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The Future Looks Slight

Recently on the Web I came across a collection of slides from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Its observation towers, space travel displays and futuristic Philip Johnson–designed pavilions show how easy it was to imagine a jet-pack-fueled 21st century that would improve on the already spectacular advances that had taken place.

Not having been alive in ’64, I had hopes that Wired magazine’s NextFest might spark some of that same wonder and marvel. Instead, most of the 150 exhibits showcased products with all the utility and awe of a SkyMall catalog from five years into the future. The same technologies we’ve heard promises of since childhood are still on display, still little more than concept models shuttled from event to event, a museum of a future that will never arrive.

Take robots, for example. What a bust they turned out to be. The promises of flying, cooking and washing our spaceships are long gone. The big tasks for today’s robots include swaying, lightly kicking a soccer ball, sitting perfectly still and bouncing to a song by Spoon. An info sheet for the Kiyomori Samurai robot claimed it’s “ushering in the new world robot order.” Nervous yet? How about this: “It was born to lead Japanese robots in their quest to set the world standard.” Its glowing red eyes are not necessarily an indication that it’s ready to kill, though a lovely woman in a kimono pointed out that the samurai robot is armed with a sword. But even with a half dozen Japanese men and women fiddling with it constantly, I never saw the robot move.

There’s the solar car, sleek and beautiful, even with no obvious way to get in or out of it. When will we see one driving around? No one says, but there’s a photo of a hybrid model that might be sold as early as 2009. It looks like a golf cart, immediately dooming it to marketplace failure and keeping us on the oil pipe.

Other vehicles include an expensive amphibious tank called the Fasttrack (think early ’70s James Bond) , a personal helicopter (mid-’80s James Bond) , and something called a Wheelsurf, which will remind any South Park fan of the contraption Mr. Garrison invented more than five years ago. This one, however, doesn’t appear to require a fourth handle, which made the South Park version, um, somewhat uncomfortable.

Some of NextFest’s most remarkable advances were in the health exhibit. A woman named Carrie Davis talked about prosthetic limbs while tossing a water bottle back and forth between her hands for several minutes before I realized that one of her hands wasn’t flesh and blood. She was wearing one of the products.Kids gathered around and felt her plastic arm. They shook hands with her, and I couldn’t help thinking that four years into our war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this company’s business must be booming.

I walked right past the LifeStraw, possibly the best invention in the building, yet easy to miss in its simplicity. A halogen-based resin in a plastic tube removes viruses from unclean water, which is the only water 1 billion people in the world have. No video screens, flashing lights or talking interface — just a tool that can improve the lives and health of millions of people.

“Education day” at NextFest meant hundreds of elementary school kids shuttled between robots and video games like flocks of starlings. Which exhibitor kept the children most entertained? Why, defense conglomerate Northrop Grumman, naturally. At its “Information Station” the kids could spin a wheel for prizes, learn about the moon and marvel at the toylike model of the unmanned aerial drone RQ-4 Global Hawk hovering above them. The weapons manufacturer also handed out ink pens, which both kids and adults snatched up, including me. Inspecting mine later, I realized it had a magnet on it, along with a warning to keep the pen away from your pacemaker.

The Lunar X Prize contest was also announced. Google will award up to $30 million in prize money to the team that can get a robot to the moon, send back images and cover 500 meters. Considering the disappointing state of robot dexterity on display at NextFest, Google won’t have to worry about writing that check anytime soon.

Want to check out that aerial drone? For a slideshow of NextFest images go to laweekly.com.