The Future Is Coming To Brooklyn (For A Two-Day Fair)
PSFK spoke to CEO Michael Weiss about Worlds Fair USA, the ambitious project looking to bring back the futuristic expos of yore through a series of public events
Draw a 3D object. Chew on some coffee. Pilot a drone with a first-person view in VR. Though it may sound like a day’s recreation from a more distant future, all of this will be available in New York City in just over two weeks.
The venue for these opportunities is Worlds Fair Nano at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint. The two-day fair on September 16 and 17 will be the third of its kind, following a smaller test run in New York last August and another event in San Francisco in January. The Nano series is best described as a showcase of the future, featuring tech demos, talks, food and other products. It’s also the lead up to a far more ambitious venture known as Worlds Fair USA.
CEO and co-founder Michael Weiss heads up the intrepid young team that’s trying to organize a World’s Fair in the United States “like back in the old days.” This event would last for six months and draw an attendance of 100 million people. From its headquarters in a Williamsburg townhouse, where Weiss lives upstairs with COO and co-founder Marcus Jecklin, Worlds Fair USA is sourcing future concepts, playing with new technology and plotting how to bring them before the public.
“The whole thing started about five years ago when I read a book called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. There are parallel plotlines: one is America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes. The other is the  World’s Fair in great detail. I read that, and it was the first time I encountered the idea of a World’s Fair. I learned that 27 million people, 42% of the entire population in the U.S. at the time, traveled by horse and buggy and train—cars didn’t exist yet—to go experience the future at this event in Chicago,” Weiss said.
“Once they got there, they got to see electricity for the first time, thanks to some guy named Nikola Tesla running around the fairgrounds plugging in lightbulbs. They got to ride in the first ever Ferris wheel, designed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., and each cart of that Ferris wheel, to give you a sense, held 60 people. So 60 people, on the first Ferris wheel, were on every single cart. Whereas today, you go on Ferris wheels, it’s either two, four, maybe 10 on the open air ones. It was the most daring Ferris wheel ever and it was the first one.”
You may have heard about the World’s Fairs or even been to one, but to Americans, at least, they’ve become a relic of the past. The last World’s Fair in the U.S. took place in 1984 in New Orleans. In 2001, Weiss explained, the U.S. government cancelled its membership in the International Treaty Organization, which oversees the present-day World’s Fairs, now known as World Expos. Expos take place every five years (2010 in Shanghai, 2015 in Milan, 2020 in Dubai) but the U.S. no longer participates in them.
Weiss sees this lack of involvement as a major loss. “[World’s Fairs] still happen, but not in the U.S., which to me didn’t add up. I feel like, as this international showcase of the future, you should get do it in the U.S. because we create the most future and we have the attention of the international community more so than any other country,” he said.
“What we are is history’s first privatized World’s Fair effort. We’re not seeking government funding because it doesn’t seem like it would be available. Our goal is to organize a six-month World’s Fair within the decade. Our plan to actually get there is to organize a series of smaller World’s Fairs, which is what Worlds Fair Nano is: today it’s two days, 10,000 people, and [we’ll] just grow it from that into six months and 100 million people.”
World’s Fairs have been responsible for introducing the public to inventions and innovations that now seem commonplace, and Weiss can rattle them off at the drop of a hat. “From what happened in Chicago, to the first ever World’s Fair in 1851 in London when they built the Crystal Palace, which was the first ever pre-fabricated structure and the largest use of glass in any building at the time, to the first American World’s Fair [in New York] in 1853 with Elisha Otis and the first passenger elevator, to 1876 in Philadelphia with Graham Bell and the telephone—and the Statue of Liberty got its start there—to 1889 in Paris with the Eiffel Tower, built by Gustave Eiffel as the entryway into that World’s Fair, to 1900 in Paris with Rudolf Diesel and the diesel engine; 1904 St. Louis, the electrical outlet, the ice cream cone, the hamburger.”
The 1939 World’s Fair in New York saw the first live television broadcast, with the opening remarks by President Franklin D. Roosevelt appearing on NBC. Walt Disney’s animatronics and “It’s A Small World” ride made their debut at New York’s 1964 fair, as did the first ever video conference, in the Bell Labs pavilion, and the Ford Mustang. For Weiss, this storied history of unveiling the future makes a World’s Fair revival all the more inspiring.
The idea of firsts is very much the spirit of Worlds Fair USA. A visitor to the group’s office can expect to be greeted with all manner of things to try: a mini drone, a 3D pen (kind of a tricked-out glue gun, and definitely an acquired skill), Soylent (a Worlds Fair Nano sponsor) and chewable coffee cubes (two of which equal a cup of coffee). It’s also an incentive for getting companies on board to participate: People will always remember the first time they rode an electric skateboard or played a game in VR, and those experiences could be the ones that you made.
Attendees of this year’s Worlds Fair Nano in Brooklyn will find a Technology Playground with VR simulators, LED light cubes, 3Doodler 3D pens, and a 500-foot racetrack for electric skateboards and other vehicles. An extensive lineup of futurist talks includes “The Future of Basic Income” by Andy Stern, “The Future of Brooklyn” by Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams and “The Future of Fashion” by Billie Whitehouse. Bina48, the world’s most socially advanced AI robot (based on the mindfile of a living person), will speak on the stage. Some futuristic products will be available at an on-site store, and interactive art installations will encourage visitors to jump around, unlock patterns and make music.
The Brooklyn event and others like it are a case study in making emerging technologies accessible to the public. “The premise of why would people even want a big World’s Fair, why would people even go to this thing, is that people want to experience the future and they want to gain the inspiration that comes along with such an experience. We didn’t know, though, because there isn’t any consumer-facing, $50 event like ours. Pretty much all technology events are B2B industry stuff. South by Southwest, Techcrunch Disrupt, TED Talks, CES, or whatever. They’re industry things for people trying to do business. Whereas at the World’s Fair there’s some of that, but it’s principally something for everyone,” Weiss said. “We didn’t know if people would spend 50 bucks to [attend]. We know they spend 120 bucks to go to Disneyworld or 80 bucks to go to a concert but did people want to experience the future? It turns out the answer is yes.”
Weiss and his team are still looking for a location to accommodate the scale of Worlds Fair USA, proposing a dual-purpose design that would turn the fairgrounds into a sustainable community at the close of the six-month event. In the meantime, a Worlds Fair Nano is lined up for San Francisco in February 2018, followed by one in the Los Angeles area in April. The New York installment already intends to return next September, growing bigger by the year.
Lead Image: A demo at Worlds Fair Nano in San Francisco, January 2017 | Photo by Jamie Soja