The future can be pretty exciting. Over the next few weeks, we'll be taking a closer look at what 2016 may bring to us as investors, consumers, and audio-animatronic spouses. OK, I'm kidding about the robotic mate. I think.

Anyway, one of the best ways to gauge the potential of what the future may bring is to take a similar leap of faith backwards. A lot of what is taken for granted in 2006 didn't even seem possible back in 1996. I'm not talking about the Boston Red Sox winning a pennant. I'm talking about coloring in your visions about tomorrow, only to wake up to find that they are painted in an even brighter hue than you imagined possible.

A Fool looks back
I've been a Fool since 1995, so I have fond memories of what this place used to be like in 1996. For starters, there was no functional We were a dedicated keyword space on the young America Online service. We all had a little more hair. However, 1996 revolutionized the "New Economy."

In April 1996, Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) went public, kicking off a tradition where it seemed as though every year, a new online powerhouse would IPO. After all, (NASDAQ:AMZN) went public in 1997, and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) followed in 1998.

That, of course, means that none of these companies were swapping hands in the open market in January 1996. They were around. They just weren't getting noticed. In fact, it was in January 1996 that a pair of Stanford grad students -- Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- began collaborating on a search engine called BackRub that analyzed incoming links as the criteria for keyword relevance. It would be another three years before Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) would move into an actual office.

It's weird, isn't it? Back in 1996, we were in one of the longest bull markets in history, yet many of the companies getting growth-stock investors excited at the moment either weren't around or were still early in the embryonic process. Mark my word: At this moment, there may be two grad students toiling away in a garage somewhere, unknowingly creating the nucleus of what may be the big market winner of 2016.

So what were we buying in 1996?
Looking back at the most valuable companies of 10 years ago, you see some expected names, such as GE and Microsoft. However, Merck (NYSE:MRK) was there, too. These days, you would have to swap two Mercks to land you one Google.

The company with the highest percentage change in trading volume in 1996 over 1995 was a company by the name of Quigley. Longtime Fools remember Quigley as the hot stock of 1996 thanks to its zinc-coated Cold-Eeze lozenges.

A lot can change in 10 years. A lot. Back then, companies such as 3Com, Motorola, Sun Microsystems, and Novell were the technology bellwethers. They aren't trading much lower today than they were 10 years ago -- Motorola shares are actually a smidgen higher -- but they just became stagnant equities as the market passed them by, once market leaders staged a changing of the guards a few years later.

You can even go back to our real-money Rule Breakers portfolio. Some of David Gardner's biggest performers in the 1990s were companies such as Iomega and America Online. They produced huge returns for visionary investors at the time, but they have certainly been laggards on this side of the millennium.

These days, David isn't just singling out yesterday's Iomega for those interested in the Rule Breakers newsletter experience. You see companies such as Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) taking robotic arms into the operating room, or tens of thousands of grooms turning to Blue Nile (NASDAQ:NILE) to pick out the perfect engagement ring, and it seems completely reasonable today. Just try hooking up with the 1996 version of yourself, and you will find that being operated on by a da Vinci surgical robot or relying on your computer to provide the catalyst to ask the most important question in your life would seem ludicrous. It would be unfathomable.

Then again, that's the point -- 1996 shaped the future of technology for the masses by populating the Internet the same way that you can take another decade-back field trip to 1986, when Microsoft and Apple were doing the same thing with the personal computer.

A lot can happen in 20 years. If you're not excited about the prospects, do yourself a favor and check in with the 2016 version of yourself. You won't believe your ears.

Happy New Year! The Motley Fool takes a look in its crystal ball to bring you the future today. Click here to read more about New Year's 2016!

Amazon and eBay are recommendations of our Stock Advisor newsletter service. Microsoft is an Inside Value recommendation. Merck is an Income Investor pick. Intuitive Surgical is a Rule Breakers selection, and Blue Nile has been singled out by both Rule Breakers andMotley Fool Hidden Gems.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz really does have a time machine. It's called memories. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. T he Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.