Dear me from 1987,
So I was walking down the street today listening to "Bryan Adams: Reckless" on my walkman, and I thought to myself, "Wow, this is just like I used to do back in 1987". Sure, the cars look a bit different, the stoplights are all LEDs (light-emitting diodes), people dress a bit differently, and I have a bit less hair than I did back then. But other than that, the experience felt exactly the same to me. Until I realized what I was listening on. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that my 1987 self (you) would be really fascinated by the progress made in this particular area. So I figured I'd send you this letter to describe it to you. You'd better sit down for this, because it's going to be a shocker.
The first thing you'd notice right away is that it's quite a bit thinner than a regular walkman. You may ask "well, where does the tape go?". Here's the thing: it doesn't actually use cassette tapes. It plays digitally-encoded music. Like the way music is on CDs, except in this case the music resides in internal non-volatile memory in the player itself. And there have been a lot of advancements in both non-volatile memory and in digital music encoding, the end result of which is that you can store over four thousand songs, or the equivalent of over 300 cassette tapes, in its internal memory, all with CD-quality sound, and all of which you can randomly access. There's no more Dolby noise reduction to worry about, no more rewinding or fast-forwarding, no more tapes getting tangled in spindle motors (because there are no moving parts!), just crisp, clear sound. And no matter how many times you play it, there's no sound degradation.
And if four thousand songs isn't enough for you, you can insert something that's kind of like a cassette tape into the side. Except it's just a tiny piece of plastic the size of your pinky finger nail. And it provides the digital storage equivalent of over seven hundred forty thousand Commodore 64 disks. No, I'm not kidding! That allows you to store an additional twenty six thousand songs.
I know, your mind is blown, right? Well hold on tight, because you ain't heard nothin' yet! There's also another way you can listen to music. I didn't have "Reckless" on my walkman, or on the extra bit of plastic. It was actually sitting on a hard disk drive on my home computer, several kilometres away. Now I know what you're thinking: "Well then how in the world could you be playing it?". Well here's the thing. You know the way you connect to bulletin board systems? You dial up on your 300 baud modem, wait through a few loud screeches, and you're on, able to transfer digital data back and forth over the phone lines. Well, my walkman has a built-in modem, but it's different in three ways. First, it's forty thousand times faster. Secondly, it communicates over the air using radio waves rather than requiring a phone line. And thirdly, it can make this connection from practically anywhere on the planet, to practically anywhere on the planet. You know that computer system at Memorial University that John lets you dial into so that you can read the rec.arts.startrek newsgroup? And you know how that computer is somehow magically connected to other computers at other universities through something called the "internet"? Well, that internet thing has grown much bigger, and now connects just about every computer on the planet. Anything that "calls into it" can communicate with any of the other computers on the internet, for free, and at ludicrously fast speeds. And this is how my walkman can play music that resides on my home computer. Because my walkman actually becomes part of the internet (by communicating via radio waves to a huge network of cellular towers scattered all over the world), and downloads the song, on the fly, from my home computer, which is also on the internet. Of course, using this approach you can also play music from any one of thousands of other computers anywhere in the world, and there are many computers offering vast music playlists to suit anybody's tastes.
I know, "wow", right? You've gotta be wondering how you control the thing if it has this many songs on it. Well, one whole side of it is a large, full colour display screen. It has thirty two times the resolution of a Commodore 64 screen, and each pixel can independently display any one of over sixteen million colours. The display is as crisp as looking at brightly-lit vibrantly-coloured paper. Other than a couple of buttons for controlling volume, one for turning on and off the screen, and one for resetting the screen to its default state, there are no other buttons on it. Again, I know what you're asking: "Then how do you tell it which song to play?". Well, you control it by touching the screen itself. What I mean by that is, the screen will show you images of things you can do, either laid out as a menu, for example, or as pictures of buttons and knobs, etc. You can actually select the menu items or "press" the buttons just by touching their image on the screen. Pretty cool, eh? So you want to listen to "Reckless"? No problem - press the "music" icon, select "my home server", then select "Keith's music", scroll down (by sliding your finger vertically across the display) to where it says "Bryan Adams" and select that. You'd then see pictures of all of his albums. Press "Reckless", and it'll show you all of the songs on that album. At the bottom are controls allowing you you play the entire album or just one song, etc. You can also create playlists, which of course can span your entire music repository.
But wait, I'm not finished yet! It's not only a music player, but it can also record. It has a built-in microphone, and you can record full CD-quality sound right into the digital memory of my walkman. If you want, you can also attach an external microphone.
So you're probably thinking that this is all so amazing for such a small device, what more could it possibly do? Well, the answer is, a lot! For example, it has a clock on it (again, as an image on the screen) so you can always see what time it is. Sure, that part isn't very impressive, I know, because even your 1987 walkman does that. But this time is kept in sync to within a second or two of an atomic clock, automatically via its radio-wave connection. And if you press on the image of the clock on the screen, you can invoke a stopwatch, a countdown timer, a set of alarms, and even a calendar which you can add events to, etc.
