Plastic remains young in its life as a material, but some designers speculate certain products may virtually disappear in the 21st century. What plastic products might emulate the 19th century buggy whip in the years ahead? How about:
Optical media, like compact discs.
Stationary telecommunications devices.
Central-processor-unit housings for computers.
Difficult-to-recycle specialty resins.
Officeware — and offices.
Mark Schwartz, president of Product Development Technologies Inc. in Lincolnshire, Ill., said solid-state, flash-memory-chip technology will displace all compact discs and film-based tapes for video and audiocassettes.
Videotape continues to grow for now, but the audiotape format is in decline, and an old standby, the computer floppy disk, already is considered obsolete. Even the latest rage — digital versatile discs — will fall in a few decades.
Use of memory chips renders hardware mechanisms outmoded because it allows devices to shrink in size, he said. "It's like replacing the tubes in a TV."
The transition could make traditional cellular telephones and camcorders outmoded. A cell phone might consist of an ear bud with a microphone "or something that would sense vibrations in your jaw bone," Schwartz said. A camcorder might reside in eyeglasses with capability to tape what the person is seeing.
All stationary telecommunications devices — even the telephone — will go away, said Ali Vassigh, president of San Diego-based Interaction Architects Inc., which designs computer interfaces. People might converse through a portable, Web-linked television set.
Vassigh said the setting will "almost be George Jetsonlike."
"Boxes with electronics are out," said Bill Moggridge, principal with Ideo's Palo Alto, Calif., design and product development office.
"We will get the intelligent behavior without having a box or a specific chip," he said.
Central-processor-unit housings won't be needed.
How about offsetting the elements of weather and temperature?
Moggridge foresees smart-sensor-laden polymers that might prevent a roof from leaking or a park bench cracking from extreme environmental changes. At the end of a product cycle, those polymers will know how to degrade biologically.
"In the next 100 years, anything disposable will have a dual usage or be gone," said Chris Tegethoff, an industrial designer with Interaction Architects. "We will become more conservative with resources [and] more like Europeans."
Increasingly complicated polymer blends and mixes are more difficult to recycle than stock thermoplastic resins, Tegethoff said.
Mark Kimbrough sees a possible demise for computer keyboards.
"There is no doubt that keyboards will be around 25 or 30 more years, [but] the keyboard will become less and less of a necessity for our interaction with the computer or technology," said Kimbrough, principal of Design Edge Inc. in Austin, Texas.
The same fate may befall those trusty remote-control devices for television sets and garage doors.
But another trend may save some of those devices.
Legislators may amend laws to make computer and Internet technology truly accessible to everybody. Now, those laws benefit the handicapped.
"I only see it opening markets to make the world accessible for all," including blind, deaf and paraplegic persons, said Jack Beduhn, design integrity vice president with NCR Corp. in San Diego.
Camera-equipped computers might recognize gestures for translation into written or spoken language.
Some forward-thinkers believe all office-type products, including plastic ones, may disappear.
"The whole work process is going to change completely over the next century," Beduhn said. He thinks designers at firms such as Steelcase Inc. and Herman Miller Inc. will reconfigure modular office furniture, some involving plastics, for use in home work areas.
"There will be no reason for people to go into work," Beduhn said, envisioning a common virtual office concept with a sales person routinely operating from home or car.