Ah, the ’90s.
I’m not sure what you remember from that glorious decade, but when I close my eyes I can still see myself whacking a slap bracelet against my friend’s wrist, sliding Ace of Base’s “Happy Nation” CD into my Sony Discman, and picking up my landline only to be greeted by the sweet sound of dial-up internet.
I also recall settling in for another marathon session of “Must See TV,” innocently cuing up the VHS player to tape the lineup for family members who had to miss out, when AT&T gobsmacked us with a tech-laden world we could scarcely comprehend –– and, frankly, weren’t sure we wanted to.
If you haven’t seen the commercials, check them out.
The telecommunications company’s award-winning “You Will” advertising campaign predicted a slew of technological advances –– everything from video conferencing to home automation to smartwatches –– with a simple question-and-answer format delivered by none other than mustachioed Tom Selleck: “Have you ever gotten a phone call on your wrist? You will.”
As jarring as those proclamations were, they still seemed like part of a very distant future.
“I was 13 when these commercials aired,” says OpenPhone content director Ronnie Higgins. “I was also a science fiction geek (still am). So, while I wasn’t oblivious to the tech boom happening around me, the future depicted in AT&T’s commercials felt distant. I remember thinking to myself that I’d probably be an old man by then.”
Little did we know, the world depicted in those commercials –– and then some –– was a lot closer than we ever could have imagined.
What AT&T got right about the future of telecommunication (and didn’t)
It bears noting that, while instrumental for their network infrastructure, AT&T wasn’t actually the company to bring us all the newfangled tech they so boldly promised. That mostly came from eventual-newcomers-turned-behemoths like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix.
Nevertheless, AT&T’s seemingly “Jetsons”-like predictions mostly came true –– with a few exceptions.
Here are the core advancements they forecasted, as well as a read-out on which innovations became part of our daily lives –– and which ones didn’t quite have their day in the sun.
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever attended a meeting in your bare feet?”
How it played out: Little did we know bare feet would be the least of our work-from-home transgressions.
I mean, how are we to know what our colleagues are actually wearing (or not wearing) below the belt in a video meeting?
Regardless of our evolving remote-work style choices, videoconferencing has certainly come into its own –– especially in the last few years –– with brands like Zoom officially becoming both a noun and a verb as soon as the pandemic pushed us online for the bulk of our social and professional interactions.
2. Self-service kiosks
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever bought concert tickets from a cash machine?” and “Have you ever renewed your driver’s license at a cash machine?”
How it played out: Wellllll, no, not exactly. I know their functionality has expanded a bit over the years, but I’ve really only gotten cash at a cash machine –– and even that I haven’t done in at least a year.
But I can check myself out at the grocery store, have an ID badge printed for me on site at an event, and get myself back into the country pretty easily (cute post-redeye headshot included).
Sure, self-service kiosks are the norm in many situations nowadays –– and, to be fair, I have renewed my driver’s license and purchased show tickets online from the comfort of my own home. But I think Taylor Swift fans would agree, the DMV and concert ticket-buying experiences still leave a little efficiency to be desired.
3. GPS navigation
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever crossed the country without stopping for directions?”
How it played out: Some might say they know a person or two who wouldn’t stop to ask for directions no matter how much tech support they were lacking.
But for everyone else, that Google Maps voice (which we’ve obviously toggled to “cool Australian accent”) ordering us around from our dashboard, the automatic redirects when we take a wrong turn, and those almost-Neopet-like Waze icons, are much appreciated.
Safe to say, this prediction came true –– and then some.
4. Video on demand
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?”
How it played out: Why, yes. Yes, I have. In fact, I’ve watched an entire season of “The Americans” (an underrated show, by the way) in one day. Impressed?
From Netflix to Max to Disney+, how lost would we be at this point without our emotional support streaming services?
Video on demand didn’t just come about –– it SHOWED UP: on your flight, on your commute, while you’re waiting to be called in for your dentist appointment, while you’re lying in bed with insomnia.
Where there’s an internet connection (or even where there isn’t if you’ve planned ahead and downloaded the videos) and a smartphone, there is access to your binge session of the moment.