It also has a built-in flashlight. The "button" to turn it on and off is once again just an image of a button on the screen that you can touch, but the flashlight itself is real, emanating from an LED from the other side of my walkman. I should probably say that all of these virtual "buttons" aren't necessarily all on the screen at once. Because they're just images, they can be organized into different "applications" that can be brought up and dismissed as desired, kind of like GEOS for the Commodore 64.
It also has a built-in calculator. And not just any run-of-the-mill calculator; it's replete with all of the operations, etc., that you have on your scientific calculator for school.
Believe it or not, it can also be used as a TV remote control. Yeah, seriously. It has an infra-red transmitter at one end, and one of the applications on it displays a remote control that that can be used to control any and all equipment that you have; you just have to tell my walkman what equipment you have and it provides all the necessary buttons for you. You can even move the buttons around to your own liking.
Oh, and there's a "weather" application. At the touch of a button, it'll tell you the current weather, and a multi-day weather forecast. It can even tell you what the whether is like anywhere in the world.
And it has a built-in compass. It's all digital, so there's no physical floating needle, but it does a pretty good job nonetheless.
Now here's where things really start getting insane. My walkman and all of its features is basically driven by a miniature yet very powerful computer. How powerful? Well, it has over two million kilobytes of RAM (thirty two thousand times that of the Commodore 64), and operates at speeds of two thousand five hundred megahertz (two thousand five hundred times that of the Commodore 64). In fact, it actually has the equivalent of four CPUs built into it, each of which can do that speed, independently and in parallel.
Because of this, it can do some pretty amazing things. There are literally hundreds of thousands of applications and games for it, most of which are freely available and downloadable instantly at the press of a button. My walkman even has a built-in Atari 2600, including every game ever made for it, and a built-in Commodore 64, including every single one of the disks that you've been painstakingly collecting and organizing, all instantly accessible at any time. You can even plug a joystick into it to get the full experience. Any time you need a keyboard to type something, you can invoke a virtual keyboard that you can "type" on pretty much the same way you would with a real keyboard.
Another feature of my walkman is that you can view photos on it. Digital photos, obviously, not paper photos. The photos can reside in local digital memory, but more often they reside somewhere else on the internet. They can be your own photos, those of a friend, or any other photos of interest. The high-resolution full colour screen shows them as crisply as if they were printed photos. You can flip through the photos by swiping your hand across the screen horizontally, and you can zoom into a part of a photo (to show more detail) by touching two fingers to the screen and spreading them apart at the point you want to zoom into.
Not only can my walkman show photos, but it can also show TV shows and movies. That's right, you can actually watch TV on the thing. It's all fully digital, like on LaserDiscs, but but believe it or not, it's even better quality than that! My walkman has a built-in speaker, but you can always plug in a good pair of headphones for better sound (the same way you'd listen to music). The videos can be stored in the local digital memory, but are usually stored elsewhere on the internet and downloaded on the fly when you watch it. Like with music, there are many computer systems out there serving many types of videos, TV shows and movies, all available 24 hours a day, and many for free.
Oh, and you won't believe this. My walkman has a built-in camera. It has a lens opening on the side opposite the screen, and even has a second lens opening on the same side as the screen if you want to take a picture of yourself! It doesn't have any place to load film, but it doesn't need to, because it takes the photo digitally, and either stores it in local digital memory or uploads it on the fly to somewhere else on the internet to share with others. When you're trying to take a picture, the screen shows you exactly what the picture is going to look like, and after you take it you can look at it right away. If you want to make a print of the photo, you can just select a "print" option, and a colour laser printer at home will print a copy for you (regardless of where you actually are in the world).
And even more spectacularly, my walkman also has a built-in videocamera. It's fully digital, like the way it takes photos, and takes them at much higher resolution than LaserDisc (let alone VHS), complete with sound of course. These videos can also be uploaded to other parts of the internet to be immediately shared.
I also read books on my walkman. That's right. I haven't read a paper book in years, since you can store hundreds (or even thousands) of books digitally on my walkman, and read them on the display screen. It shows you one page at a time, and you can "turn" to the next or previous page by swiping your finger across the screen. You can even listen to music while reading at the same time.
I do most of my banking through my walkman now too. You can connect to your bank's computer through the internet to look at your bank accounts and pay bills, etc. You can even deposit a cheque by pointing your walkman's camera at it and sending a digital image of it to your bank's computer.
But wait, things get even better! My walkman has a built-in telephone! It's basically a miniaturized and more advanced version of the bulky luggable mobile phones that you may have seen in the movies. At one end of my walkman is a microphone and at the other end is a little speaker, so you can hold it up to your head just like a regular phone receiver, and talk to anyone just like on a regular phone. To dial, a keypad can be displayed on the screen for you to touch, or a list of pre-programmed contacts can be invoked. And phone service has become a lot cheaper too. There are many different ways of making phone calls (e.g., you can even do it by sending your voice conversation over the internet), and many of them allow free unlimited calls to anywhere in the world. And since my walkman itself is connected wirelessly, you can be anywhere when you make the calls, kind of like the communicators on Star Trek. The funny thing is, most people don't even use this feature much, because you can also just type sentences to send to other people's walkmans, and they'll see it on their walkmans' screen immediately, no matter where they are in the world, and can reply to you at their leisure. Or you can send more formal electronic-mail messages (just like on the bulletin board systems), which they'll also see immediately.
