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10 Future Home Innovations ... That Weren't

Whatever happened to this circular kitchen design from the 1960s? Want to learn more? Check out these home design pictures!
Wesley/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I tend to read a lot of publications that focus on advances in technology. Home technology is especially interesting since that's where most of us spend the bulk of our time. But I've read lots of articles about the latest and greatest in home innovations only to wonder a few years later -- hey, whatever happened to that? Sometimes, great ideas are ahead of their time. Other times, the person or company behind them just doesn't have the ability to get things rolling, or they turn out to be too cost-prohibitive or otherwise not practical to implement in everyday life.

A quick search online of future home innovations turns up some amazing videos, many sponsored by appliance or power companies. Many of the features are recognizable, but there are more than a few that never made it past the demonstration stage. Some are pretty laughable, but it's hard not to get caught up in the sunny enthusiasm and confidence of better living through man's innovation. In the post-World War II Atomic Age, anything seemed possible. But throughout the years, we've continued to have plenty of people who thought they had the "next big thing." Let's take a look at some future home innovations ... that actually weren't.

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SEALAB III, launched in 1969, was the U.S. Navy's last undersea habitat built.
SEALAB III, launched in 1969, was the U.S. Navy's last undersea habitat built.
OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); U.S. Navy

While NASA was working to put a man on the moon, we also started thinking more about the possibility of colonizing on our own planet. It might even be a good test-drive to find out how well we could live on the moon, plus we could test out living in an isolated environment and conduct research experiments.

The U.S. government has been involved in several underwater habitats. First the U.S. Navy built SEALAB I, an experimental underwater habitat, in 1964 and sunk it 192 feet (58 meters) below sea level. SEALAB II and III followed. Tektite, built by General Electric and funded by NASA, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of the Interior, was another research facility in the late 1960s.

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There were totally private ventures, too. Famous marine explorer Jacques Cousteau built the Conshelf habitats in the mid-1960s (the deepest of which was about 336 feet or 102 meters). It didn't take long for innovators to think about longer-term living, though. At the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the Futurama II exhibit presented by General Motors included an undersea hotel. In 1971, a group of British investors created models promoting an entire city underwater, which would have been built in the Black Sea and called Pilkington Sea City.

There are still underwater research facilities, and a few underwater hotels, but no cities. Why not? One big issue is decompression sickness, or "the bends," a potentially fatal condition related to the fact that water exerts twice as much pressure on our bodies as air. Maintaining the right atmosphere, as well as the logistics of providing supplies, is complicated and expensive. That's probably why a night in the Jules' Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida (a remodeled underwater research habitat built in the early 1970s) costs upwards of $500 and it's only about 30 feet below.

If you visited Disneyland's Tomorrow land between 1957 and 1967, you might've seen Monsanto's House of the Future. Among many other amazing features contained within the model home, one that seems to be impossible to imagine today is something that visitors didn't even get to glimpse. While walking through the house and marveling at its wonders, a voiceover provided explanations. Near the end, the recording stated that "To keep inconvenience and power costs down, the entire house's electricity and its centralized heating are provided by a small nuclear power plant in the house's support pylon, completely shielded with plastic for complete safety."

Wait, what? A small nuclear power plant? There have been more than 50 accidents at nuclear power plants since Chernobyl in 1986, and while there are still hundreds of nuclear power plants in operation around the world (and many nuclear-powered ships and submarines), it's become a highly controversial topic for a bunch of reasons. Nobody wants to live near a nuclear power plant, much less consider the idea of one inside their home. But the very first commercial nuclear power plant was just up and running when the House of Tomorrow opened. This was the Atomic Age, when we thought that nuclear power would eventually be used to power airplanes and cars, as well as make using fossil fuels a thing of the past. Obviously it didn't turn out that way, and we need much more than plastic to shield us from nuclear radiation. Homes that are completely self-sufficient or "off the grid" exist, but it's certainly not the norm ... yet.

