Imagine a refrigerator that orders your groceries. Or a house that builds itself. Or a car called a Leaf that runs on solar energy and wind power.
These concepts and many other futuristic ideas — some already in use, some within reach, some just a dream — are being sketched out for visitors to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. The theme of the Expo, which opened May 1 and continues through Oct. 31, is "Better City, Better Life."
A fridge of the future reads expiration dates and orders new food for you. A toilet with a digital screen analyzes urine for medical information. An aerial tramway includes special cars to carry bikes, so riders can bicycle to and from stations. A store doesn't require you to carry your purchases around; instead, you note the item with a handheld device and pick it up as you leave.
Most of these concepts are not found in the Expo's national pavilions, where individual countries offer exhibits about their history and traditions.
"I don't feel like we've seen the future," said Annika Isfeldt of Copenhagen, echoing the reaction of many who dropped by pavilions hosted by the USA, Brazil, Holland, Korea, Morocco and other places around the world.
But visitors who spend some time in the Expo's corporate zones, where companies, government agencies and a few localities have sponsored pavilions, will find a number of exhibits on new technology, products and designs.
One pavilion shows an experimental car called the Leaf, developed by SAIC, the Chinese partner of GM and Volkswagen AG. It looks a lot like a Smart car, but it produces its own energy, powered by sun and wind.
In another exhibit, visitors step into a multimedia cube the size of a house, where images surround you on six sides.
The Israel pavilion, one of the few country pavilions to tout new technology, describes the Pillcam, a tiny camera that you can swallow to give doctors a look at your innards. At least two pavilions have walls that are literally green, with a beautiful patchwork of flowers, grass and herbs built into the sides of the structures.
And the city of Odense, Denmark, has set up a track where visitors can ride bikes using helmets that are covered with a variety of hat styles, from baseball caps to soft patterned fabric.
Lise Andersen, a goodwill ambassador from Odense, said bikes are a standard means of transportation in Denmark, and fashionable helmet hats are commonplace. The ability to individualize the hat style means "it's very trendy to wear a helmet," she said.
A pavilion hosted by Cisco Systems explores a technology called TelePresence, which is a live video network that seamlessly connects many different devices and systems. Imagine a large flat screen on your living room wall that easily enables you to communicate with friends, family and co-workers in a live, Skype-like video feed. The same system will let you take a class remotely or help you change your transit plans if there's a storm.
A film in the Cisco pavilion illustrating TelePresence also shows a pregnant woman videoconferencing with her doctor while sending him data through a small device that she places on her belly. The doctor in turn makes the data available to another expert in a videoconference, and the woman is advised to head to a hospital.
"These are the kinds of products you will have in your home in 10 years' time," said Cisco pavilion director Anthony Elvey.
In China, where new residential areas are being developed all the time, the technology and resulting "connected communities" could be in place even sooner. "In cities that are starting from scratch, hopefully some of them will step right into the next level," Elvey said.
The Expo also showcases some new design ideas. Imagine a remote that's not an ugly piece of black plastic, but that is instead made from wood or a white, translucent, leaf-like shape. Imagine a clear plastic touchpad the size of your cell phone, or a mini-desktop communications and data console that's transparent, with no wires or other visible hardware.
Other exhibits are for dreamers only: A single global currency to allow for a seamless world economy; a seastead, like a homestead on the ocean, or an orbiting city out in space.
Architects propose parallel residential structures, 30 stories high, that run on for miles, homes that build themselves, and modular prefab buildings with shapes and textures that can easily be rearranged, so you never get bored. Buildings might take on unusual shapes like triangles that would allow them to be terraced for farming while simultaneously housing offices and apartments.
These may not be reality any time soon. Then again, the television and air conditioning experienced by visitors to the 1939 World's Fair in New York probably seemed just as out of reach.