5. Electronic tolls
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down?”
How it played out: On some toll roads, you can still do that fun thing where you panic-search for change in every crevice of your car as the big white bucket hanging off the side of the toll booth looms up ahead.
But if you’ve joined the 21st century, you probably have an electronic transponder affixed (via some very high-tech Velcro, no less) to your windshield.
And if you don’t, well, there are plenty of signs reminding you what the consequences of being old school are: “No transponder? Don’t worry, we’ll [take a picture of your license plate and] send you a bill!”
6. Radio-frequency identification (RFID)
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever checked out at the supermarket, a whole cart at a time?”
How it played out: Ehhhh, no. Not unless you count grocery pick-up and delivery services. But Amazon has test driven something similar.
This ad was presumably highlighting RFID technology and that did come to fruition. It’s actually the type of tech used in the aforementioned electronic responders for toll collection.
RFID tags can be placed on goods to track them through production or purchasing cycles, and chips with the same technology can be implanted in livestock and other animals for identification purposes.
So, while you probably haven’t rolled through the supermarket checkout line electronic toll-style, you might have found your lost Fido or tapped your credit card to make a quick purchase –– all thanks to RFID.
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever gotten a phone call on your wrist?”
How it played out: Yes –– and a text, and an email, and a calendar reminder, and a payment confirmation, and a weather report, and a food delivery notification, and a flight status update, and many, many reminders to breathe and stand up throughout the day…you get the point.
Everyone seems to be sporting a mini smartphone on their wrist these days. While Samsung claims first here, having introduced a phone-enabled watch to the public in 1999, Apple arguably takes the cake for making this type of tech mainstream.
And that trusty Apple Watch never fails to make sure you can take a call and keep tabs on your health –– extra breathing reminders included.
8. Telemedicine and digital medical records
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever put your heads together, when you’re not together?” and “Have you ever carried your medical history in your wallet?”
How it played out: In general, yes, our healthcare is much more digital than it was in the 1990s –– but not quite in the ways AT&T predicted.
The first ad showed two doctors collaborating remotely on a patient’s care, including looking at the same scans together in real-time. The second ad portrayed a patient taking a credit card-like object out of their wallet and handing it to a doctor. Presumably that card held all their medical records and information.
Yes, of course the technology is now there for medical professionals to easily collaborate on patient care –– when relevant and necessary. We also now have doctor’s appointments that take place entirely online.
And while our medical records have gone digital, we don’t have a card containing all our medical history that we carry around in our pocket. Frankly, that seems like a dicey one on the security front –– what if you lose the card?
Partial credit on this one, AT&T.
9. Wi-Fi, wide-area networks (WANs), and cellular networks
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever sent someone a fax from the beach?”
How it played out: Never mind the beach –– have you ever sent someone a fax, period?!
This one kind of missed the mark. On the rare occasion someone suggests I send them a fax today, I start questioning all their day-to-day business communication: Do you have a rotary phone back there? A typewriter? What’s going on?!
That said, the basic technology this one was indirectly pointing to was Wi-Fi, WANs, and cellular networks –– this idea that you could use a tablet-like device to access the internet and digitally communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time –– sans cords.
So, no, I’m not faxing my buddies from the beach, but I am texting them. And, in case my boss is reading this: Yes, I am working hard from the comfort of that beach towel, thank you very much.
But let’s give credit where credit’s due on this one: AT&T actually does provide us with a cellular network that, in part, makes this all possible.
10. Online libraries
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away?”
How it played out: Libby FTW here –– along with a host of other digital library networks and, of course, an entire internet’s worth of information if you’re in research mode.
Some might say there’s nothing like turning the pages of the real deal, but if you’re more of a tablet or e-reader type, this technology definitely landed long ago.
11. Video calling
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever tucked your baby in from a phone booth?”
How it played out: We’re sitting at roughly a B-, here, AT&T.
While I’ve absolutely FaceTime-d my son to say goodnight before he goes to bed, the last time I stepped into a phone booth, I think I was about 12 years old, calling my parents collect and hoping they wouldn’t ground me for it.
So, no, I haven’t tucked my baby in –– nor done much of anything –– from a phone booth in a long time.
