Movies have showcased numerous examples of fantastical technology since the earliest days of their medium. The French 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, for example, sent man on a journey into space, while 1927’s pioneering Metropolis brought a humanoid robot to life. Cinema in the decades subsequent to Metropolis has also featured masses of improbable devices – from sophisticated robotic prosthetics to universal translators. But perhaps these imagined advances helped inspire a future generation of inventors and scientists, for many of these unlikely technologies are now becoming fact. Here, then, are ten of the most incredible creations that have ultimately come true.
10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) – Universal Translator
The Garth Jennings-directed 2005 film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ much-loved sci-fi series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, reintroduced the incredibly useful Babelfish. Described as “small, yellow, leech-like and probably the oddest thing in the universe,” the creature acts as a nifty universal translator when placed into the ear – something that would make communication a whole lot easier on this planet, let alone in the wider galaxy. And while the Babelfish doesn’t exist here, at least yet, the next-best thing is being developed in the form of Sigmo, which was successfully crowdfunded in 2013. Inclusive of a speaker and microphone, the small, boxy gadget utilizes a smartphone’s Bluetooth capability along with online translation facilities to interpret speech immediately, with a free complementing app enabling 25 languages to be translated in this way. The device was initially lined up for release in early 2014 but is presently still unavailable.
9. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Robotic Prosthetic
Irvin Kershner-directed 1980 sequel Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back sees Luke Skywalker, portrayed by Mark Hamill, acquire a high-tech robotic replacement hand after coming out on the losing end of a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader. And while all this of course happens a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the sci-fi blockbuster has actually influenced a breakthrough in robotic prosthetics in the U.S., if only in name. The “Luke” prosthetic arm was given the nod by the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 following its $40 million-plus development by DEKA Research and Development Corp. Designed to facilitate “near-natural upper extremity control” for amputees, the arm works via a combination of electromyogram electrodes, a computer processor and switches and sensors. Needless to say, the limb is light years ahead of its prosthetic predecessor, the metal hook.
8. Minority Report (2002) – Mass-Market Driverless Car
Steven Spielberg’s 2002 dystopian thriller, Minority Report, suggests that driverless cars could be a widespread reality by 2054 – even if such vehicles are potentially controllable by the powers that be, as Tom Cruise’s Chief John Anderton finds out. Still, though we’re yet to see multitudes of autonomous autos streaming down the highways of Washington D.C., the fascinating concept is in fact being road tested right now. For example, Audi has unveiled a driverless racing vehicle capable of speeds of up to 136 miles per hour, while Tesla’s Model SD has a head-turning Autopilot utility enabling it to collect its owner. Google has got in on the act, too, having revealed what it called its “first complete prototype for fully autonomous driving” in December 2014. This is an updated prototype of a previously seen model, and the vehicle features headlights, ultra-receptive sensors and a sleek white design. Excitingly, road tests are reportedly imminent for the self-driving car.
7. Vanilla Sky (2001) – “Reincarnated” Moving Hologram
In Cameron Crowe’s 2001 remake, Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character, David Aames, drops into a gathering where the musical entertainment is provided by a super-realistic holographic version of jazz legend John Coltrane. Back in the real world, special effects company Digital Domain may have taken their cue for the movie’s moving Coltrane-gram when they “resurrected” another deceased musician for California’s 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. This time it was hip-hop titan Tupac Shakur who popped up from beyond the grave to perform in holographic form – alongside the living-and-breathing Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. It was a moment whose realization was the result of four months of work in the studio and which may have cost anything up to $400,000 to bring about.
6. Thunderball (1965) – Jetpack
Thunderball sees Sean Connery’s James Bond employing a piece of kit that may have been just out of reach for even the suavest of M16 agents at the time of the film’s 1965 release. In the Terence Young-directed spy classic, Bond escapes the clutches of SPECTRE henchmen using a jetpack, which no doubt sparked the imaginations of the era’s awe-struck viewers. On top of some slightly earlier advances in the field, jetpacks of various descriptions have been developed since, and half a century on, wannabe 007s are closer than ever to realizing their dreams of speeding through the air like their hero. For instance, at the aptly named “The Future is Here” festival, hosted by Smithsonian magazine in 2014, Jet P.I.’s jetpack flew for roughly 20 seconds, propelled by a mixture of gaseous nitrogen, hydrogen peroxide and a silver catalyst. Still, those wanting to purchase the item will need to shell out at least $100,000 and be able to assemble it themselves.