Another thing my walkman has is a built-in GPS receiver. You know the set of Global Positioning System satellites that the U.S. military has in Earth orbit? My walkman actually contains a miniature receiver for these satellites, and can therefore pinpoint your location anywhere on the earth (or in the air) to within a meter or two. And it doesn't just display your position as a pair of latitude/longitude numbers. It can actually show your position on a full-colour map. And this map doesn't only have the ability to show you where you are; you can ask the map viewer to show you any location, anywhere in the world. You can view entire continents on the screen at once, or you can zoom all the way in to a single house. The map can shown as a road map (like regular Rand McNally paper maps), or a satellite view, or even both superimposed on top of each other.
If you want to go somewhere, you can type into my walkman where you want to go (be it a block away or halfway across the world), and my walkman will show you how to get there by drawing it out on the map, and even provide you with several options. It'll even take into account current traffic conditions, and knows the schedules of all of the trains and busses, etc. And get this - it will actually give you step-by-step verbal instructions on the way. Yes, my walkman will talk to you, telling you things like "turn left onto Maple Street in 200 meters".
And you're really not going to believe this. If you're looking at a map on my walkman and you're zoomed into a particular street, pretty much any street anywhere in the world, you can tell the map to actually show you what that street looks like if you're actually there. In other words, it can actually show you a picture taken at a point of your choosing along the street, and in an arbitrary direction. And you can then "look" and "move" around by sliding your finger across the screen appropriately, allowing you to virtually walk around and explore pretty much every neighbourhood in the world. These photos aren't technically "live"; they're taken from an archive of photos taken usually within the last few months and updated every few months by a massive fleet of cars that do nothing but take photos for this purpose.
My walkman also has a sensor that counts all of your steps as you're walking or running, and can display all of this information to you, as well as plotting your route on the map, etc. In addition, it has a heart-rate sensor. You just place your finger on the sensor (on the side opposite the screen) for a few seconds and it'll tell you your pulse. It'll of course keep track of all of this information, allowing you to track workouts, etc.
My walkman is capable of translating back and forth between dozens of languages. You can type in a French sentence and ask it to translate it to English for you. Or to German, or to Swahili. And not only will it display the translation, but it will also speak it, in the appropriate language. Not only that, but you can speak to it what you want it to translate. It will convert what you said to text, display that text, translate it to the text of the desired language, and speak that back. You can also point the walkman's camera lens at words in some language and tell it to translate the words for you into a language of your choosing. It does so by actually changing the live image displayed on the screen to show the translated words instead. (You're going to see a movie in a year or so called "They Live" which demonstrates this effect rather well.)
And that's not all! You want to know the neatest thing about my walkman? You know the "Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy"? Or more particularly, the guide device that the series is named after? My walkman essentially does that! That is, you can type in any topic of interest, and it will perform a massive search for information on that topic across all of the internet, providing you with a very detailed report in just a second or two. You can ask about Bob Marley, The Caspian Sea, rain beetles, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, The Franco-Prussian War, anchovies, the dewey-decimal system, pretty much anything, and you'll get a description back with more detail than you'll know what to do with. You can also ask specific questions, such as "What is the capital of Lithuania?", "Who won the world series in 1993?", "Where's the closest Burger King?", "When Did Elvis Presley die?", "Who played The Skipper on Gilligan's Island?", "What is the weather like tomorrow in Boulder, Colorado", etc. My walkman literally places the world of knowledge at your fingertips. I should also mention that instead of typing in these questions, you can simply ask it with your voice, using natural language, and it will actually provide the answer both on the screen and by speaking it to you. You've probably seen the first few episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" by now. My walkman speaks answers to questions just like the computer of the Enterprise D!
Oh, and did I mention that my walkman is waterproof? And that you can lock it so that it can only be activated via a built-in fingerprint sensor?
You probably think I made most if not all of this up because it's way beyond what you think would be possible in 100 years, let alone 28, but believe me, it's all true. I've got one amazing walkman! In fact, most people in 2015 have one, so the world truly is a very connected place where everybody has unlimited information at their fingertips. Sadly, must people take a lot of this for granted, and some even go so far as to complain about some feature or other not working quite right. Can you imagine?
Most people actually call it a "cell phone", which is a bit odd, because even though its telephone feature is pretty neat, it's only one of the many things that it can do. I guess it's about as odd as calling it a "walkman". Perhaps "magic communication, information and media slab" would be a better term.
Anyways, I should let you go. I know you have a busy schedule. (Yeah, right, ya bum! Get up off the couch!) I just wanted to let you know that the future is pretty cool.Yours truly,