Why sci-fi is obsessed with the near future

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Speculative designers

Speculative designer Jessica Charlesworth passes a display of sticky notes of various ideas, topics, and headlines used for brainstorming. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / March 30, 2014)

Eli Horowitz, former managing editor of the McSweeney's literary journal, is co-writer of "The Silent History," an upcoming novel spanning 33 years, from 2011 to 2044. In that time, a generation of children are born unable to speak, write or understand language. He set the book's start in 2011 to "suggest that the evolution that is happening has already started all around us. So, you gradually sprinkle in real objects with invented objects.

"But even 25 years out, my way of solving what that would look like was this: 1989 was 25 years ago, and how different or similar are we? I have Facebook now, but my life, it doesn't seem all that different to me."

Sounds like Spike Jonze's "Her," I said.

A sci-fi benchmark, he said, a film about a man's relationship with his phone's operating system that uses technology incidentally. More important are the characters and its world, which is lonely, frictionless, recognizable, like an Apple store.

"It's the emotional tenor of the future," he said. "It's how the future will feel."

A short postscript.

The other day I visited a showroom in River North. The company was Oblong Industries. It was founded in 2006 by John Underkoffler, the Media Lab alum who consulted for Marvel on "Iron Man" and created the memorable gesture-controlled wall screens that Tom Cruise used in "Minority Report." That "Minority Report" screen system? Oblong now sells it. The company opened its Chicago showroom in January, and already it's talking to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange about installing its screens. Customers have included Boeing, IBM and the U.S. Department of Defense.

So I tried it.

The room was lined with screens. Oblong's conference table in Chicago lined up perfectly with Oblong's conference table in Los Angeles, creating a kind of seamless cross-country boardroom. You could bounce images around the room and between screens. Instead of wearing gloves and waving your hands, as in the movie, you wave wands. Gloves are an option, the Oblong representative said, but, in an office, most people don't want to wear the gloves a co-worker wore. It was just like science fiction, only real.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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