We explore the real-world technologies that mirror their imaginary counterparts in 13 legendary sci-fi films.
To create the bleak and high-tech world in the year 2054 for sci-fi blockbuster Minority Report, director Steven Spielberg consulted with an expert team of futurists including computer scientists, philosophers, artists and architects. “I wanted all the toys to come true someday,” said Spielberg in an interview with film critic Roger Ebert. The movie, released in 2002, creatively portrayed and accurately predicted several technologies including multi-touch interfaces, retina scanners, electronic paper and even crime prediction software (we see you, NSA). In fact, many entrepreneurs and companies have looked to the film for inspiration for their next great tech innovations.
For filmmakers and storytellers alike, the future has always been a fountain of creative possibilities and endings, a way to grapple with our fears of the unknown by portraying them as fictions. Perhaps, one could go so far to say that futuristic stories are test-run simulations of what our world could be. And with the rapid evolution and advancements in visual CGI effects and moviemaking tools, even more fantastical, hyper-detailed visualizations of the imagination are possible. The rise in digital filmmaking technology has made it easier to depict a more accurate picture of the digital world of tomorrow.
So, post-Minority-Report and way post-2001: A Space Odyssey, what are filmmakers predicting next? What innovations will their visions inspire? Here are 13 more movies that take on the future of technology.
1. Iron Man (2008 – 2013)
What you see: Multibillionaire Tony Stark’s laboratory is full of enviable gadgets, but nothing is more impressive than his computing system and personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S. What’s really visually impactful, is J.A.R.V.I.S’s user interface and holographic peripherals that Tony can manipulate with his hands (unlike in Minority Report, gloves are not required).
What’s real: Not only is J.A.R.V.I.S what Siri aspires to be, Space X CEO Elon Musk (who’s often called the inspiration for Tony Stark’s character), has been working on a way to replicate a virtual workspace like Tony’s lab. Last year, he showed off ways to design rocket parts with hand gestures; he tries it out with a Leap Motion controller, an Oculus Rift and a projector. Musk believes this tech could revolutionize design and manufacturing. In another corner of the world, interaction designer Jinha Lee is experimenting with ways to make the computer screen nonexistent. His prototype for SpaceTop is the computer desktop re-envisioned as a portal you can reach into to manipulate digital objects. Both Lee and Musk are tackling how humans could interact with computers and digital objects in a more natural way.
2. The Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003)
What you see: In a dystopian future, what is perceived to be reality is merely a virtual simulation created by sentient machines that have taken over the human population. It gives a whole new meaning to being “plugged” in.
What’s real: Though not as ominous as the intelligent machines that control the so-called Matrix, Oculus Rift comes very close to the feeling of being totally immersed into a new world. In the most recent version of their developer’s kit, the engineers at Oculus Rift have hammered down positional tracking, which means that the virtual world moves with the user's head, reduced motion blur and judder, with a low persistence OLED display, accurately mimics the blinking of eyes.
3. Her (2013)
What you see: You won’t find anything that resembles Google Glass or a Pebble watch in Spike Jonze’s vision of the future. Although technology is everywhere, it is quiet and unobtrusive, weaving seamlessly in and out of main character Theodore’s life. There are no keyboards in this world; everything from Theodore’s desktop to his gaming console is voice activated, including his girlfriend, the artificially intelligent OS, Samantha.
What’s real: For now, Samantha's technology lies beyond the capacities of current automated assistants like Google Now and Siri, but futurist Ray Kurzweil believes this could be what the world looks like come 2029. Already, scientists are experimenting with ways in which tech can help human psychological problems, like robot seal pups for dementia patients. Technology as a cure for loneliness is just around the corner.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
What you see: Lovers Joel and Clementine hire Lacuna Inc. to have their memories erased after their breakup. The doctor records and tracks Joel’s brain activity as Joel describes how he and Clementine fell in love and fell apart, and systematically uses this “map of Clementine” to target and selectively erase Joel's painful memories of Clementine. Most of the movie takes place in Joel’s mind.
