Technologies in The Spark Anomaly
Inventions and technologies add texture and color to our world, from a simple invention like a robotic vacuum cleaner to revolutionary inventions like the airplane or the computer. Technologies can corrupt or enhance society. In the last fifteen years, the smart phone has dramatically changed the family dynamic, and nuclear bombs could eventually destroy the world. Hundreds of technologies will define our future, all impacting the flavor of the world.
I tried to include roughly one new technology in every scene of The Spark Anomaly and its planned sequels. When I started, I thought I would run out of new ideas, but so far, technological invention has been the easiest part of the writing process. Story-line and character development are much more challenging.
My fictional technology design process is similar to the invention process I go through in my engineering firm, except when I encounter a technological challenge in prose, I can write my way around any issue—even if it means inventing a new branch of physics.
As both an engineer and an entrepreneur, I have learned that invention is relatively easy, but bringing that invention to market poses the real challenge. There has to be a need, and most importantly, there has to be a viable business plan in place. But nothing ever goes as planned.
In designing my fictional technologies, I followed three basic steps:
Develop the business plan. A good example of this is the tactilefax, which I describe early in The Spark Anomaly. This technology is essentially a sophisticated 3-D printer, which should be familiar to most techno geeks. However, in order to bring this product into every home, I added intellectual property protections and self-destruct mechanisms so that it would make financial sense to have a device that can build any household product but still provide a revenue stream for the product designer. Imagine iTunes but with a vacuum cleaner instead of a song.
Design the widget. I feel that I have to understand the underlying technical challenges to properly describe how the technology works. Also, it is important for me to be confident that the device is buildable and does not violate a fundamental law of physics. Sometimes, for the sake of pacing, I leave the details to the reader’s imagination, but the design is always clear in my mind.
Decide what goes wrong. To me, what makes new technologies fascinating are their unintended consequences. Often, these unintended consequences have a bigger impact on our world than the primary product function. A butt dial can destroy a marriage, and a computer virus can change an election. And since nothing ever goes as planned, virtually all technologies have an unintended impact.
In The Spark Anomaly, I describe over fifty future technologies and inventions over the course of the novel. Some are critical to the plot, while others add to the atmosphere of their world.
The following are two examples of inventions featured in The Spark Anomaly that are not essential to the plot but do color the world.
The Anechoic Library
The anechoic library is an example of a technology designed by a fictional professor with a terrible business plan, but I liked the concept because of its great potential for unintended consequences. Noise-canceling signals are sent from thousands of speakers built into the walls, the floor, and even the furniture. Unwanted sounds are canceled near the occupants’ ears. Our heroine uses her knowledge of the technology to trick the system into allowing her to listen in on an antagonist’s conversation.
Referring to the fictional library as anechoic is ironic because the word means echoless and the noise-canceling system sends out intentional echoes to cancel out ambient noise. However, anechoic chambers are quiet rooms, so I thought the name would be appropriate.
The following is a passage from The Spark Anomaly that illustrates this technology:
Cathy entered the spacious library and immediately felt overwhelmed by the deafening silence. Although hundreds of students chatted and argued around the large square tables, the only sounds she could hear were her own footsteps and the rustling of her hands in her pockets. The place seemed surreal, as if she was watching a TV show with the volume muted. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves mostly filled with engineering texts and periodicals towered over the busy students.
It had been years since she had entered the library, but the absolute silence combined with the obvious chaos brought back a flood of memories. Just after she had turned seven, her father had taken her to the library to show her the new noise suppression system, which he called the NSS. Cathy remembered being humiliated by the outing. Of course, her father had simply been trying to teach her how the system worked, but she was a shy child who just wanted to go home. She smiled. Many of her strongest memories were of times when things had gone horribly wrong. But somehow, they didn’t seem so awful anymore. Now they were cherished memories. She would give anything to feel humiliated by her father’s antics once more. Knowing that he would never embarrass her again left her with a dull ache.
The NSS had been designed by Frank Spitzer, one of her father’s former graduate students. Her father had been thrilled when it was installed in the library. He had described Frank as brilliant, ambitious, idealistic, and naïve. Spitzer had dreamed of selling the NSS to libraries around the word. But as far as Cathy knew, this was the only library that had installed his system. After graduation, he had taken out advertisements, gone to building construction trade shows, and even managed to get a small business grant. Several magazines wrote articles praising his brilliant invention, but he never got the business off the ground.
