Today companies like Microsoft and Sony aren't just trying to sell you the video game console of the future, they're trying to sell you the living room of the future, a central hub that connects you to your family and your family to the world. But our expectations for what tech should be included in the living room of tomorrow have evolved dramatically over the past century.
From newspapers delivered by radio in the 1930s to the internet-connected TVs of the 1990s, today we have a brief history of the living room of the future.
Home Movies, TV, and Newspaper by Radio
At the 1939 New York World's Fair, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) showed off its "Living Room of Tomorrow." Television was still very much an experimental technology, but it was an enormous hit at the Fair, where Depression-weary visitors couldn't get enough tech-utopianism. RCA's display put TV front and center in their living room of tomorrow—even if the screen was absolutely tiny.
It wasn't just TV that RCA was promising. This sleek, streamlined, ultra-modern living room of tomorrow had a movie projector, radio, record player, sound recorder, and even a fax machine that would deliver your daily newspaper by radio. RCA was experimenting with these bizarre faxpaper machines in the 1930s, gaining license from the FCC to utilize radio spectrum that went unused between midnight and 6am.
The August 1939 issue of Popular Mechanics highlighted RCA's living room set-up at the Fair:
Simple in arrangement, and soft in color because of television, the suggested “radio living room of tomorrow” at the New York World’s Fair is open to visitors, who are permitted to inspect the various sight, sound and facsimile facilities while they are in operation.
Television and proto-faxes are one thing, but it wasn't until after World War II that the living room would truly become the high-tech nerve center of the American middle class home. The postwar economic recovery and rise of leisure time meant that people looking into the future saw living rooms with increasingly sleeker TVs, video on demand, and a generally more diverse mix of media.
It's no surprise that TV has long had a central spot in the living room of the future. By 1956 about 75 percent of American homes had a television. And it was fast becoming a great American family-friendly past-time.
Home Media Library
The February 1, 1959 edition of the Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think by commercial illustrator Arthur Radebaugh imagined the "Electronic Home Library" of the near future.
From the Chicago Tribune:
Some unusual inventions for home entertainment and education will be yours in the future, such as the "television recorder" that RCA's David Sarnoff described recently.
With this device, when a worthwhile program comes over the air while you are away from home, or even while you're watching it, you'll be able to preserve both the picture and sound on tape for replaying at any time. Westinghouse's Gwilym Price expects such tapes to reproduce shows in three dimensions and color on screens as shallow as a picture.
Another pushbutton development will be projection of microfilm books on the ceiling or wall in large type. To increase their impact on students, an electronic voice may accompany the visual passages.
While I imagine that you might get a sore neck from staring at the ceiling all day, that electronic voice accompaniment would certainly alleviate the problem. This was also one of the earliest conceptions of the DVR as we know it today; if only Radebaugh had foreseen the advent of those annoying Hopper commercials, we might have headed them off at the pass.
Flatscreen and Worldwide
What happens when beaming entertainment and news all around the world becomes a reality? The 1966 book Magna Carta of Space explored what international agreements may need to be hammered out now that countries were putting humans, satellites (and potentially weapons) into space.
Their living room of the future included a flat-screen TV almost as large as yours today, but what are people watching on it? The shot of the Eiffel Tower was perhaps a wink at mid-'60s readers that the French—and their comparatively loose attitudes toward sexual imagery—might infect the American living room of tomorrow. Little did they know that the US would forgo sex for ultraviolence as its primary illicit indulgence.
The Ultimate Remote
In 1967, Walter Cronkite gave Americans a look at what was billed as the futuristic home of the year 2001. His CBS show "The 21st Century" showed Americans in the 1960s what the kitchen, office and, of course, living room of the future might look like. Designed by Philco-Ford, the house was also featured in a company-produced short film called "1999 A.D."
The living room of the future included a giant control panel from which to adjust everything from the TV to the glowing, color-changing walls.
A lot of this new free time will be spent at home. And this console controls a full array of equipment to inform, instruct and entertain the family of the future. The possibilities for the evening’s program are called up on this screen. We could watch a football game, or a movie shown in full color on our big 3D television screen. The sound would come from these globe-like speakers. Or with the push of a button we could momentarily escape from our 21st century lives and fill the room with stereophonic music from another age.