What’s real: While there's still no technology that can ease the pain of a breakup, scientists have recently discovered the memory-erasing gene in mice, and have tested a drug called an HDAC2 inhibitor to manipulate a mouse’s brain, successfully “erasing” traumatic memories. This study could be most beneficial to patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, the cinematic visual effects of how memories are formed, how they deteriorate and how they are stored is actually pretty spot-on when it comes to modern neuroscience, according to science writer Steven Johnson.
5. Total Recall (the 2012 remake)
What you see: Every scene includes a mind-boggling creation— dream recording devices, implanted memories, hover cars, holographic communications, and touch-screen refridgerators. But the standout gadget/visual effect is the phone implant embedded in the characters’ hand. When characters place their hands on certain solid surfaces, such as a glass window, it transforms into a display screen.
What’s real: The Airborne Ultrasound Tactile Display, created by researchers at the university of Tokyo, projects the visual image of a keypad and tactile stimuli onto the palm of your hand. They project this technology will be perfected within a decade.
6. Pacific Rim (2013)
What you see: Jaegers, gigantic humanoid mechas, are created by humans to defend against the Kaijus, epic monsters who emerge from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Each Jaeger is controlled by the mind of two pilots; the more in sync and compatible the two minds are, the more effective the Jaeger. (Mechas have been a staple of sci-fi and can be spotted from The Amazing Spider Man 2, through the Gundam series, the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Avatar.
What’s real: The general consensus is that the real world physics of a Jaeger would not hold up on Earth. But, Suidobashi Heavy Industries in Japan has gotten closer than anyone else; they’ve already created Kuratas, a 13-foot, 12,000-pound wearable robots that can be purchased for a cool $1.3 million. The Kurata is an “art piece” that could help you realize your dream of becoming a robot pilot, says Suidobashi Industries. While years away from being combat-ready, the other piece of the puzzle, brain-controlled interfaces, are already a reality.
7. Elysium (2013)
What you see: In 2154, humanity is split in two: the most privileged live in comfort on space habitat Elysium, and the rest live on Earth, a devastated, polluted and impoverished shell of its former self. Before a critical mission to Elysium, Max Da Costa, who lives on Earth, is equipped with a powered exoskeleton.
What’s real: Director Neill Blomkamp in an interview with Entertainment Weekly says, “Everyone wants to ask me lately about my predictions for the future. No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.” He’s right— a group of Brazilian neuroscientists have developed a full exoskeleton suit to be premiered at World Cup 2014 on June 12. A paralyzed person – his mind treating the exoskeleton like an extension of the body – will stand, walk onto the field and kick the first ball. And that’s not all, either. Panasonic will soon debut an affordable exoskeleton that will enable you to lift a 220-pound object and move 5mph – for under $5,000.
8. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
What you see: This one’s a throwback. Remember this chase scene? Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker zoom through the forests of Endor on a hovering bike-motorcycle hybrid.
What’s real: By 2017, the Aero-X hoverbike could be on the market. According to the engineering minds at Aerofex, the hoverbike rides like a motorcycle and flies up to 10 feet off the ground at a speed of 45 miles per hour. Riders will be able to fly without a flight license, but with a week’s worth of training. And it'll only set you back $85,000.
9. Prometheus (2012)
What you see: From the mind of Ridley Scott, godfather of sci-fi filmmaking, director of classics Blade Runner and Alien, there’s no shortage of interesting technology. In 2093, Weyland Industries— a hyperbolic composite of Apple, Google and SpaceX— sends a team of humans on a mission to find the creator of humanity, equipped with hypersleep chambers, an eighth generation humanoid android named David, an automated medical procedure pod, and spectrograph-mapping drones.