12. Distance learning and real-time online collaboration
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever studied with a classmate thousands of miles away?” and “Have you ever learned special things from faraway places?”
How it played out: It sort of feels like some folks at AT&T were just a littttle bit psychic: Did they stare into the future and see us sending our kids “to school” on an iPad while we frantically scrambled to jump on a video call with our boss right next to them?
While distance learning was an option (and in use, in some cases) pre-pandemic, it was truly thrust into the spotlight in 2020 as kids around the world traded their backpacks and lunchboxes for laptops and endless snack runs to the kitchen.
It might not have felt quite as romantic as learning “special things from faraway places,” but it did open our eyes to a broadened world of educational technology.
13. Remote home automation
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever kept an eye on your home when you’re not at home?” and “Have you ever opened doors with the sound of your voice?”
How it played out: Our homes have definitely leveled up in the tech department over the years.
Interconnectedness might be lacking, but we can do a lot from afar via various apps: monitor our security system and see who (or what) walks up to our house, adjust the temperature and lighting, detect leaks, open and close the garage door, water our lawn, and more.
And, yes, you can buy a home locking system that allows you to open and close the doors with just the sound of your voice.
Other than the fact that we typically control all these things with our smartphones rather than a giant tablet (as depicted in the ad), this prediction was a home run.
14. Speech recognition and translation software
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever conducted business in a language you don’t understand?”
How it played out: Oui, sí, and ya.
But even Google Translate, speech-to-text software, and that app that changes the language of a document with just a scroll of your smartphone are, frankly, old news at this point.
In fact, with a little help from AI, learning multiple languages could become just a cool, extraneous pastime –– not an advantageous skill for doing business around the world.
15. Virtual assistants
What Tom Selleck asked: “Have you ever had an assistant who lived in your computer?”
How it played out: Alexa, do you exist? Siri, do you live in my computer?
That’d be a yes, Tom Selleck.
The final score: How AT&T predicted our tech future
While some of these scenarios didn’t fully play out (RIP phone booths and fax machines), if you’re keeping track, AT&T essentially predicted 15 different types of technology.
Beyond that, the commercials also depicted futuristic functionality like touchscreens and pen computing, as well as not-yet-invented hardware like tablets and smartphones.
It’s an impressive scorecard but it wasn’t exactly as serendipitous as it might seem. After all, these weren’t finger-in-the-air predictions: The crew at AT&T hadn’t developed some type of sixth sense.
In fact, all the innovative technology presented in the “You Will” ads stemmed from the work being done at AT&T’s research and development branch, Bell Labs.
The products they had in the works weren’t ready to be unleashed to the world, but AT&T decided to pull back the curtain on what they knew would eventually be possible based on the work they’d completed to date.
And, yes, in the end it was a slew of other companies that actually made all this tech accessible to consumers and businesses (and Bell Labs ended up being spun off). But it didn’t really matter for AT&T.
After all, they won the public perception game: They’ll forever be the ones who successfully predicted so much of the tech that underscores our lives today.
So, the real question became: Have you ever eternally associated AT&T with a world of innovation and forward-thinking technology?
And the answer, in 1993, would have been a definitive: You will.
What tech ‘You Will’ use in the next 30 years
Thirty years after AT&T’s commercials originally aired, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that 1993 pre-smartphone, analog existence. And 30 years from now, we’re on track for a similar revolution.
So, what will 2053 look like when it comes to technology?
I gathered predictions from more than 100 tech experts around the world. And while many of them made a point to mention there’s simply no way we can know for sure, they overwhelmingly agreed on the types of tech we will be using in the next 30 years.
Hint: Things like keys, petrol-fueled cars, and laptops are all projected to become merely relics, confined to glass cases in museum halls..
