and walking, get rid of cars, and get people onto public transport.”
The technology is there, or nearly there — but needs to be adopted by urban planners, according to Holecy, with a crucial consideration: a shift in the way we think about cities and personal transportation. “Many things in people’s minds have to change.”
And that’ll happen sooner than we think, Holecy believes—thanks to the interactions made possible by the Internet of Things.
Radebaugh’s mailman of the future? Impossible just two or three years ago, according to Holecy. But today, companies are getting ready to deliver mail via drone, and the world’s first drone delivery service launched in Iceland this August. That’s happening because the AI revolution is fusing many technologies: “It’s all coming together and we can see the potential.”
Take Radebaugh’s living room of the future, with its ‘wall to wall television (world-wide)’. When you look at the amount of tech in an average home today, it’s very much an interactive space, Holecy said, where people are more and more connected both with each other — and their cities.
That last part is one of Holecy’s specialties, and it’s an area where people are having higher and higher expectations based on other areas of their lives. “Governments are realizing they need to have closer interactions with their citizens,” he said. That need for engagement is also a need for data and it’s where AI comes in, scanning data sources to figure out how to best help people.
“So many of [Radebaugh’s pieces] are optimistic,” Bonowicz said, whether they depict living on another planet or cultivating a Space Monkey colony.
Holecy also picks up on that optimism: “If civilization could use everything at its disposal, who knows what we could achieve?”