A vision of an optimistic, but not uncomplicated, future

By , csmonitor.com

Most projections about our future fall into two categories - confident and enthusiastic or gloomy and pessimistic. But if you look hard enough for both perspectives, you can usually find the flip side to whatever the presenter is presenting, even in a decidedly one-sided prognostication.

Vodafone's Future Vision website is an example of a beautifully produced and unrelentingly optimistic look at future technologies - and yet there are still some unaddressed 'complications' present in the predictions. Pro or con though, the execution alone makes a visit worthwhile.

Winner of two Cannes awards (yes, they do more than movies) and last year's FWA Site Of The Year and People's Choice honors (the FWA selections made from a list of more than 26,000 nominations), Future Vision has been online since January of 2004, and has increased the host's site traffic by over 30% without the need for direct promotion.

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Opening with a bit of chirping and beeping, the splash page offers quick access to the site introduction or any of the near-future scenarios being presented. First time visitors choosing the Introduction page will encounter a text preamble along with a precisely appropriate voice for the project (you'll see, errr, I mean hear), reading the transcript for you - just in case you feel that doing it yourself is just too 20th century.

(Ah, but already we see one of the early threats of future devices doing everything for us, as those who do choose to read along will notice that the narrator, well...skips a bit, and not only leaves out a few phrases of the text, but throws the read-along cursor out of position in the process. And is it just a coincidence that the words the narrator leaves out are ones about Vodafone 'needing our input' and our being 'partners in innovation?' Hmmm...)

Leave the intro page, and a virtual Vodafone vision of lovlieness offers the surfer four scenarios through which to explore the communications wonders of tomorrow - after which she politely drops out of focus. (Though you can still see her blinking as you contemplate your future path.) The four choices? Entertaining in London, Working in Munich, Belonging in Rome, and Caring in Stockholm. When ready, you simply click on your selection, and the Vision gracefully - albeit redundantly - presses the appropriate button and sends you on your way.

Entertaining invokes the sometimes welcomed, sometimes dreaded concept of "infotainment." Options are presented in an undeniably impressive piece of Flash programming. Briefly introduced by the now out-of-sight (but no doubt, still blinking) introductress, Entertaining follows London resident, Lisa, through an evening at home or on the town - depending on surfer-chosen paths which generate a series of interactive scenes.

When loaded, each new scene contains a few hotspots highlighting some piece of technology which, when the visitor selects the "Know More" option, generates a transparent popin window (with the original image still visible behind). Here the site displays basic illustrations and a few details about the object in question, as well as an invitation for viewer feedback. (Not very detailed feedback, mind you - just "I like it." "It's OK." and "I don't like it.")

Some hotspots also offer an "Experience" option, which demonstrates the technology in action - as when Lisa gets an invitation on her wrist phone (we're still trying to catch up with Dick Tracy), from just paid friends Nina and Caroline, to hit the town. A response of, "sorry but I'm staying in" reveals an evening of reading an electronic magazine in a room decorated with digital wallpaper (decor can change at a whim), while a robotic vacuum cleaner occupies itself sucking cookie crumbs.

If Lisa decides to join her friends, we're treated to downtown and up to the minute digital billboards, electronic maps showing what's playing and where plus the hang out of friends. Should the scene get tense, just tap an automatic personal alarm system with a direct link to the proper authorities.

In the next scenario, we follow Maryke (suspiciously wearing the Vision's necklace) as she decides whether or not to cover for her under the weather boss at a Munich Museum. (One path of which takes us from Dick Tracy's Wrist TV to Maxwell Smart's Cone of Silence - but without the bulky plexiglass.)

In Rome, the young Vincenzo is faced with the options of remote jamming for an upcoming music exam or clandestinely watching a soccer match on his video-capable sunglasses while attending a family visit to grandmother's. ("Sure I'm listening Nona...GOOOOOOOOAAAALLL!!!!")

Finally, Ben tries to get back into shape with such aids as a constantly monitoring personal trainer who speaks to him through his handlebars as he bicycles around the countryside.

Naturally, given that this is a site hosted by a company which owes its existence to mobile technologies, these predictions are universally positive. But the futurists that said we'd all be commuting to work in flying cars never considered the consequences of the mid-air fender bender, and mobile phone pundits never really considered what their inventions would do to a user's driving skills. (Just be grateful that we don't have flying cars and cell phones.) So as I perused the miracles, I couldn't help but see some potentially adverse side-effects from these new technologies.

The portrayal of the e-magazine, for example, complete with embedded video, is intriguing, but when Nina et. al. pop into the page with another plea for Lisa to come downtown, I'm left with the question of, 'Can't I even read a magazine in peace?' (And imagine the pleasure of telemarketers popping into the middle of an article - you'll be praying for the return of paper, if only to use as kindling to burn the digimag.)

If I'm downtown, I'm not sure I want Nina to be able to track me down (she seems a bit overenthusiastic and potentially draining), and I can see serious domestic strife over who controls the remote to the digital wall paper. ("Anne Geddes!" "No, Anna Kournikova!") And when grandmother feeds Vincenzo's glasses into the garbage disposal, there's bound to be some degree of intergenerational tension.

That's just me, call me a pessimist - but even if all my prognostications prove correct, this look at the future is nevertheless a extraordinary piece of website design. The image quality is as good as it gets on the web, and photographs move with the mouse and zoom into some hotspots in a way that gives a feeling of life to the content.

Transitions from one scene to another are frequently executed with a zoom and blur manoeuvre which certainly holds the surfers attention, while the speed with which the voiceovers are made available is truly impressive. And, if you click through a page before the narrator is done, the speech either carries on playing behind the next page, or smoothly fades out as appropriate - a rare and very nice touch, and attention to a detail that most visitors won't even notice.

Problems? Other than the opening narration skipping some text, the site's navigation bar still shows some scenarios as "Not Open Yet" and blocks direct access, even though the entire production is up and running. In addition, when you reach the end of one scenario, there's no way to access said navigation bar in order to move on to the next - you either have to step back a page, or move sideways into the alternative choice's content in order to proceed. A "Comments About the Site" link at the bottom of the site frame also appeared inoperative.

But for visual and technological entertainment, it's a great package. So, if you're keen for a look at one multinational's communications forecast (and are perhaps inclined towards adding your a few interpretations of your own), Vodafone's Future Vision can be found at http://www.vodafone.com/flash/futures/.

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