What’s real: We're still far off from humanoid androids with the curiosity and emotional range of the film's David, and nowhere near the technology required for hypersleep: scientists are just cracking the surface in learning about bear hibernation patterns, and how they can be applied to human psychological therapy. The Med-Pod in Riley Scott’s world is but a looming spectre in ours— doctors are experimenting with remotely-controlled surgical robots, but no fully automated solutions have appeared yet. The mapping drones that fly into the alien habitat to scan the terrain, however, are very real. Based off LiDAR, a remote sensing and ranging technology that uses light to capture the surface of the earth, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are already using drones to create more accurate shoreline maps. Even Google recently harnessed the technology for the creation of its driverless cars.
10. Ender’s Game (2013)
What you see: The original Ender’s Game novel came out in the eighties and had plenty of opportunities to be on the big screen. Due to creative differences, the movie was never able to get off the ground until now. Maybe it was for the best: with the breadth of CGI technology available today, it’s possible to breathe life into so much of author Orson Scott Card’s original vision. Scenes including the laser tag-like battles in the zero gravity Battle Room and Ender Wiggin’s epic computer simulation battles against the Formic alien species lend urgency to this recent sci-fi epic.
What’s real: The development of autonomous weapons systems— weapons controlled by a complex algorithms— was at the heart of a deeper discussion of the ethics of war at the Convention of Conventional Weapons in Geneva, Switzerland in May 2014. By 2030 or 2040, at least a fourth of U.S. soldiers will be replaced by robots and drones according to General Robert Cone. And tech is already playing a significant role on the battlefield, with flying drones that drop missiles, remote-controlled machine gun-firing robots and BigDogs that can carry 300 pounds of supplies. It's not entirely impossible to imagine entire wars being fought by computers.
11. Paprika (2006)
What you see: Years before Inception, there was Paprika. In a world in which ream therapy is possible via the DC Mini, a device that allows a user to access another’s dreams, Doctor Atsuko Chiba uses the machine to enter the dreams of other patients as her alter ego, Paprika.
What’s real: In 2011, UC Berkeley scientists Shinji Nishimoto and Jack Gallant brought us one step closer to being able to view someone else’s dream. By taking the way our brain interprets visual stimuli and using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity, the data was translated into video. Just last year, researchers from Kyoto, also using an algorithm and brain scans, were able to predict the images of a dream with 60% accuracy. Sleep on that.
12. Tron: Legacy (2010)
What you see: The sequel to the 1982 cult film of its namesake, TRON: Legacy picks up 20 years after its predecessor. A son searches for his father who is trapped in an self-evolving computer game. (Fun fact: TRON was the first movie to use computer-generated technology, and was nominated for a special-effects award, but didn’t win because the Academy of Motion Arts didn’t think CGI would stick).
What’s real: In an interview with Scientific American, John Dick, a physicist who consulted on the movie, said, “What has changed in science since the first TRON came out is the creation of quantum computing and teleportation… It is now conceivable that you could one day take a particle in the real world and teleport it into a quantum computer. The process for teleportation would likely involve sending the particle information into the computer, while the hydrogen and oxygen stays in the real world.” In the past week, scientists at the Kavil Institute of Nanoscience Delft have said they successfully “teleported” quantum information stored in one diamond into another about three meters away. It's kind of a big deal.
13. Wall-E (2008)
What you see: The megacorporation Buy-N-Large has done so much damage to the planet, humans have now live on an enormous pleasure cruise-like space ship. Fast-forward 700 years later, and it seems to have gotten worse: all humans ride around on hover-chairs, are grotesquely obese, and are obsessed with their social network screens.
What’s real: The hands-free screens sure look familiar. And at Kobe Gakuin University, researchers have created a prototype of the Hoveround, a chair that floats on a cushion of air and is capable of transporting up to 330 pounds. Even though their goal is to revolutionize senior citizens' mobility, it is eerily similar to the tech visualized in Wall-E. Finally, Wall-e himself is real. Here's proof.
Excited for the future? Terrified? Both? Post your questions/comments/concerns in the comments section below.