21 Years After AT&T Showed Us Their Vision of the Future, How Right Were They?

In 1994, the future seemed pretty amazing. I was spending most of my senior year at Boston University either browsing USENET through my BU Internet account (for which you had to apply, you didn’t just “get one” back then) or hanging out in the chat rooms on America Online (not AOL, it wouldn’t make that formal change for another few years) as PSPhotog.

And AOL had it all, let me tell you. For a few extra cents (plus the $2.99 per dial-up hour we were already being charged) I could write a letter and AOL would send it as a fax! The future really was here, and, if you believed AT&T, it was only going to get better.

Around mid-1994, AT&T released a series of ads called “You Will,” highlighting things that seemed completely futuristic at the time, and now seem either normal, quaint, or ridiculously outdated. Directed by David Fincher, who would later go onto direct Fight Club, Gone Girl, and be part of the creation of House of Cards, the ads made most geeks like myself giddy for the future, amazed by what was coming just a few years down the road.

Twenty-one years later, I thought it might be fun to take a look at what Fincher and AT&T got right and got wrong. Enjoy!

First, all seven commercials, posted as one run. Enjoy! (Two bits of trivia, by the way: The woman tucking her baby in from a pay phone? None other than a pre-famous Jenna Elfman. Also the whole series of commercials was narrated by none other than Magnum P.I. himself, Tom Selleck.)

Let’s see how right they really were…

So let’s go through them, one by one, and see how AT&T did at predicting the future.

HAVE YOU EVER: Borrowed a book from thousands of miles away? In this opening to the first commercial, a woman with a “future hat” sits in a futuristic library, looking at an actual book on a screen, and clicks a button on her computer to turn a page, thousands of miles away. Not even taking into account the logistics that this would require, (“Joe, someone in Tacoma wants to read Great Expectations. Can you load the book into the computer-page-turner, please?”) AT&T seems to have way overthinked this one. Thanks to Google Books, virtually anything printed is available online for free, or at least to purchase. While it’s still nice to hold an aged copy of a classic in your hands, it’s doubtful students will ever again know the feeling of having to go to the library, up to the top of the dusty stacks, (after using the Dewey Decimal System) to find the research they need. FUTURE GRADE: D

HAVE YOU EVER: Crossed the country without stopping for directions? The second question in AT&T’s first commercial is dead accurate. This was still six years before then President Clinton declassified GPS technology for consumer and commercial use, so someone at AT&T had an inside connection to the military. I remember driving across the country to graduate school having to use a map, a printed out and highlighted TripTik from the AAA, and fighting with my mother over what route we were actually supposed to take. FUTURE GRADE: A+

HAVE YOU EVER: Sent a fax from the beach? Ouch. This one hurt to watch. It shows a man in a beach chair using a device probably three times as large and six times as thick, to write a note with a stylus, and click “send” when he’s done. He then puts the gigantic device back in his bag, and walks to the water, obviously free from the chains of the office, from where 1994-era people have to send faxes. What’s wrong here? Well, he’d only have one device with him, it’d be a ton smaller, it probably wouldn’t have a stylus, oh, and HE WOULDN’T BE SENDING A FAX IN THE FUTURE. AT&T isn’t the only one to screw up here — Remember Back to the Future II? “MCFLY! READ MY FAX! YOU’RE FIRED,” as faxes print out from all over Marty’s 2015 house, including the bathroom. So yeah. Not so much on this one, AT&T. I’ll send you an email about it later. FUTURE GRADE: F

HAVE YOU EVER: Paid a toll without slowing down? Well, they were almost right here. They knew EZ-Pass was coming, no doubt. But what missed was the actual payment part. I can only imagine they didn’t think that all the way through. Swiping your credit card in your car, each time you pass a toll booth? And to think, nowadays we’re all worried about texting while driving. I really don’t seee how swiping a credit card at 70mph is the safest thing you could do. AT&T should have known that if the device knew you were approaching a toll, it would be able to pay it linked to your credit card as well, without you having to do anything other than keep your eyes on the road. FUTURE GRADE: C+