Several years later, a large conglomerate came up with virtually the same design and made a fortune selling it to restaurants. Unfortunately, Frank never thought to protect his intellectual property with patents. But the conglomerate did. They hired a team of corporate lawyers and sued Frank for patent infringement even though he had come up with the design first. Legally, Frank had been in the right, but he couldn’t afford to mount a defense, so in the end he lost everything.
Hearing a familiar voice behind her, Cathy froze. “Look who’s here,” said Maria in a whisper. Shit, Cathy thought. She knew immediately why Maria’s voice had carried through the NSS sound protection, but that didn’t make her feel any better. Cathy didn’t feel embarrassed, just nauseated and drained from all the emotional encounters. Why did I come to the library? I should have stayed home. It’s all Soona’s fault, Cathy thought wryly. Ignore them, she told herself. Just ignore them.
Cathy stood up straight, kept her back to them, and walked as bravely as she could to an empty table. I should never have come here, she thought miserably.
“I’ve never seen her in the library before. I can’t believe that the queen of suck up is actually lowering herself to associate with the rest of us,” Mark said.
“Quiet, she’ll hear you,” Maria hissed.
“The NSS is operating. She can’t hear a thing,” Mark responded casually.
“I don’t trust that system,” Maria replied.
Cathy smiled to herself, realizing that they didn’t understand how the NSS worked. Well, her father’s boring explanations were useful for some things. Cathy put her book bag on the table and stood, recalling her father’s incredible enthusiasm as he described how the system worked.
“There are thousands of speakers and microphones embedded in the floor, the ceiling, and even the tables,” her father had said, waving his arms about the room as if he owned the place. He pointed at the ceiling. “And dozens of video cameras are watching our every move.” Her father pointed down. “Each speaker emits an inaudible chirp to continually calibrate the system.”
Cathy quietly chuckled to herself, remembering that at the time she had thought that chirping birds were living in the speakers. A chirp was a technical term for a sound or signal that increased its frequency over time. Cathy smiled. Her father had always been enthusiastic about things that most people took for granted.
“Sound waves are tiny little gusts of wind that push the air back and forth, causing vibrations that can be sensed by your ear,” her father had explained. “The noise cancellation system transmits a sound wave that pushes the air in the exact opposite direction so the sound disappears.” Cathy had rolled her eyes. Her father had told her many times how sound waves worked.
Her father raised his finger. “But let me tell you a secret that most people don’t know. The sounds aren’t canceled everywhere — only in your ears.”
Cathy had been surprised by this. Her father nodded happily.
“It’s like a balloon. You can pinch it in the middle, but it always pops up somewhere else. It’s called sound nulling.” Cathy had shrugged.
“By shifting the sounds coming out of each speaker in time, the ‘nulls’ can be placed at arbitrary locations in the room. Sound takes time to travel from place to place, and there are only certain locations in the room where the sound from the speakers and the sound of your voice arrive together to cancel each other out and create a null. If you could step out of a ‘null,’ you would not only hear the original noise, but you would also hear the noise-canceling echo produced by the speakers. Video cameras figure out where your head is, and the sound nulls are placed in your ears so that you can’t hear the background noise. Students can work in silence even though sound waves are bouncing all around the room.
“Let me show you how to fool the system,” her father had said, opening a large paper bag that he had brought into the library. “Put this over your head.”
“No, Daddy. There are hundreds of people around,” Cathy had said nervously. Her father put the bag over her head. Mortified, Cathy remained stationary, feeling like an idiot, knowing that if she fought her dad, she’d look even more foolish. After a few seconds, the noise of the library filled her ears. She could hear at least three radios blasting and dozens of voices overlapping. Her father pulled off the bag, and silence returned almost immediately.
“Daddy, let’s go. Please?” she had begged.
“No, there’s more. Did you know that the NSS can null individual conversations?” Cathy had shaken her head no, to which her father had nodded yes. “Well, it can. It looks at your eyes to see who you are talking to. Let’s run another experiment,” her father said.
“Just tell me, Daddy,” Cathy had begged.