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Biospheres like Biosphere-2, shown here, didn't pan out. Bummer, dude.
Biospheres like Biosphere-2, shown here, didn't pan out. Bummer, dude.
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In 1996, a movie starring Stephen Baldwin and Pauly Shore called "Bio-Dome" came out. They played characters that think they're finding a mall but discover that they're inside a biodome. A biodome, or biosphere, is a man-made, closed ecological system. This means that every waste produced by an organism have to be used by another organism within the biosphere. They've been used to conduct experiments with the idea that a closed system would be a necessary way of life for long-term space living. On the space station, for example, everything the astronauts and cosmonauts need has to be transported with them or delivered later. Initially we'd have to transport supplies to get a space colony going too, but that would be expensive to continue indefinitely. So a viable space colony would have to eventually be self-sufficient.

The first biosphere was built in Russia in the mid-1960s. It used chlorella algae to recycle the air breathed by its occupants. They also grew crops for food. BIOS-3 was used until 1984 and its longest occupied term was 180 days. It was never a fully closed system, however. Biosphere-2 (Earth is the original biosphere) was built in the United States in the late 1980s and had two main missions as well as some smaller experiments.

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On its second mission, the biosphere not only contained not only crops for food, but other plants, as well as animals. It ended abruptly in September 1994, after 10 months. The mission was ultimately a failure. Animals died (although many insects flourished), oxygen levels dropped, people got hungry, but most significant of all, they fought and formed factions. The psychological component of being sealed in with your colleagues can't be denied. Ultimately Biosphere-2 is thought of by some as a "successful failure." It didn't achieve its mission, but we did learn a lot in the process. It doesn't look like any of us will be living in self-sufficient biospheres of our own anytime soon, though.

This NASA artist's rendering of an inflatable lunar habitat from 1989 hasn't come to fruition yet, but will a moon colony eventually become a reality?
This NASA artist's rendering of an inflatable lunar habitat from 1989 hasn't come to fruition yet, but will a moon colony eventually become a reality?

The United States took the lead in the Space Race with the Soviet Union when it became the first to put a man on the moon in 1969. It was an amazing feat -- President John F. Kennedy set a goal in 1961 of getting man to the moon and back, and it happened. The whole world was watching, and it's hard for me to comprehend the excitement of watching Neil Armstrong take those first steps. Science fiction authors and others had long been writing about living on the moon, but now that we'd been there, it seemed like a real possibility. Although NASA sent men back to the moon four more times, interest in exploring it died down. More than four decades after first setting foot on its surface, we're no closer to a colony.

That doesn't mean there hasn't been talk of it, though. Probes sent to the moon by NASA have returned varying reports about the potential of water (in the form of ice) on its surface. A source of water would be useful to a colony. In 2004, after U.S. President George W. Bush announced that we should have manned spaceflights to the moon again, NASA planned to have an outpost by 2020. But the program was scrapped. Other countries and space organizations have their own plans. China, India, Japan, Russia and the European Space Agency have all had recent plans to go to the moon, and some of them include either temporary outposts or permanent bases. There are still a lot of logistics to be worked out before colonizing the moon -- figuring out long-term sources of food, water, power and atmosphere are just a start. What about how to handle the low gravity or the political ramifications of colonization (who would own it)? Maybe I could visit the moon in my lifetime, but I don't see living on it.

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Unless you count really luxurious private planes, we don't have flying houses yet.
Unless you count really luxurious private planes, we don't have flying houses yet.
Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Once we could fly airplanes, was it so much of a leap to imagine flying your house from place to place instead of getting into a plane to take you there? It would be much more convenient to just take literally everything with you to visit family, instead of figuring out how you're going to cram everything into a suitcase. But we don't even have a flying car yet -- a vehicle capable of both driving on roads and taking to the sky -- and scientists have been working on one of those for nearly 100 years.

Nor does everyone have a personal aircraft for getting around. Several "home of the future" models from the 1950s and 1960s featured hangars or even landing pads, anticipating flying as being our primary mode of transportation in the future. It made sense at the time that the cost of personal aircraft would go down, and the public did not anticipate the cost of fuel or the difficulty in creating "skyways" across the country. But let's think about the practicalities of having a flying house. Does it mean literally getting a typical house, which isn't even remotely shaped for air flight, up in the air? What about the costs of the fuel required to boost and propel that much weight? We aren't even nearly there.

