Just 14 miles east of Incheon International Airport, in South Korea, construction is moving full steam ahead on a model future city, equipped with state-of-the-art universal wireless connectivity. Songdo International Business District will be twice the size of Manhattan, built on land reclaimed from the sea.
The plan is to create a model for future cities from scratch.
"From infrastructure to system to software, everything will be installed with the most advanced technology," said Incheon's mayor, Ahn Sang Soo. "The future city will be compact, smart, and green."
In the district, a model $82 million complex "Tomorrow City" is showcased at the 80-day Global Fair and Festival 2009 to celebrate a vision of the future of urban life. Visitors can experience a city where everything is at your fingertips, and driving, shopping -- even a trip to the beauty salon -- is a totally interactive experience. Songdo, say its planners, makes the hassles of everyday life seem a thing of the past.
Road lamps, traffic lights, and building lights will have motion detectors. They will normally be off to save energy, but will automatically recognize cars or people when they are approaching.
Bus stops are built with tall screens that display real-time information on where exactly the buses are and how long they should take to reach you. There is also a navigation function, so that passengers can indicate their destinations on the map, and get recommendations for the best route, reflecting current traffic conditions.
Street advertisements are no longer just ads on billboards. "We call it virtual shopping," said Heonseok Lee, commissioner of the Incheon Free Economic Zone. "You don't just look at the ad, but if you feel like buying it you can do it right at the spot."
At the Tomorrow City, an advertisement for a Samsung cell phone offers a surreal experience. The real product is displayed behind a translucent digital screen -- on which video of the phone plays and invites you to browse.
You can use your fingertips to flip the phone 360 degrees, slide it open, and make a video phone call, very much like a scene from the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report." If you like what you see, you go through a simple identification check on the screen's clearance function, and order the phone right there.
Shopping in the City of the Future
The beauty parlor of the future is different too.
You sit in a "Beauty Zone," a couch shaped like an egg. There are three computer screens in front of you, and you look at them while cameras take pictures of you to create your avatar -- a virtual representation of you.
A plastic surgery menu shows what you might look like after lip injections or a nose job, which you can alter on the screens to suit your preferences. Then the system will help you find the plastic surgeon with the best deal in town.
Other menus offer hairstyling and makeup tips. You can try them on the avatar, send a snapshot to a stylist, and then make an appointment. An online accessories shop will also recommend earrings or hair bands which one can order from around the world.
Coming to a Screen Near You
Home shopping becomes more interactive as well, boosted by the two-way broadband technology. Viewers can ask questions of the host or discuss the product with other viewers on screen in real time. With this function, Lee said, home shopping channels will soon change into home auction channels, where customers drive the price of the product.
How soon might these features reach the United States? There is no saying for sure. The Songdo business district has the advantage of being all new, so there's nothing old to tear down.
"You can't wipe out Manhattan and lay out the entire infrastructure based on digital technology that could make this work," said Ahn. "It's too expensive."