Ripped From the Movies: Far-Future Gadgets, Here Today

Science fiction fans rejoice! The gadgets and “far future” products from the movies and literature are more real than you may think. Here are some you can use today -- and one we're hoping to see soon.  By John Brandon


    It'll Never Be Real -- Or Will It?

    Science fiction fans rejoice! Those amazing flying drones from the Spielberg movies and the holographic message R2D2 carried to Princess Leia in Star Wars are quickly becoming real products, available today. Here are just a few gadgets and “far future” products from the movies that we found that you can actually buy and use today -- and one we're hoping to see soon.

    Delivery bots from the original Star Wars

    Hunkering down in my seat for the very first showing of the original Star Wars in May of 1977, I never dreamed that some of those far-off seeming innovations would ever be real. Yet Aethon has developed bots that look remarkably like the intelligent walking trash bins from the original movie.  Robots like this one deliver laundry and prescriptions at the El Camino Hospital in Silicon Valley. They wait patiently for elevators and move out of the way in hallways. Soon, we might use them in our homes to take out the trash and watch the kids -- while we go to more sci-fi movies.
    John Brandon

    Holographic displays from Avatar and Star Trek

    Holographics have showed up in movies for decades: the “v-mail” message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, the floating virtual planet map in Avatar, and more. Yet holographics are becoming a reality for everyday tasks.  For example, HoloTouch has developed a door-entry system where you reach into a hologram and move your fingers to open a door. This helps with hygiene (since no one actually touches the switch) and reduces mechanical failure over time. The switch uses an infrared sensor that detects motion when you touch the hologram. HoloTouch is developing other hologram sensors for use in medical equipment, computers, and maybe even your smartphone.
    20th Century Fox

    Hover drones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

    Released the same year as Star Wars, Close Encounters become the seminal brainiac-movie for sci-fi buffs. In the film, hovering drones inspect earthlings and transmit what they see back to a mothership. Recently, I “test drove” this Parrot AR.Drone (the ship, not the model), which looks like a spaceship from the Spielberg film: it has four rotors that help the drone hover in place and two high-definition cameras, one forward facing and one facing down.  You control the drone with your iPhone, tilting to zoom low, swerve around a tree or startle a cat, and stop quickly. Remarkably, I was able to fly the drone to about 500 feet into the air (it was barely visible) and glide in safely for a soft landing -- all for just $300 bucks.

    Personal jetpacks like those in The Rocketeer

    In the 1991 film The Rocketeer, a superhero from 1938 finds a jetpack from the future. By next year, Martin Jetpack expects to launch the first commercially-available personal jetpack. Founder Glenn Martin told that the Martin Jetpack is his own 27-year dream that dates back to when he watched the original Lost in Space series, which also featured a jetpack.  The Martin (shown here) uses standard automotive fuel and massive side-mounted fans. Martin said flying the jetpack -- which he first tested with his wife in 1998 -- makes you feel like you're weightless. He says the product is intended to be practical -- the military might use them for reconnaissance or a repair tech might fly up to work on cell towers.

    Talking car describes your driving as in I, Robot

    Will Smith’s character in I, Robot (remember that one?) drove in this vehicle, which reported (annoyingly so) on his driving habits. Now, a company called Inthinc has developed the Tiwi driving system. The small adapter connects to the windshield and to the car’s diagnostic port under the steering wheel, where it can monitor how a teen is driving -- monitoring his speed, erratic behavior, and whether or not he's wearing a seat-belt. Then the system provides a verbal warning and transmits any driving mistakes over a cellular connection so a parent can look up a driving log on the Web.
    20th Century Fox

    Non-invasive medical diagnosis from Star Trek

    In Star Trek, a tricorder provided quick (and painless) medical diagnosis. The GE Vscan shown at right works about the same way -- doctors can use it to scan for heart problems, gallstones, abdominal disorders, fluid below the surface of the skin, and urological and fetal issues. The device works like an ultrasound scanner in detecting blood movement and other fluids in the body, and weighs about the same as a smartphone, at less than a pound. 
    NBC / GE

    Jedi mind-control from Star Wars

    Here’s another product -- available at Toys"R"Us, no less -- that I never thought would become a reality by now: A toy that uses a "brain-computer interface" to let you move a ball with the power of your Jedi-fueled mind.  Brian Einloth, an engineer at Product Development Technologies (PDT), told that the device includes a neural headset to capture beta waves from your brain when you concentrate. Up to five lights glow when you concentrate harder to raise and lower a ball in a clear plastic tube. Brain-computer interfaces could become common in cars, at the workplace, and in your home in the next 5-10 years.

    Self-lacing shoes from Back to the Future

    You might remember the scene in the Back to the Future II when Marty Mcfly’s tennis shoes automatically lace up and tie themselves, before our hero hopes on his hoverboard for a quick ride.  As Wired reported recently, the movie is set in 2015, just five years from now, and Nike might be working on just such an innovation. The company filed a patent for self-lacing shoes, so it’s possible the product could be available just in time for 2015. Keep your fingers -- and your laces -- crossed.
    Amblin Entertainment
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