Super cars and avatars: Seoul's mind-blowing future technology museum
This week, as part of a mentor fellowship program, I had the opportunity to visit T.um, the technology museum run by SK Telecom in Jung-gu in Seoul.
It may have been because "Back to the Future" was my favorite movie growing up and I’ve always loved science fiction (to the horror of my lit professors in college), but I was so taken with the tour, I went back the next day and asked if I could have a longer one.
And then even that felt too short.
As Korea is the most wired country in the world, and SK Telecom (with 26.6 million subscribers) is in charge of a significant part of that wiring, the company is understandably aggressive about developing technologies across various platforms. They launched T.um to showcase their latest efforts.
The museum far exceeded my expectations -- especially as I'd thought I was going on a boring corporate tour -- and provided a fascinating look at life and technology in the future.
Dream and Play
T.um, which stands for "Telecom Ubiquitious Museum," is divided into two sections, "Dream" and "Play." The former predicts how technology will be used in everyday life in the near future, and the latter displays the latest technologies actually being used today.
The routes of the 1,690-square-meter museum are laid out with the concept of water, to show the fluidity and interconnectedness of technology.
Thus the tour starts at a small rectangular “pond” in the lobby, where visitors are handed a cellular phone, called the "T-key" (SK Planet uses the letter "T" the way Apple uses "i"), which is everyone's personalized "lifestyle key."
“In the future, your cell phone will be the control key of your everyday life,” says the guide.
Once you enter your information, a colorful fairy-like digital avatar of yourself appears in the pond with your name, and follows you as you move to the next stage of the tour, swimming in the digital stream that runs along next to the escalator as you make your way to the second floor.
Upstairs, you enter is the world of the future. Or the home of the future, to be more precise.
Your future home
At U.home, the living room of the future, the walls are one giant connected screen that shows whatever view you desire. The initial scene on display is a beautiful beach resort with a view of the ocean -- the waves are lapping, as a slight wind blows through trees in the distance.
“Based on infra-red technology, homes will be motion-sensored,” says the guide, holding her arms in front of her.
“Nowadays, it costs a lot of money and time to change the wallpaper of your house. In the future, all it will take is moving your arms.”
With this, she makes a slow sweeping gesture and the “wallpaper” changes to a magnificent city skyline at night.
“Now I want to make a phone call,” she says. With a flick of her hand she pulls up an address book on the wall and searches for a name. When she selects someone, the person’s information and social networking site appears on the opposite wall, and when she dials, all the walls turn into a 3D rendering of Seoul, with a stunning visual representation of the signal honing in on the person she is calling. When the connection is made, the person receiving the call appears on the wall via video chat.
When I tried the motion sensor for myself, I felt as if I were in a scene from "Minority Report," pulling up images with hand gestures and then sweeping them out of view.
It’s amazing how natural it feels, even on the first try.
In the center of the living room is a “media table,” essentially a table with a giant touch-screen surface. When you set your “T-key” (cell phone) on it, the array of contents inside the key balloon up on the screen as if you are hovering your mouse over an icon on the computer.
“Now your living room will turn into a movie theater,” says the guide. She selects a movie from the key on the media table and the movie starts playing immediately on the wall.
Then she goes onto music. “It will be a fuller experience,” she says, and selects a Girls’ Generation song from the key’s track list. The wall behind her springs to life as a music video, with the nine life-size girls dancing behind her.
The concept of the digital frame is also diversified. The guide takes a photo of the tour group, which she slides into one of many frames that appear on the wall.
Although the experience feels like time travel (think Marty McFly’s girlfriend Jennifer when she wanders into her living room of the future) the most astonishing thing is that the displayed technology is not a conjectured rendering of the future, but already developed, and surprisingly simple in concept.
For example, although it may feel like the walls behind you are giant, expensive screens, they are actually ordinary blank walls. The images come from a motion-reading projector.
The future of driving
The next section is devoted to driving.
On display is a locally developed sports car called the Spira, which looks and acts like a modest version of the Batmobile.
Visitors can climb in to go for a spin in the future, which is projected on a screen like a driving game at an arcade.
The car drives itself, and does everything from scanning your body condition to making reservations at the best Chinese restaurant en route to your destination.
Instead of filling up at gas stations, the car stops at an electricity station for a quick recharge. It can also sell power while on the road to other cars that need it. Video conferencing while driving is also available.
“This technology is actually all available and SK Telecom is working with Hyundai and Kia to start rolling it out in actual cars later this year,” says the guide.
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Like Alicia Silverstone’s character in "Clueless," shoppers of the future can have their avatars try clothes on for them via giant screens. In order to create an avatar, you first have to have your body scanned in a body scanner.
The scanner picks up on all the water points in your body, using the same technology as the scanners at the airport, which is why you don’t have to strip completely naked while being scanned.
“These technologies are also being used for VIPs at certain luxury shops in Korea, and I believe in Italy,” says the guide.
Every time you pass a shop window, you can shake your key for information about the product in the window and then can buy it on the spot. For sunglasses, you can superimpose them on your face after taking a picture of yourself.
The rest of the tour (another pond, a short video, then 26 technologies developed by SK that are being used today) is not as impressive, but the first half –- especially the living room and the car -- carry enough of a punch to keep your head reeling.
“We had an prince from the Middle East who wanted his entire house to look exactly like T.um after going on the tour,” laughs SK Planet CEO Jin Woo So.
But with the dizzying rate of technological advances these days, how do they keep the museum up to date?
“We used to update every four or five years, but that’s not possible anymore,” says So. “Now we update the technology every year.”
"I felt like I was in an 'Iron Man' movie. Only Jarvis was missing," said a friend who accompanied me on the tour on my second time. "It was groovy. But too short."
"What was impressive was not so much the vision itself, but the realization the museum imparts to visitors that within several years T.um could be everyday life," said another attendee.
A Los Angeles native who accompanied me the previous day said that it reminded her a little of Disneyland's Future World, but far exceeded it.
"This was more up to date and realistic, since it is based in your house and your life, and I also liked how interactive it was," she said.
The museum opens to the public every day at 11 a.m., with tours available in Korean. Tours in English are only available for the corporate/educational group tours, but as long as you don't actually say you're a tourist group, reservations probably won't be a problem.
T.um, Jung-gu, Euljiro 2-ga 11, Seoul, Korea (서울시 중구 을지로 2가 11); +82 2 6100 0601; tum.sktelecom.com
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