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February 12, 2018

7 Exotic technologies that were once science fiction, but now exist in reality

by John_A

It’s no big surprise that engineers and scientists working in cutting edge tech are often fans of science fiction. Nor is it a surprise that, when many of them get to a place in their career where they can choose which projects to work on, a whole lot of folks seek to bring to life the kind of amazing sci-fi technology they grew up reading about and watching in movies.

Here are seven examples of tech that was once the domain of science fiction, now turned science fact.

Universal translator

The Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek

Where it appeared in sci-fi:  As a plot device that removes the problem of having to explain why aliens all speak English, Universal Translators have been a staple of science fiction for years. An early appearance is in Murray Leinster’s 1945 novella First Contact, but notable examples can also be found in Star Trek, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy.

In the latter, a so-called “babel fish” is inserted into a person’s auditory canal to feed off the mental frequencies of people speaking to its host. It then excretes a translation directly into the brain. Tasty!

Babel Fish, Waverly Pilot

In reality: The name Babel Fish was actually adopted by Yahoo! For its web-based multilingual translation app launched in 1997. Things have come a long way since then, however. While there are numerous translation services out there, the most sci-fi sounding one is the Waverly Pilot, a set of wireless earbuds that connect to your phone and promise to translate several languages in real time.

Microsoft has also carried out a pretty astonishing demo using deep learning tech, which even incorporates the voice of the speaker when it carries out its translations.

A.I. assistants

2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, Alien‘s “Mother”

Where it appeared in sci-fi: While lots of science fiction included computers whose principle functions could be operated via voice, the idea of a voice-activated artificial intelligence is slightly less widespread.

It was used to memorable effect with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, the sentient A.I. which controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft and interacts with (not entirely in the best interests of) the ship’s astronaut crew. Another prominent example is “Mother,” the ship’s computer in Alien. Both made an indelible mark on sci-fi fans, although HAL is by far the more iconic.

Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant

In reality: Minus HAL’s more murderous side, A.I. assistants are everywhere today. The technology was introduced to a mainstream audience for the first time with the iPhone 4s in 2011 (although there had been research projects before then), and it’s only grown from there.

Here in 2018, the smart speaker product category is hotly contested by Google, Amazon and Apple, and can be used to do everything from searching for information to controlling the various features in your smart home. Many, like Siri, even include “in joke” nods and references to their great uncle HAL.

Rayguns

Star Trek, James Bond movies

Where it appeared in sci-fi: Who needs bullets when you can fire far more futuristic beams of destructive energy? The form factor and scale of these weapons has varied depending on the story.

Rayguns first fleetingly appear as a reference in Victor Rousseau’s 1917 The Messiah of the Cylinder. Star Trek, meanwhile, introduced an entire generation to the “phaser,” while Star Wars’ Stormtroopers carried (somewhat useless) “blasters.” Heck, even James Bond used one in Moonraker, the most sci-fi of the 007 movies.

200W DIY laser canon, Lockheed Martin’s ATHENA

In reality: Okay, so most of us still think guns over lasers when we hear about the right to keep and bear arms. But as Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a-changin’.

Examples of real life laser guns range from DIY efforts like a terrifying 200W laser cannon, 400x more powerful than the most dangerous laboratory lasers, to Lockheed Martin’s modular ATHENA laser cannon. In the future, the defense giant claims its laser cannons will help protect soldiers from threats such as “swarms of drones.”

Tablet computers

2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek‘s PADD

Where it appeared in sci-fi: A decidedly iPad-style device appears in Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. An even more sci-fi appearance for tablet computers, however, comes in Star Trek.

Yes, there were examples of “electronic clipboards” in the original Star Trek, but they were far more prevalent in the follow-up, Star Trek: The Next Generation and in subsequent series. They were even called PADD, an acronym for Personal Access Display Device.

Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, etc

In reality: We very nearly didn’t include tablets on this list. The reason? Because once a gadget is so mainstream that your grandparents own and use one, it loses a bit of its cutting edge, science fiction cool. But isn’t that exactly the point of this list? No-one in Star Trek wasted time gushing about how cool it was to have a pencil-thin computer touch screen to look things up on; they just used it like the intuitive form of computing it is. That’s exactly what’s happened in real life.

While tablets haven’t totally replaced PCs, over the last decade they have proven themselves to have a crucial role to play in our lives. You can check out our list of the best tablets available to buy here.

Holograms

Star Wars: A New Hope

Where it appeared in sci-fi:  For any kid who grew up in a slightly boring place, dreaming of the day we’d get dragged into some grand adventure, there are few sci-fi movies scenes more iconic than the one from Star Wars, in which Luke Skywalker gets a call to action from a holographic Princess Leia.

Brigham Young University

In reality: Holographic projection still isn’t mainstream by any means, but there’s some fascinating work being done in this space. At Brigham Young University, researchers have demonstrated technology involving clear, realistic 3D holograms being projected into thin air.

“Our technology uses a tractor beam to capture a tiny particle of paper,” Daniel Smalley, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, told Digital Trends. “That particle is then dragged around and illuminated by red, green and blue lasers to make points. The primary difference is that when you look at an image point in our display you’re looking at a material object.”

What did the team choose as an early demo for their tech? Projecting a miniature Princess Leia, of course.

Videophone calling

2001: A Space Odyssey, Thunderbirds

Where it appeared in sci-fi:  As with several items on this list, video calling was introduced to a mass audience in 1968 through the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. As someone living in the U.K., however, for me it’s more synonymous with the TV series Thunderbirds, in which Jeff Tracy uses video calling to communicate with his sons.

Skype, Amazon’s Echo Show, FaceTime

In reality: Skype appeared in 2003, followed by rival services like Apple’s FaceTime a few years later. Devices like Amazon’s Echo Show are even built around the concept of video calling. Science fact has even further than science fiction through research into areas like 3D video calling.

Communicator watches

Dick Tracy

Where it appeared in sci-fi:  Okay, so Dick Tracy isn’t really science fiction, but his watch sure was. For years, anyone writing about wrist-worn communications tech pretty much had to, by some obscure law of journalism, reference Dick Tracy. The plainclothes cop got his famous two-way wrist radio in 1946 and upgraded it to a two-way video calling (see above) device in 1964.

The Apple Watch

In reality: The Apple Watch made this technology a real thing, and later improved it with the Apple Watch Series 3 by adding greater iPhone independence. The exact moment when sci-fi dream merged with actually-happening reality was captured on video in late 2016 when Jeb Bush received a call on his Apple Watch during a meeting. “My watch can’t be talking?” he said. “That’s the coolest thing in the world.”

It sure is, Jeb. It sure is. Well, with the exception of the other items on this list.

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