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The closest you can come right now to a flying house is a luxury private or chartered jet. They can have huge, plush seats and comfy beds, wooden furniture, large spa-like bathrooms, and kitchens (some even equipped with private chefs). Not the same as traveling in your own home, but far better than squeezing into coach class on a red-eye flight. Unfortunately, those comfy, anytime-you-need-them jets come with a high price, so for now you'll need to keep booking those flights.

Yes, another reference to the House of the Future, but it's far from the only one in this category. The house proudly proclaimed that it was built almost entirely from plastics and other man-made materials. This included the house itself as well as the flooring and furniture. Of course that only made sense as Monsanto was a leader in the plastics manufacturing industry at the time. Plastic became cheaper and easier to make in the 1950s, and it seemed like the perfect material. Most kinds could be made in a wide variety of shapes, textures and colors. It was also impermeable and unbreakable, easy to clean, and could last forever. No worrying about termites, mold, or rot.

I'm typing this on a plastic keyboard and drinking water out of a plastic (reusable) bottle, so obviously plastic is pervasive. But nobody lives in a plastic house. We know a lot more about the environmental and health effects of certain kinds of plastics, for one thing, so we're more careful about the types of plastics that we use and how we use them. Even more than that, though, is that we're creatures of habit in so many ways. We love new technology and admire cutting-edge developments, but that doesn't mean that we necessarily want it to be in our face all of the time. When it comes to our home, we still want it to be primarily made of traditional, comfortable materials -- wood and fabric.

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That hasn't stopped architects and designers from using plastics more in houses, though. While some of them are made from first-generation plastic, others are working on using recycled plastics in the framework or insulation of a home. These concepts are a far cry from the sleek and shiny plastic house concepts of the 1950s, though.

Model houses of the future from the 1950s and 1960s focused heavily on features in the kitchen. That makes sense, as living rooms and bedrooms have remained the same in a lot of ways in comparison, while kitchens especially are full of appliances and other gadgets all designed to make living easier. But apparently some designers thought that we didn't want kitchens that actually looked like kitchens, with the traditional stove, refrigerator and counters and cabinets full of various appliances. Instead, you'd be hard-pressed sometimes to figure out that the kitchens in these "future" homes were actually kitchens. They just look like rooms with a lot of panels on the walls and ceiling.

Push this button and a "cold zone" lowers out of a cabinet to keep your perishables at the right temperature. Another push of a panel reveals the microwave (which was supposedly going to replace the stove entirely). Pushing a different button makes a panel slide open to reveal a sink. Basically the entire kitchen was supposed to be hidden, to be revealed in stage at the appropriate times by a confident housewife while she cooked and cleaned. On the surface, it sounds and looks pretty cool. But then the practicality of having so many moving parts and having to push a button to get to, well, everything, would become annoying. An automated kitchen means that all of those mechanized parts have to be maintained (and can break down), and think of the waste of energy. What if you went into the kitchen just to get a cup of water, but the cabinet holding the cups wouldn't rise out of the counter? There are enough machines in the kitchen, so it looks like we're ok with just incorporating newer appliances like dishwashers and microwaves into the existing structure.

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All future foods will be freeze-dried and dehydrated? Not so much.
All future foods will be freeze-dried and dehydrated? Not so much.

Freeze-drying has been around for ages -- indigenous people in Peru put potatoes out in the frost to freeze them and then let the intense sunlight dry them. It's an ingenious way to preserve food and other things too. During World War II, freeze-drying was used to send biomedical products like serum, which would otherwise need refrigeration. But eventually the idea turned back to preserving food, too. Once you freeze-dry food (often done with dry ice or nitrogen, then heated under a vacuum), you end up with flakes, cubes or bars of a porous, lightweight material. Then you can rehydrate it using cold or hot water, depending on the food and what temperature you wanted it to be. One issue is that rehydrated food never tastes or has the same texture as the original food.

