Video calling, voice-controlled technology and wearables were once the preserve of fantasy but are now part of everyday life for many. We’ve been on a nostalgic movie binge to find the sci-fi tech that’s already a reality and the ideas that may only be a few years away.
Science fiction has been around for centuries. From the ancient Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, to movies of the 70s and 80s and beyond where the future is depicted as dystopian, hopeful or somewhere in between. But whatever the story, an abundance of advanced technology is always on show.
Unfortunately, like Gilgamesh, we haven’t yet discovered the secret to immortality. But what about some of the weird and wonderful inventions we’ve been wowed by on the big screen?
Has science already caught up with Philip K Dick’s vision of the future? Are androids already among us dreaming of electric sheep? And what about other movies from just a few decades ago where the tech seemed impossibly advanced?
Top smart hubs for 2017 – we’ve reviewed some of the most futuristic tech around.
Video calls, voice control, flying cars and replicants in Blade Runner
Don’t worry, there are no spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 here.
The original film was set in 2019, so it shouldn’t be long now before we’re all inhabiting mega cities, safe from the desolate scorched Earth outside, right? Hopefully that’s one Blade Runner prediction that won’t come true. But what about some of the others?
- Flying cars: not quite, but we’re getting there. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in 2016, we saw a drone that could carry one passenger above the traffic jams and on to their destination… in theory. The Ehang 184 is an autonomous drone, so you would simply input your destination and off you go. It’s still in the testing stage at the moment, but requesting an Uber could one day see one of them land on your driveway.
- Video calls: we’ve surpassed Blade Runner’s clunky vision of video calls. Deckard uses one in a bar to try to initiate some replicant romance but gets rebuffed. He uses a sizeable terminal, but most of us now have phones in our pocket that are capable of video calls. The new Amazon Echo Show and the upcoming Echo Spot smart hubs both have screens in-built to support video calls, too.
- Voice control: ‘Enhance 224 to 176.’ One of the best scenes in Blade Runner shows Deckard examining a picture, zooming and panning just using voice commands. There may not be any photo software like Deckard’s yet, but we can use our voices to control phones, computers, smart hubs, TVs, speakers and more. This tech has been around for a while, but with Amazon and Google banking big on the technology, voice control has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years.
- Replicants: indistinguishable from humans, replicants make up the labour force on dangerous off-world colonies in Blade Runner’s grim future. These androids have thoughts, feelings and an urge to survive past their four-year life span. We have robots and we have artificial intelligence, but we aren’t anywhere close to creating replicants – which may be a good thing. Robot assistants are available right now, though. One such creation is the Qihan assistant, which has a face and uses Amazon’s Alexa to communicate. But we shouldn’t fear these turning against their makers just yet.
Discover which voice-controlled smart hub wins in our Amazon Echo vs Google Home guide.
Hover boards, self-tying trainers, drones and wearables in Back to the Future II
Marty travels to 2015 in Back to the Future II. The year that gave us water on Mars and Pacquiao vs Mayweather has been and gone – did Back to the Future get it right?
- Hover boards: do hover boards exist? Yes. Are they any good? No. You may well have seen videos showing dodgy-looking hover boards travelling at around half a mile per hour and, although they look about as exciting as a tax return, at least people are working on them. Give it a few more years and we might all be zipping around on these things, but for now only a handful of engineers are travelling on them, very slowly.
- Self-tying trainers: power laces, as they are known in the film, are now an actual thing thanks to Nike, which released a handful of pairs for charity. Those sold for many thousands, but there was a later general release. They still weren’t cheap, setting buyers back a hefty $720, and they weren’t as copious as Converse. But at least they exist.
- Drones: it’s amazing how much Back to the Future got right. Drones are widely available, costing anywhere from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand. What’s more, they’re pretty advanced. They can record 4K video, avoid obstacles such as trees (but not Canadian aircraft, according to certain news stories) and even follow you autonomously.
- Wearables: smartwatches, activity trackers, headsets – it’s all there in Back to the Future. VR headsets give you access to movies, games and the internet just like the ones in the film, and smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S3, are effectively wrist-mounted smartphones at this stage.
Interstellar travel, holograms, cryogenic freezing and lightsabers in Star Wars
This is a bit of a cheat. The events of Star Wars happened a long time ago in a galaxy far far way, so the technology featured in the film is surely light years away from what we’re capable of. Or is it?
- Interstellar travel: we’ve not made it out of our solar system yet, but are we even close? Unfortunately not. The nearest star system is 4.37 light years away and it’s impossible to reach with the spacecraft we have now. Solar sails, fusion drives and even space-folding warp drives are being considered as viable means of reaching our neighbouring stars, but we may be waiting a long time to visit the planets around Proxima Centauri, our nearest star.
- Holograms: let’s be honest, the holograms in Star Wars are rubbish – they’re all grainy and flicker constantly. We have invented holograms and they are markedly more stable, but we can’t use them to communicate the way Leia and Luke do.
- Cryogenic freezing: OK, so Han Solo actually gets frozen in carbonite, but the idea is the same: freezing a human and reviving them later on. The premise of cryogenic freezing is that, while in stasis, the body won’t age. It’s seen in tonnes of films from Alien to Demolition Man. The problem is that when ice crystals form, they would cause damage to muscle tissues. Even if you could be revived (which you can’t) your body would be ruined.
- Lightsabers: what’s cooler than a laser sword? Nothing, that’s what. Lightsabers are actually plasma swords powered by fictional crystals, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build one on Earth. In theory, a magnetic field could support a beam of plasma, but the energy required to power it would be enormous. Better learn to be satisfied with those lovely replicas you can buy instead.
Find out how to enjoy VR experiences for free in our guide to VR.
Honourable mention: the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It’s not strictly tech, but the Babel Fish from Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic is a remarkable creature that allows the user to understand any language in the universe. The catch is that you have to put the slimy little thing into your ear.
Before you grab your goldfish and head for Gatwick you should know that Google has come up with a less disgusting solution that won’t get you into trouble with the RSPCA. The recently announced Pixel Buds look like conventional headphones, but they can also translate 40 different languages straight into your ears. It’s an incredible advancement that could change the way we travel and communicate.
Read our guide to smart headphones and hearables to learn about the future of wireless headphones.