It's never said explicitly in the episode, but those light-up walls weren't just for giggles. Glowing walls actually had some utility during the Cold War, providing illumination in those windowless, concrete-reinforced rooms built as fallout shelters. The atomic concept houses of the late 1940s and '50s would often show backlit aquariums, well-lit dioramas, and colorful walls in a conscious effort to distract from the fact that they were windowless rooms.
The June 1967 issue of Radio-Electronics magazine gave readers their own take on that Philco-Ford house of the future.
Their version of the house added a holographic dimension to the TV. From the magazine:
The living room, with its wallsized television screen, is the focal point of this house.
The TV screen is three-dimensional or holographic, enabling you to look around corners almost as though you were inside the scene being projected. We expect that electroluminescence is going to be the medium for displays of this type.
Death of Film, Rise of Robots
The flatscreen high-def TV continued to be the centerpiece of the living room of the future in the 1970s. But as you can see in the illustration above from the 1979 children's book Future Cities by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis, the personal robot makes lounging in your living room that much easier.
The book lays out all of the improvements that are just around the corner for kids of the 1970s:
1. Giant-size TV. Based on the designs already available, this one has a super-bright screen for daylight viewing and stereo sound system.
2. Electronic video movie camera, requires no film, just a spool of tape. Within ten years video cameras like this could be replaced by 3-D holographic recorders.
3. Flat screen TV. No longer a bulky box, TV has shrunk to a thickness of less than five centimetres. This one is used to order shopping via a computerised shopping centre a few kilometres away. The system takes orders and indicates if any items are not in stock.
4. Video disc player used for recording off the TV and for replaying favourite films.
5. Domestic robot rolls in with drinks. One robot, the Quasar, is already on sale in the USA. Reports indicate that it may be little more than a toy however, so it will be a few years before 'Star Wars' robots tramp through our homes.
6. Mail slot. By 1990, most mail will be sent in electronic form. Posting a letter will consist of placing it in front of a copier in your home or at the post office. The electronic read-out will be flashed up to a satellite, to be beamed to its destination. Like many other electronic ideas, the savings in time and energy could be enormous.
Big TVs? Email? Blu-ray? Video cameras? Check, check, check, check. How is it that robot butler is the only one we're still missing out on?
Interactive Holographic Classics
By the 1980s the living room of the future was quite the interactive experience. Not only could you watch holographic movies, you could become a part of the action.
The 1981 kids' book Tomorrow's Home by Neil Ardley promised kids just that with a two-page spread that showed how people of the future might entertain themselves by stepping into their media:
All this could come about with developments in holographic video — a system that uses laser beams to produce images that have depth just as in real life. Once perfected, it will produce a show that takes place not on a screen but in real space — even around you. You could walk in and out of the action, and view it from any direction — the ultimate in realism. In this case, the computer that operates the system has been instructed to omit the role of Julius Caesar so as to allow you to take part. Although the images look so real, you could walk through them, so you suffer no harm from your killers' knives.
For some people, however, holographic media wasn't enough. Plugging the human body directly into the living room would prove to be the wave of the future.
The February 1982 issue of The Futurist magazine ran illustrations by Roy Mason which imagined the house of tomorrow. The "sensorium" was supposedly going to replace the family room at some far off date in the future.
The magazine explained that the circular design wasn't just for taking advantage of viewing the hologram, it also facilitated conversation. You also had the option to hook yourself up to the living room's biofeedback sensors, allowing the whole place to become one big creepy mood ring.
Home entertainment center or "sensorium" features a free-standing "holostage" that generated three-dimensional TV images from broadcast, cable, or recordings. The walls are large-screen video displays that can change color in time to music, or, linked through biofeedback sensors, respond to people's moods. Comfortable circular couch also encourages a more traditional form of entertainment — conversation.
The sensorium isn't quite eXistenZ-level of plugging in, but I suppose that's a good thing.
Microsoft's Web TV
In 1995 Microsoft produced a series of "life in the future" videos that were included on a CD-ROM with the book The Road Ahead by Bill Gates.
Their living room of the year 2004 looks pretty ordinary, but the TV of the future is revolutionary because it can talk to the internet, much like the ubiquitous "smart" TVs of today do. The whole experience actually feels a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure in the creepy way that the media personalities lay out your choices for entertainment.
The living room of the future has always been about connections; making them deeper, stronger, and more expansive. And while you can see everyone from Microsoft to Sony to Apple carrying that torch today, it's still not clear that access to more stuff has brought us closer together. If anything, in the living room of the future, we're further apart than ever.