5. Face/Off (1997) – Face Transplant
John Woo’s 1997 thriller, Face/Off, features an epic, well, faceoff between feared terrorist Castor Troy, played by Nicolas Cage, and John Travolta’s FBI agent Sean Archer – but faces literally come off when the characters swap identities earlier in the movie. At the time of the film’s release, pioneering face transplant surgery like that depicted was impossible, but in the years since, things have changed. The very first partial face transplant was done in France in 2005 under the direction of Professors Bernard Devauchelle and Jean Michel Dubernard, while the earliest successful full facial transplant happened in Spain five years later – a testament to advances in medical science and technology if ever one were needed. To date, more than 20 such surgical procedures have been undertaken, with the first full operation of this kind in the U.S. having taken place in December 2013.
4. Short Circuit (1986) – Autonomous Military Robot
In John Badham’s 1986 comedy, Short Circuit, loveable robot Number 5 – or Johnny 5, the name he later adopts – starts life as a military machine. After getting hit by lightning, though, he soon develops human personality traits. Moreover, while they may not be as friendly or relatable, hordes of comparable real-life military robots are now following in the tread marks of Number 5 and being used by armies for potentially dangerous tasks such as identifying and disabling bombs. Among the autonomous versions of these machines is Daksh, a creation of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). According to one DRDO developer, the robot can examine a “device with its X-ray component to confirm if the device is an IED [improvised explosive device]. If it is a bomb, the on-board water-jet disrupter can defuse it.”
3. Metropolis (1927) – Android
Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 silent sci-fi film, Metropolis, is set in a rather sinister 2026, where a humanoid robot, played by Brigitte Helm, is created by archetypal mad scientist C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Such eerily life-like machines have been a staple of science-fiction movies ever since, everywhere from Blade Runner’s replicants to A.I.’s David. However, science fiction is swiftly becoming science fact: in June 2014 some of the most human-like robots yet were unveiled at an exhibition at Tokyo’s Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The event showcased two female androids that are incredibly similar to regular people – one of them can even hold a conversation with visitors – as well as a minimalist model. All were envisioned by Osaka University robotics specialist Hiroshi Ishiguro, although time will tell whether this tech whiz’s major development will see androids one day walk among us.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Memory Manipulation
Anyone who’s been through a painful breakup can empathize with the predicament of the characters in Michel Gondry’s 2004 surreal sci-fi movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here, Kate Winslet’s Clementine and Jim Carrey’s Joel separately turn to Lacuna, Inc. in order to wipe out all memories of their relationship-gone-wrong. What’s more – perhaps in a welcome move for real-life grieving lovers – science seems to be catching up with fiction. Pioneering studies carried out on mice have apparently shown that bad memories can be transformed into good ones. Indeed, a 2014 Time article reported that the brain manipulation experiments revealed that when both negative and positive feelings are connected with an event, “whichever is dominant becomes the prevailing emotion linked to a memory.” The study was led by Susumu Tonegawa and employed innovative optogenetic techniques. It’s hoped that the findings will eventually help with the treating of mental health issues in humans.
1. Back to the Future Part II (1989) – Hoverboard
Ever since Marty McFly jumped onto a hoverboard in Robert Zemeckis’ 1989 sequel, Back to the Future Part II, young and not-so-young folks alike have been clamoring to get their hands on one. And for good reason: the Mattel-branded device that Michael J. Fox’s character uses to escape Griff Tannen’s (Thomas F. Wilson) angry gang sure looks a whole lot of fun to ride. Fortunately, those hoping to hop on their very own hoverboard may soon be in luck, as one man has invented a working prototype. American architect Greg Henderson’s so-called “Hendo Hoverboard” smoothly glides along through the use of electromagnets and is currently in development following a successful Kickstarter campaign. At present, though, the board only hovers over metallic surfaces. Hence, anyone eager to speed over water, as Marty McFly attempts to do, might have to wait a little longer than 2015, the year in which the film’s future is set.