iPhone 4: Wherein Science Fiction Once Again Becomes Sad Fact

Among the items strewn about my geek-inspired desk is a Star Trek: The Original Series communicator replica. Flip open the little brass gate on the bulky toy made by Diamond Select, and a whirring sound with blinking lights is activated. It is pretty sweet prized possession, but sitting next to my black, sleek iPhone 3Gs, it looks like a dinosaur’s mobile device.

Of course, as I followed the live feeds at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) on Monday, even my phone felt one step towards fossil fuel fodder as I watched the unveiling of the iPhone 4 wherein yet another sci-fi fanboy fantasy was introduced: the video phone call.

In addition to offering multitasking, folders, longer battery life, a gyroscope, front and rear cameras with flash, video editing and insanely improved image using Retina Display, the new hotness from Steve Jobs will be able to make vid-calls using FaceTime technology. Granted, the calls are initially limited to Wi-Fi between iPhone 4 devices, but the reveal felt big.

Video calling has been around for some time in certain capacities (for instance, it’s available on the Sprint EVO 4G using Skype and Fring software), but it’s never had much of an impact. Yet this FaceTime development by Apple – which will be open standards and means other carriers can eventually develop around it — really feels like a technological shift. If you doubt it, just watch the Sam Mendes-directed iPhone 4 FaceTime commercial with the Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” (below) and try to remain jaded or dry-eyed.

To hear Jobs tell it, he’s wanted this tech to be a reality ever since watching Star Trek and The Jetsons as a boy. Greg Joswiak, head of Apple’s hardware marketing, said the iPhone 4 is going to change everything, with FaceTime affecting the way we communicate forever.

“Forever” seems like a bold promise, but a practical, widely accepted video phone will definitely impact pop culture (and I’m not even referring to the video editing that will lead to entire movies shot on the iPhone 4). Instead of being limited to science fiction or James Bond superspy flicks, video phone calls on a popular mobile device will affect how characters communicate on screen, and also what counts as fantastical.

I am already itching to pre-order my new iPhone, and in a couple weeks, I’ll be random dialing anyone just to see if they also have a FaceTime-enabled device. However, the new phone also makes me a little sad from the pop-culture standpoint. There are few things in fiction that really count as “Tech Impossible” anymore compared to “Tech Probable”.

Aside from lightsabers, proton packs, warp drive and teleportation, many of my favorite sci-fi gadgets have become a reality. My Bluetooth earbud is smaller than “The Next Generation” insignia communicator and way beyond Dick Tracy’s watch phone, and I can easily purchase touch screen computers and 3-D televisions. Rosie the Robot Maid is already here in the less chatty version of iRobot’s Roomba and Scooba, and early workable models of flying cars, underwater cars, androids, sex robots, 3-D printers/replicators, ray guns, jetpacks and exoskeletons are currently being manufactured. Even Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit from my old comics doesn’t seem that far off from becoming reality, now.

Everyone knows we want what we can’t have, and the same has always been true of pop’s high-tech stuff; I’ve always drooled the most for that gadget that didn’t really exist. Plus, the goodies that were futuristic and appeared unattainable in pop culture helped unlock the imagination, and even inspired us to aspire. Now, there’s not much I see in entertainment that blows me away so completely and seems really farfetched.

So despite my insatiable appetite for new gizmos, I’m bummed that the advanced imaginary gadgetry from my childhood has largely been caught up with in real life. As exciting as the new ‘real’ gadgets are, I can’t help but have a twinge of nostalgia for the days when watching Kirk dramatically flipping open his communicator seemed futuristic. At least I still have a few years before the Millennium Falcon becomes a reality. I hope.