HAVE YOU EVER: Bought concert tickets from a cash machine? No. While ATMs were incredibly prevalent by 1994, the concept of thinking ahead towards a world of devices and apps hadn’t hit yet. Much like the fax from the beach, AT&T took current products and tried to imagine them more futuristic, instead of imagining futuristic products themselves. Thus, the ATM for concert tickets idea failed. Additionally, if you look at 2015, where both Apple and Google Pay become more prevalent by the day, the concept of an ATM might be outdated soon enough, as well. I won’t go so far as to give this one an “F,” because of the nice touch of making the ATM handicapped-accessible. FUTURE GRADE: D-

HAVE YOU EVER: Tucked your baby in from a phone booth?Again, great idea but very poor implementation. Doubly so when you think that AT&T was and is a phone company yet should have been thinking well beyond the pay phone. I got my first cell phone in 1992, and yes, it was a Zak Morris phone. But by 1994, they were more and more prevalent, and AT&T should have been thinking this as well. Especially since, a mere 13 years later, the iPhone was introduced exclusively on… wait for it… AT&T. Fail on this one, as I don’t think video-pay-phones ever made it past the science fiction phase, (but props for the Jenna Elfman pre-fame cameo.) FUTURE GRADE: D-

HAVE YOU EVER: Opened doors with the sound of your voice? Now we’re back on track. This technology currently exists, has for a few years, and is installed in countless homes and businesses around the world. It’s common-place on high-security vaults and safes, and standard issue in the military. I also believe that voiceprint identification will become the next password technology, making it much more secure than having to remember long phrases which we then inevitably write down, defeating their purpose. So on this front, AT&T hit a home run. FUTURE GRADE: A+

HAVE YOU EVER: Carried your medical history in your wallet? This is pretty on-point, in some ways. RoadID makes a wristband that you wear in case you ever get knocked out during a run or a bike ride. First responders can enter a code on the back of it and get access to your vital medical information. There are countless companies out there looking to make your medical history available in the cloud whenever you or a doctor need it. So while it might not be “in your wallet,” they were pretty close with this one. FUTURE GRADE: B+

HAVE YOU EVER: Attended a meeting in your bare feet? This one is dead on. The image shows a man on the porch of his beach house, talking to a bunch of people in the office via his laptop. Honestly, this looks exactly like a rudimentary version of Skype or FaceTime. I hold ShankMinds video calls every Friday using software from Fuze, and I’ve held them from hotels, airports, and while simply walking down the street. FUTURE GRADE: A+

HAVE YOU EVER: Watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to? Again, dead on here. Between Netflix, Hulu, and heck, just cable VOD, there’s nothing more to say here. AT&T nailed this one 100%. FUTURE GRADE: A+

HAVE YOU EVER: Learned special things from far-away places? This is a toss-up. AT&T imagined five kids around a big computer screen, learning in real-time while they can ask questions of a teacher thousands of miles away. Well, some of this does exist, yes. It’s similar to attending a meeting in your bare feet, I guess. But the flip-side is online education, which over the past five years, has become a massive industry. That’s an entirely different idea from what AT&T was suggesting here, but their idea here does exist, so I give them partial credit on this one. FUTURE GRADE: B+

HAVE YOU EVER: Checked out of a supermarket, a whole cart at a time? Out of all of AT&T’s predictions, this is the one I’m most sad about not yet coming true. I think in this situation, they were imagining some kind of precursor to RFID which, for consumers, never really took off. This is a mega-bummer because how awesome would it be to just put your whole cart on the conveyor belt and be checked out in five seconds? Of course, the commercial seems to omit the need for bagging, but that’s neither here nor there. Really bummed to have to fail this one, as it simply doesn’t exist yet. PS: Self-checkout doesn’t count in my opinion. FUTURE GRADE: F

HAVE YOU EVER: Put your heads together when you’re not together? This was another good call by AT&T, but again, very similar to the working in bare feet spot. This shows two doctors analyzing an injury to a football player by sharing data online. It’s very doable in today’s world, but it feels like another ripoff from above. FUTURE GRADE C+ (B+ minus one grade for copying)