If the “You Will” ads were reinvented for the coming three decades, they’d probably go a little something like this:
1. Have you ever had your coffee maker buy you coffee? You will.
“Everything’s connected now, but by 2053, this will be on a whole other level. Your fridge will not only tell you when you’re out of milk, but it’ll also order it for you.” –– Daniel Cooper, managing partner, Lolly
And ordering groceries won’t be the only benefit:
“The [Internet of Things (IoT)] will connect billions of devices, making our homes, cities, and workplaces smarter and more efficient. Smart homes will be equipped with interconnected appliances, security systems, and energy management solutions. Cities will utilize IoT to optimize traffic flow, reduce energy consumption, and enhance public services.” –– Kevin Johnson, technologist, TheComputerGeeks.org
2. Have you ever printed your dinner? You will.
“It is anticipated that by the year 2053, 3D printing would be utilized to make a wide variety of items, ranging from toys to furniture to medical implants. For instance, 3D printers might be used to make individualized prostheses or to print food that is specifically formulated to meet the requirements of each person’s diet.” –– Azzam Sheikh, digital strategist, Carifex
“We would have 3D printers at home, making it possible to design and print almost anything we want according to our own personal tastes.” –– Hila Harary, future trends forecaster, Tectonic Shift
Bye bye, pizza delivery.
3. Have you ever written a text message using only your mind? You will.
“Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) will enable direct communication between the human brain and computers, opening up possibilities for controlling devices with our thoughts, enhancing cognitive abilities, and even enabling telepathic communication.” –– Kevin Johnson, technologist, TheComputerGeeks.org
4. Have you ever had surgery with no surgeon in the room? You will.
“In 30 years, healthcare will likely look much different than it does now. We’re in the beginning stages of integrating AI into healthcare. Thirty years from now, we can expect AI to be working right alongside doctors when it comes to every aspect of healthcare. From diagnosing to monitoring to performing procedures, AI will be integral in healthcare.” –– Daivat Dholakia, VP of Operations, Essenvia
“I predict our society will widely use health monitoring devices by 2053 that allow doctors and patients to see various aspects of their health in real-time. For instance, constant glucose monitors have been a significant help to those with diabetes, allowing them to monitor their blood sugar in real-time. As technology progresses, health tech will take giant leaps toward prevention and lengthening life.” –– Joshua Host, founder, Thrivelab
5. Have you ever unlocked your house with your face? You will.
“Passwords will become a thing of the past, as biometric authentication methods like facial recognition, fingerprint scans, and even brainwave patterns secure our devices and accounts.” –– Youssef EL ACHAB, cloud security and devops consultant, ITCertificate.org
“…biometric authentication, such as fingerprint or iris scanning, will become the norm, providing highly secure ways to access devices and systems.” –– Harman Singh, director, Cyphere
6. Have you ever traveled for work without your laptop? You will.
“In 2053, we can expect a future that’s increasingly, perhaps entirely, deviceless. Rather than laptops and smartphones, we’ll have small wearables that project holographic versions of the technology we use today. So if you wanted to visit, say, [The New York Times] home page, you’d simply have to think of it while wearing your device to see the information right before your eyes.” –– Mark Varnas, tech consultant, Red9
“It may be possible that computers as we know them today (desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones) will become invisible. What do I mean by that? Well, most likely we’ll have them either implanted or we’ll wear them and what we see now on a typical display will be projected through our brain waves directly as an overlay, a video feed on top of what our eyes normally see.” –– Ionut-Alexandru Popa, tech entrepreneur, BinaryFork
7. Have you ever had your late grandmother teach your daughter how to play piano? You will.
“We already try to do low-resolution versions of this today. CharacterAI is an AI startup that is taking off for exactly this. You can already have text-based conversations with AI bots based on the personalities of your favorite celebrities or fictional characters.
It’s clear that as the technology develops more and more, realistic personality simulation will be possible. As large language models (LLMs) improve, simulations will be able to seamlessly access memories and other bits of information that will make their personalities seem more real. The benefits are clear for anyone who’s ever lost a loved one, or who imagines a god, a parent, a therapist or any sort of hero when they are making a big decision, or need some extra support in their life. Simulating someone’s personality without their consent is problematic and we’ll need updated laws governing when and how simulations can be created, used, and sold.” — Dan Shipper, co-founder and CEO of Every.