That's just one way that food was preserved for astronauts and cosmonauts during space missions. They also ate pureed and concentrated foods out of toothpaste-like tubes. We were so excited about our space missions that we wanted to emulate the astronauts in their eating, too. Some of the future kitchen designs included special ways to rehydrate or otherwise cook with food concentrates. Really the only things that took were freeze-dried ones, though -- we still use plenty of freeze-dried products, like instant coffee. But they haven't replaced whole foods. You can find novelty items like astronaut ice cream and Space Food Sticks (a sort of precursor to energy bars) at museums and space-related sites today. The ironic thing is that the freeze-dried, Neapolitan-flavored ice cream only went up on one mission because it proved to be unpopular.

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Videophones aren't the norm yet, but that may change in the near future.
Videophones aren't the norm yet, but that may change in the near future.
Colin Anderson/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

“You may be thinking, "Wait a second. I have a videophone; I can Skype or use FaceTime via my smartphone or computer." While this is true, I'm talking about a videophone that you use all the time instead of a traditional, voice-based phone -- it's your dedicated phone. You may choose to use Skype or FaceTime to call someone who lives far away (especially if you still have a landline). But you're probably not pulling it up to order a pizza late at night, and you don't have the person on the other end on a huge screen when you call. People on "The Jetsons" were always camera-ready, but we're not!

A French illustrator named Villemard drew a "correspondence cinema" in 1910, which showed an image of the person on the other end projected on the wall. So we've been thinking about videophones before television.

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For the most part, early videophones were a series of still images accompanying a traditional telephone call -- not actual streaming, real-time video. In 1936, there was even a public videophone system (covering just 100 miles) between the German cities of Berlin and Leipzig. Then in the 1960s, AT&T demonstrated a videophone that it called Picturephone at fairs and Disneyland. In 1964, AT&T installed some public Picturephones in a few cities around the country, but it was very expensive and unpopular.

While it's not expensive anymore, and video telephony via computer is growing in popularity, we're still OK with most phone calls being audio only. Is it because we don't want to have to look "nice" each time we make a call? Or maybe we'd rather have conversations face-to-face if we're going to have a visual. Video telephony is improving all the time, but depending on your Internet connection, it can still be jerky, causing frustration if the audio and video don't synch. Videophones have been wonderful for the deaf and for specialized uses, but we haven't yet reached the time of TV-sized calling screens.

Robotic servants are mostly still the stuff of science fiction.
Robotic servants are mostly still the stuff of science fiction.
James Porto/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

It's impossible for me not to think about "The Jetsons" when I ponder homes of the future. Jane Jetson would often complain about the housework, while sitting in her chair, pushing buttons and watching their robot maid, Rosie, scurry around the apartment taking care of the chores. More than once I've thought to myself, "Where's my Rosie?" It was one of those things that was right around the corner, and yet never happened. You can buy a robot to vacuum, mop your floor or mow your lawn, and there are prototypes that fold laundry or iron clothes, but that's it. No cooking, no window-washing, no bathroom cleaning. Why not?

There are plenty of workhorse robots; car assembly lines are full of robots, and they're used to diffuse bombs and perform microsurgery. Robots in the home, though, are still mostly limited to entertainment purposes. An article by Bill Gates in Scientific American a few years ago mentions that one of the problems is a lack of standardization, both hardware and software. It's also really proving difficult to teach robots to do human-like things, such as telling the difference between a door and a window or understanding and responding accurately to speech.

Improvements in wireless technology and voice recognition, as well as decreasing costs of hardware, may mean that your robot maid will eventually take over the drudgery. In the meantime, you can check your e-mail on your refrigerator's WiFi-enabled LCD panel while you're cleaning the kitchen to help pass the time.

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Now You Can Actually Live in MIT's $10K Robotic Apartment in a Box

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Author's Note: 10 Future Home Innovations … That Weren't

I remember seeing shorts and clips of various futuristic home models as a kid. They were set in the 1950s and full of sunny optimism. I knew then that a lot of the features would never come to pass, but they also showed things, like microwave ovens, that were sitting in my house at that very moment. I didn't realize then, though, that many of those shorts were supposed to be depicting the very time in which I was watching them. Crazy, huh? These days, I love watching those same films online. They're cute, quaint and sometimes outright laughable, but there's something fun about them, too. For every amazing new breakthrough, there are multiple missteps and failures, but it's all a learning process.

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