Her father continued. “We can look at each other from across the room, and the system will know that we’re talking because it recognizes our eye contact. You could stand over there.” Her father had pointed across the room. “I could stand here, and we can have a conversation in a whisper while not hearing anybody else in the room. The NSS will cancel out all other sounds in the room, but it will amplify our conversation in our ears.”
“Very interesting,” Cathy had said dryly. “Can we leave now?” she had asked, tugging her father’s shirt.
Cathy sighed, bringing herself back to the present. Obviously, Mark and Maria had been staring at her while they were talking about her. The NSS had thought that they were talking to her, not about her.
Lee Tree Buildings
Given the recent discovery of extreme high tensile strength materials such as graphene and nano-tubes it doesn’t take a genius to realize that office buildings of the future will have a dramatically different look and structure. The real question is; what will they look like? For my city of the future, I designed office buildings that were both aesthetically pleasing and would maximized profits for the builder. The most valuable and expensive offices in any office building are the windowed offices, so I designed my buildings like trees with dozens of branches to maximize window area. The following is a passage from the Spark Anomaly where I describe these office buildings.
Helen looked at the map and then looked up to get her bearings. She stared awestruck at the scene before her eyes. She had of course seen pictures of Xilingol, the modern city built as an oasis in the Gobi desert, but she had never imagined the scale or splendor. The buildings were spectacular. Rather than vertical rectangular structures, they looked more like trees in a forest. She had read about the city’s architect, Henry Lee, who had been inspired by Walt Disney and Bugsy Siegel, both of whom had developed global attractions in the middle of desert wastelands. However, unlike Disney, who had built the Disney World amusement park in the middle of Florida, or Siegel, who had started a gambling mecca in the Nevada desert, Lee had designed a modern city that used the latest technologies to provide optimal living conditions for nearly a million residents. It had been a monumental achievement. Like Las Vegas, Xilingol primarily existed along a short strip of roadway fronted by monumental skyscrapers, all designed by Lee. A desert wasteland waited less than a half a mile from the last of Lee’s buildings.
Helen examined one of the tree-shaped skyscrapers. The hundreds of tube-like branches that sprang up from the center trunk gave nearly every residence or business office a windowed view of the city. The outer tubes bent in a slow arc reaching an apex and then extended a bit farther, like the branches of a tree sagging toward the ground. Lee had designed the structures to maximize the window area toward the sun by systematically reducing the curvature of the inner branches. The tree-like buildings extended over the roadways, shading pedestrians and automobile traffic. The most desirable rooms were those at the tips of the outer tubes. Floors at the tip were transparent, providing inhabitants with an amazing view of the city, as if they were floating a thousand feet off the ground. Helen had read about several famous restaurants that now occupied those rooms.
The rooms in each tube consisted of shops, small business offices, and apartments serviced by an intelligent elevator system in the center core. A dozen or so rooms, each with picture-window views, surrounded the elevator shaft. Periodically, the tube branches were connected to each other by elevator shaft branches that allowed the residents to travel anywhere in the building. The elevators traveled about the building more like cars than elevators, taking the passengers through the complicated maze of interior passageways to their desired destination. A computer carefully controlled the elevator traffic flow so there were rarely delays in transportation. The architect had tinted the buildings’ windows so that the branches were in varying colors, giving the buildings the look of a forest in autumn. The effect was stunning.
Helen looked down the street at some of the other Lee buildings. All had the same basic tree-like design, but each was slightly different. Some looked like palm trees, with tall narrow trunks branching out to office space plumage that shaded the surrounding buildings. Others looked more like bushes, with branches appearing to spring directly from the ground. Collectively they resembled a beautiful garden designed for a species of giants.
At the foot of the skyscrapers stood an eclectic mix of small buildings occupied by people and businesses that either couldn’t afford to or chose not to live in the massive structures. Lee had strongly objected to their construction, believing that they would be a blight on the paradise that he had created. However, rather than an eyesore, these buildings provided a contrasting perspective that allowed the visitor to understand the magnitude of Lee’s undertaking. Helen thought the juxtaposition of the various building styles gave the city a spark of life. By themselves, Lee’s buildings were magnificent, but a little too perfect. Somehow, the surrounding chaos added a sense of realism.