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See the Future

Stackable cars, train times on your cell, targeted billboards. If you think it's a high-tech world now, just wait.

Watch the waves of Cambridge commuters spill out of the Porter Square subway station in the evening: They whip out cellphones as soon as the third escalator ride delivers them to daylight, as if they have to recheck their coordinates, geographic and social, after the subterranean trip home. In the future this cellphone check will be close to a reflex motion. The connections between the digital, wireless world and an urban crossroads like Porter Square will be that much richer.

Two local theorists – William Mitchell, professor of architecture and media arts and sciences at MIT and the director of the Media Lab's Smart Cities research group, and Eric Gordon, an assistant professor in the department of visual and media arts at Emerson College, envision a world 10 years from now that feels more like the one from The Jetsons. Using Porter Square as their model setting, this is how they imagine life in 2017:

  • Commuters who stop into the Shaw's Supermarket in Porter Square will receive targeted information, like the recommendations you get from, and they approach and enter.
  • Commuters emerging from the station will not just check their phones, they will "check out" rental cars from a cluster of small vehicles stacked like shopping carts. A card swipe will bring down a car for the drive home, to be returned the next morning.

  • Billboards will be replaced by more targeted signage, devoted to "way-finding" and information about buildings and locations, rather than advertising. Locations will also be tagged with data so your device can call up the history of older buildings.

  • On the sidewalks and park benches, people in Porter Square circa 2017 will use their cellphones to access a place-based search engine that could, for example, instantly tell them the nearby restaurants that are open late at night.
  • People taking the T might suddenly break into a run as they approach the station because their cellphone will tell them if a train is approaching.

  • You won't simply be friends with people on, you'll be friends with places. Porter Square might be telling you who else is in the square at the same time as you. Not everyone, however –- only those who elect to make their location public.