“The concept of [artificial intelligence (AI)] recreating virtual versions of deceased loved ones fascinates me. It could be both comforting and disturbing. I remember reading an article that speculated about this possibility and being torn between seeing it as a beautiful homage and a potential source of prolonged grief. This is a technology that may raise as many philosophical questions as technical ones.” –– Enoch Omololu, founder and resident personal finance expert, Savvy New Canadians
8. Have you ever had a drone deliver a latté to your desk? You will.
“Technology is less of a barrier to the adoption of delivery drones than regulation is. In May 2019, a drone delivered a kidney to a Baltimore patient. Drones are being used by WeRobotics and Flying Labs to send drugs and vaccines to nursing homes in cooled containers. I think it will just grow more in the future.” –– Jan Chapman, co-founder and managing director, MSP Blueshift
“One of the biggest trends we’ll see is office drones. Worker productivity is a rising concern in the current workplace. Every employee has to move around the office for mundane tasks such as getting coffee. These tasks can take time and ruin their productivity. But the workplace of 2053 will have drones that will carry out all these tasks.” –– Jessica Shee, marketing manager, iBoysoft
9. Have you ever folded your laundry without lifting a finger? You will.
“Humanoid robots and AI companions will become increasingly sophisticated, assisting in household chores, elder care, and providing emotional support.” –– Youssef EL ACHAB, cloud security and devops consultant, ITCertificate.org
“While outside, our home robot would be able to clean our place and fold our laundry.” –– Hila Harary, future trends forecaster, Tectonic Shift
“Imagine a robot that could make your breakfast or help with your homework!” –– Rajeev Bera, founder, aCompiler
“Robots and AI will assume control over various aspects of manufacturing, delivery, design, and marketing, thereby transforming the landscape of most industries.” –– Diana Shelby, digital strategist, GadgetsHeist
10. Have you ever visited a country that’s thousands of miles away before booking a flight there? You will.
We’re gearing up to go well beyond the Apple Vision Pro:
“Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) may reach new heights, perfectly replicating physical presence for remote work or travel experiences. Imagine exploring a virtual rendition of remote destinations before deciding where to travel physically.” –– Yulia Saf, Miss Tourist
“It is anticipated that by the year 2053, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will have become more widespread and will be utilized for entertainment, education, and training. For instance, virtual reality could be utilized in the training of surgeons, as well as the provision of virtual tours of historical locations. Augmented reality (AR) has the potential to improve our gaming experiences as well as provide information about the world that we live in.” –– Vikas Kaushik, CEO, TechAhead
Other developments experts are predicting?
- Enhanced self-driving cars (and potentially other types of vehicles) that will take safe, reliable transportation to the next level
- Advanced AI-powered assistants that can not only respond to commands but also anticipate our wants and needs
- Incredibly fast 6G and 7G networks that allow for high-speed data transmission
- Developments in quantum computing that lead to massive strides in research, cryptography, and the discovery of new drugs
- Vast improvements in renewable energy including solar collection functionality seamlessly incorporated into things like building materials
- More accessibility for space tourism and exploration, and potentially the beginnings of colonization on other planets
And as for the companies that will bring us all these high-tech experiences? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
The fine line between a tech future that’s fly and one that’s gone postal
As you digest all this information from the glaring rectangle that is your mobile phone, it probably all sounds pretty far-fetched –– like video on demand and electronic tolls sounded in 1993, as we sat back to admire our burgeoning Beanie Baby collection.
So, how do we integrate all this new technology into our lives, letting it do what it promises to do –– bolster efficiency, accessibility, and even our lifespan –– while preserving the breezy, wholesome ’90s-esque vibes we still hold in our hearts? As everything becomes more, well, robotic, how do we hold onto our humanity?
All I can say is I hope any checks and balances we put in place leave me drafting the next installment of this story while I’m out on a sunny walk, using only my neural signals to generate what I want to say.
With any luck, it’ll go something like this:
Ah, the 2050s.
Just the mention of that glorious decade brings me back to an epic dance party with my robot and sends the clicks of my 3D printer echoing throughout the proverbial halls of my brain.
Melisse is a writer, editor, and content marketing professional who firmly believes in the power of words. She’s spent 17 years in the content space across media, tech, travel, and education. Melisse is now the president and managing director of her agency, Evergreen Media.