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Nathan Davies
'Unfortunately, almost everything that you could buy was either pointless, irrelevant or too expensive and the things that you really would have liked to take home were not for sale'.

Robots. Holograms. Clones. Super computers. Space travel. An end to known diseases and the creation of new, more deadly weapons. As a people born in an era of fast developing technologies, brought up on tales of science fiction and living in a present when science fact is, at the very least, keeping pace with that fiction, it is little wonder that our ideas of the future are so fantastic.

However, on a recent visit to Earl ’s Court, London, I discovered, for the most part, the world of tomorrow will be a little bit more down to earth. The first indicator that the Tomorrow’s World Live Event 2001 ( was going to fall some way short of a new millennial space age was the venue. While I wasn’t expecting Earl’s Court 2 to be some sort of pristine laboratory or stainless chromed space station, I was hoping for something a bit, well, special. What I was presented with, however, was a large hall divided into sections by various temporary structures, encircled by overpriced eateries from whence the majority of the very modern, ever present litter seemed to spawn.

It was (and presumably still is, albeit in a slightly different configuration) a practical and accommodating, if a little care worn, space, but it certainly wasn’t new, and neither were all of the displays. For example, two of the largest displays in the Engineering World section (curiously one of the smallest areas at the event) were run by the Royal Navy and Airforce. Disappointingly, despite the former having recently field-tested their new super carrier and the latter being one of the partners in the revived Euro-fighter project both were being represented by less than cutting edge technology. Similarly, one half of the Cyber World Exhibit was also given over to robots of the here and now (including three finalists from the last two series of the British Technogames). At least in that area, however, there was a greater sense of balance between the worlds of today and tomorrow with the UK debut of Sony’s new robot cat, Aibo, and robotics displays from all of the university teams associated with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Satisfying different, though not especially futuristic, each of the EPSRC designs showcased represents ongoing research into various aspects of robotic ‘ evolution’. For example, the micro-robot football system created by a team from Plymouth University in the south- west of England is the first step in programming robots to work in teams (as well as a potential web-cast global cyber-league). The much larger, but still very basic, robot gorilla, is, according to a spokeswoman for the team from the University of Salford, represents an attempt to combine the stability in walking of a quadruped with a manual dexterity capable of performing complex or delicate tasks. This would make it the perfect ‘animal’ for exploration in environments hazardous to human beings. Among the other robots present were those competing in this year’s international championship of Robot Wars which, though essentially separate from the main show, was being filmed there live for broadcast in September and took up a full quarter of the floor space.

The only area within Tomorrow’s World Live itself with a footprint to match that given over to the duelling battle-bots was the ‘ Innovate!’ section, sponsored by Hewlett Packard. This, despite being the single largest ‘ world’ of technology at the show (the others being the Engineering, Cyber and Music worlds, the‘ Future of Transport’, an area devoted to health care, and the BBC‘ Live Lab’) was devoted to the smallest and the most trivial (and mundane) innovations on display. Things like smarter bicycle outrider lights, head-hugging straps that stick on to the back of your phone and real builder’s bricks that fit together like Lego. Real cottage industry/small business stuff, hoping to sell a few of the display models and get some commercial interest; Tomorrow’s World classics that you are probably never going to hear of again.

Also on sale in various areas throughout the show were ‘revolutionary’ speakers and amplifiers (put to the test by a series of live bands in Music World), CD albums from the band behind Modulus; a compact, multi-media performance forum (think laser-light rock concert in a hi-tech wig-wam), computer design equipment, engineering packages, vibrating cushions and brushes and the environmentally friendly, energy saving house of the future from Integer. Unfortunately, almost everything that you could buy was either pointless, irrelevant or too expensive and the things that you really would have liked to take home were not for sale.

Things like the concept cars by Volvo, Honda and the Italian designers Pinnafarrina, on display in the transport section alongside an intelligent bus, new tube trains, the new Concorde tyres and proposed traffic legislation designed to cut down on the number of cars in London. Of all the various ‘worlds’ within Tomorrow’s World Live the Future of Transport proved the most interesting, because it demonstrated the new technologies and ideas that are most likely to affect the most people in everyday situations. However I felt that it was at the same time robbed of it’s‘future status’ by that same, wide-spread practicality; that it was so tangible and so near to completion that almost all of the technologies and vehicles on display could be implemented immediately. It was too down to earth to be special, especially when compared to the Nova RLV. Easily missed among the cluster of brighter, animated and interactive stands at the edge of the transport section stood a seemingly inactive plain white plastic rocket. Even easier to miss were the two poor souls who went with it, lost in the crowd trying to hand out leaflets on possibly the most impressive and important pieces of technology represented at the show. Designed by Starchaser Industries in partnership with physicists at the University of Salford, the Nova Re-useable Launch Vehicle is the first spaceship in the world to leave the atmosphere with all of the components assembled for launch, and to return the same way; in one piece. It is, as the name implies, re-useable. The only things that you can’t use again are the same consumables, such as the oxygen and fuel. What this means is that we are on the verge of having affordable commercial space-flight, that according to the manufacturers, could be taking pairs of tourists briefly into orbit as soon as 2006.

This, to me, is what ‘Tomorrow’s world’ is all about; something that is still far enough away to still be in the realm of the fantastic, but yet now close enough to reality to inspire excitement and anticipation of its arrival. Looking back now, it is perhaps rather unsurprising that, after learning of this soft-peddled symbol of the future, everything else at Tomorrow’s World Live 2001, events, exhibits and entertainment’s alike paled in comparison, yet to be honest, objective and fair, there was nothing wrong with any of these other things. With a few noted exceptions all that I saw did indeed represent something new and innovative and no less important than the Nova rocket to the right specialist or an open and enquiring mind. Equally, there is little on which I can fault the execution of the event, other than to say that the vast majority of competitions and activities were aimed solely at children and that by mid-to-late morning the three-hundred people more than recommended capacity meant that the quues could last an eternity. However, while this may be annoying, I suppose that it is not to be unexpected.

At £10-15 per person, I would say on the strength of this one, that Tomorrow’s World Live events are quite good value for money if you have a full day to spend there (they are even better value if you can get in free with a school), but be warned; should you find that one thing that fits your vision of the future (like me and my rocket-ship) you might start to lose interest in the more everyday practicalities that tomorrow may bring.( Tomorrow’s World, for those who don’t know, is the BBC’s principal prime-time science and technology show, focussing on new innovations/inventions, often while they are still in development.

© Nathan Davies 2001

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