Innovation in America: A Tale of Technology

This article is part of our Innovation in America series, in which Foolish writers highlight examples of innovation going on today and what they see coming in the future.

Author's note: This is a fictional story exploring how several major technological trends shape one man's life in 2012. It is the first of a three-part series that examines the possible progress of technology through the next decade.

All about Johnny
Johnny is a 23-year-old aspiring roboticist. He's recently finished his first full year of graduate studies at Stanford University's School of Engineering. Johnny has wanted to be a roboticist since his father introduced him to Robocop at the age of 8, before he knew what a "roboticist" was. He never quite got over the stupidity of Robocop's robot enemy losing its battle by falling down a flight of stairs.

This is the first day of Johnny's brief summer vacation, before he begins a software engineering internship at a local wearable-electronics start-up. Johnny is going to enjoy his free time while it lasts -- with the help of his favorite cutting-edge technologies.

A day in the life
A Roomba scuttles by Johnny's open door as he heads to the kitchen for breakfast. The iRobot (NAS: IRBT) house-cleaner has been painstakingly tweaked over the past few months to accomplish Johnny's goal of robotic stair-climbing. It's not quite complete -- the poor thing nearly broke a week ago in a failed attempt to go down a flight -- but the freedom of summer should allow more time for his hobby. It's still useful as a vacuum, and its navigational limitations encourage Johnny and his roommates to keep objects off the floor. Changing the cleaning habits of three busy geeks is no mean feat.

Conquering stairs remains one of robotics' toughest movement challenges.

One of Johnny's two roommates is playing Kinect Star Wars in the living room on Johnny's Microsoft Xbox 360. Johnny watches from the couch, but it's not long before his roommate gets frustrated with the mediocre controls and uninspiring gameplay. The Kinect is a fun piece of equipment, but many game developers haven't quite gotten the hang of using it to create compelling games.

The Kinect is accurate enough to remember you based on your physical dimensions and can load your data without prompting.

Johnny takes over the Xbox and loads up Netflix (NAS: NFLX) . Within minutes, he's watching Star Trek IV, more for its comedic value than anything else. The movie loads flawlessly. Midway through the movie, the Samsung Galaxy S II in his pocket chirps, letting him know he has a new message.

The average Netflix streaming movie would have taken three and a half days to fully transfer for people on standard modems 10 years ago.

It's a message from a senior at Berkeley who he's been flirting with on OkCupid, a popular dating site. She's back from her summer vacation and wants to know if Johnny would like to meet for dinner. Not wanting to miss his opportunity, Johnny opens the dating site's mobile app and sends the girl a message with his phone number. He checks the rest of his emails and then spends some time responding to other messages, checking his portfolio, getting news updates from Twitter, and using his available moves in a turn-based mobile game.

The average smartphone user now consumes up to 760 megabytes of data per month. The average young person in Johnny's age range sends more than 1,700 texts per month.

A text from an unknown number pops up after a few minutes. It's the girl from the dating site. A few minutes of back-and-forth messaging are enough to establish plans for the evening at a recently renovated San Mateo sushi restaurant.

After a relaxing afternoon, Johnny heads out to the nearest Zipcar (NAS: ZIP) lot, where he checks out a Ford Focus with the Zipcar Android app. The car doesn't come with navigation assistance, but Johnny doesn't need it -- his Galaxy S II runs Google Navigation with ease, and the phone fits comfortably in the dash. Johnny has effectively rented a car for a few hours, using only a smartphone and an RFID chip.

Zipcar can save its users $7,000 annually compared to owning a car.

The phone's accurate turn-by-turn directions guide Johnny to the restaurant in just under half an hour, where he finds a space down the street and allows the Focus to park itself. The car backs into its spot and angles itself into position without Johnny's help. Thanks to Google's navigation and Zipcar's convenience, Johnny's made it with time to spare.

The earliest consumer GPS devices could only display map coordinates, were 15 times less precise than modern devices, and cost more than $1,000.

When Johnny's date arrives, he escorts her to their table, which features an Apple (NAS: AAPL) iPad mounted to a swiveling stand near the wall. The iPad blinks to life with an interactive menu that welcomes them to the restaurant. The iPad's bright display offers high-resolution pictures, nutritional information, and interesting facts about the restaurant's fish suppliers. When they place an order, Johnny simply swipes his credit card through a reader built into the device's stand. The process sparks a conversation that lasts until the food arrives. The date is off to a good start...

iPads or other tablets can help improve a restaurant's average check size by up to 15% by offering better merchandising opportunities than standard menus.

The future waits for no man
The technologies Johnny used in this story are all readily available today, and nearly all were developed exclusively or extensively in the United States. Johnny is fictional, but his life and experiences are familiar to many people. The technological changes our world has seen in a few short years are remarkable, but the years to come may exceed all but the most outlandish sci-fi imaginations.

Follow Johnny's journey into the future of innovation:

To keep track of these innovative companies as they help build the future of America (and the world), add them to your watchlist for regular updates from The Motley Fool:

The article Innovation in America: A Tale of Technology originally appeared on

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor, Microsoft, Zipcar, and Netflix. The Fool owns shares of Apple. The Fool owns shares of Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of iRobot, Zipcar, Microsoft, Netflix, Ford Motor, Google, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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