Animated excursions into the future: the extraordinary implications of utility fog


I caught up with fellow futurist Kristin Alford last week, yet another first time face-to-face meeting after a long time interacting online. It seems most of the people I meet these days are people I know from Twitter.

Kristin pointed me to some of what her company Bridge8 is doing in creating animated videos about the future. I believe the primary intended audience is secondary school students, but they are excellent videos, well-paced, well-thought-out, educational, all in all very nicely done.

Here is their video on the implications of Utility Fog, starting with a segment on how to think about the future, introducing the idea of utility fog, and running through some of the possible implications. It’s a great study in futures thinking, and well worth watching.

The one thing I think could have been done better in the video is the explanation of utility fog, an idea generated by molecular nanotechnology pioneer Dr John Storrs Hall.

To flesh that out a bit, here are the first few paragraphs of an article by Storrs Hall, titled Utility Fog: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Nanotechnology is based on the concept of tiny, self-replicating robots. The Utility Fog is a very simple extension of the idea: Suppose, instead of building the object you want atom by atom, the tiny robots linked their arms together to form a solid mass in the shape of the object you wanted? Then, when you got tired of that avant-garde coffeetable, the robots could simply shift around a little and you’d have an elegant Queen Anne piece instead.

The color and reflectivity of an object are results of its properties as an antenna in the micron wavelength region. Each robot could have an “antenna arm” that it could manipulate to vary those properties, and thus the surface of a Utility Fog object could look just about however you wanted it to. A “thin film” of robots could act as a video screen, varying their optical properties in real time.

Rather than paint the walls, coat them with Utility Fog and they can be a different color every day, or act as a floor-to-ceiling TV. Indeed, make the entire wall of the Fog and you can change the floor plan of your house to suit the occasion. Make the floor of it and never gets dirty, looks like hardwood but feels like foam rubber, and extrudes furniture in any form you desire. Indeed, your whole domestic environment can be constructed from Utility Fog; it can form any object you want (except food) and whenever you don’t want an object any more, the robots that formed it spread out and form part of the floor again.

You may as well make your car of Utility Fog, too; then you can have a “new” one every day. But better than that, the *interior* of the car is filled with robots as well as its shell. You’ll need to wear holographic “eyephones” to see, but the Fog will hold them up in front of your eyes and they’ll feel and look as if they weren’t there. Although heavier than air, the Fog is programmed to simulate its physical properties, so you can’t feel it: when you move your arm, it flows out of the way. Except when there’s a crash! Then it forms an instant form-fitting “seatbelt” protecting every inch of your body. You can take a 100-mph impact without messing your hair.

Definitely a fantastic concept worthy of some concerted thinking. So read the article and then watch the movie.