HAVE YOU EVER: Gotten a phone call on your wrist? Well, what can I say? Samsung Galaxy Gear, Apple Watch. Enough said. The ONLY flaw that I’ll point out here, is that the commercial itself shows a guy in the mountains lifting his wrist to answer his phone. However, we don’t see the phone. This assumes that the phone is in the watch, not simply connected to it. Oh, and the fact that he gets cellular reception in the mountains. FUTURE GRADE: A-

HAVE YOU EVER: Had a classmate who’s thousands of miles away? Another hit for distance learning, this time in elementary and pre-schools. While the technology exists to do this, I don’t think the bureaucracy has lifted enough to let it happen. So, a middle grade for this one. FUTURE GRADE: C+

HAVE YOU EVER: Conducted business in a language you don’t understand? This was another somewhat accurate nod to the future. While the ad shows real-time translation as the video call progresses, which really isn’t that accurate, the concept of applications like Google Translate have made doing business in another language much, much simpler than in the 90s when these commercials aired. FUTURE GRADE: B

HAVE YOU EVER: Kept an eye on your home, when you’re not at home? Another dead-on prediction for AT&T. I was in Tokyo last week, and I pulled out my app from Brickhouse Security, and watched my daughter sleeping in real time, while checking the temperature and humidity levels in her room. I was also able to make sure my wife remembered to activate the alarm system and shut off all the lights. (She did.) As a thank you for her doing that, I lowered the thermostat in the bedroom so she’d sleep more comfortably. I did all this from my hotel in Asia, over 8,000 miles away. FUTURE GRADE: A+

HAVE YOU EVER: Renewed your driver’s license from a cash machine? What’s up with all these ATM references, AT&T? Did you think they were going to be the dominant life-form on earth in 20 years? This one failed for several reasons, the least of which being that the bureaucracy of any given state’s DMV would prevent this from ever happening. While NYC and other states have launched “DMV Express” stations that let you do basic things with fewer lines, and while you can do some basic DMV things online, the concept of doing anything like this outside of a central office is still very foreign to us here in 2015. FUTURE GRADE: D+

HAVE YOU EVER: Fixed your car with your television? Not so far-fetched here. While the advertisement shows a live person helping the guy with his broken car, everything else is sound — I was biking three years ago and got a flat. I didn’t know how to change my bike tire so well, but I had my phone and I had Youtube. Fifteen minutes later, I had a new tire put on my bike. With various “experts for hire” sites all over the Internet today, this isn’t that crazy of a prediction. FUTURE GRADE: A-

HAVE YOU EVER: Had an assistant who lived in your computer? This one is funny. My first thought was Microsoft’s “Clippy.” After that, it makes some sense. There are countless apps that will “help” you do whatever you need, from making dinner reservations to looking up things in real-time. Amazon Echo can tell you the weather, play music, or write your shopping list, all from a one-foot high device in the kitchen, while Siri and Google Now can do almost anything you ask them to. Then there are sites/apps like Charlie, who are supposed to find info on the people with whom you have upcoming meetings. (Sadly, though, Charlie has failed the last three times I’ve used it, giving me wrong info about wrong people.) So AT&T was onto something here, but I wouldn’t say it lived in your desktop computer that, without question, was connected to a 56.6bps modem. FUTURE GRADE: B

FINAL AT&T FUTURE GRADE: B-.

I think the bigger question here, however, isn’t so much how much of their individual predictions came true but, rather, did the one main prediction that they put on every ad come true? I.e., with the technology we do have now, is it all brought to us by AT&T? The answer is obviously a resounding “no.”

While AT&T controls some of the pipes that deliver us our information, the majority of their predictions here do not come from AT&T today. In fact, the majority of them come from companies that were either horribly struggling in 1994 (Think Apple) or hadn’t even been invented when these commercials aired. Skype? Didn’t even enter the world until 1998. While AT&T is still a major player in the mobile world, the concept of an all-AT&T world, from apps to networks, from pipes to computers, is far from a reality in 2015.

In the end, this was a great campaign, designed to not only inspire, but to give us hope of a brighter tomorrow. I believe it did both. The real question is, what would an advertisement today predict for 2045?

Thanks for reading! Leave a thought in the notes. After all… You will.