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Here’s what 2009-era Microsoft thought life would be like in 2019

This future looks… oddly familiar.

Here’s what 2009-era Microsoft thought life would be like in 2019
[Image: Microsoft Office Labs]

I’m not sure what I was hoping for. Maybe something akin to Intel’s 1997 ad featuring a bunch of bunny suit guys dancing to Boom Boom Pow in the world’s lamest rave. Or a vintage, circa-2000 Steve Ballmer flip-out.

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But the video that Microsoft produced in 2009, imagining what technology would look like in 2019, isn’t the massively embarrassing tech giant equivalent to a senior photo that I expected. The decade-old video, which was recently unearthed by Reddit, feels oddly contemporary. In fact, based on the technology it envisions–from gestural interfaces to urban green roofs–it could easily have been produced in 2019.

From the looks of it, the future of technology is a flat circle.

Microsoft’s old video hits many familiar future tropes: Every phone is a clear slab of glass. Every object, from plane tickets to coffee cups, is “smart” and has its own LCD screen. Every desk is a smart desk, and every wall is a smart wall. Newspapers rearrange themselves before your eyes, and information hops between all of these screens and objects with a swipe of your hand. Data is everywhere!

These fictional concepts are, by now, as familiar as the real thing. They’re shorthand for the future–the lorem ipsum of advanced tech. You can find them in movies, or in prescription drug commercials, or in a pitch for car insurance, and your brain’s response is probably something like, “Yup, that’s the world of tomorrow.”

[Image: Microsoft Office Labs]

So why do these utopian depictions of the future always feel just out of reach? Because, for the most part, hardware itself hasn’t radically changed. The smartphones and laptops we use now are relatively similar to what we used around the time Microsoft imagined this future. While “smart” cups, e-paper, and smart desks do exist, they haven’t been successful at scale yet. And the kind of gestural control that Microsoft depicted us having to move data between devices is entirely plausible, yet still hasn’t made it into any popular tech products. Mark my words: We will get flying cars before I’m able to just swipe a PowerPoint presentation from my iPhone to a projector at a Sheraton Inn and Suites conference room.

[Image: Microsoft Office Labs]
To Microsoft’s credit, the company was right about some of the tech in this video. It’s just that these products have changed the world in quieter ways than this video imagined. Real-time language translation? It exists. Cameras that can recognize plants or pretty much anything else they see? Yup. Machine learning, AI, and cloud technologies have advanced exponentially since 2009–ballooning Microsoft’s profits in the process. In November Apple, the company that gave us the biggest hardware revolution in decades, became less valuable than Microsoft, a company that has built its business on cloud computing and AI.

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If only that stuff was as flashy as a transparent glass smartphone, we could finally stop making videos about transparent glass smartphones.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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