How Sci-Fi Movies Inspire Innovations
| by Abhinna Shreshta
The opening title sequence of ‘Star Trek’ proclaims, in words that are now a part of modern lexicon,—“To boldly go where no man has gone before”; and this is exactly what visionaries like Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) did, challenging people to think beyond their narrow, mundane world. Today, many of these ideas, considered impossible and radical back then, are a part of everyday life. And still science fiction pushes us to keep dreaming.
When HG Wells wrote “The Time Machine”, he had to devote one entire chapter to explain what a time machine is—not how it works, but what it does. Such was the gap between his and his readers’ imagination. The advent of motion pictures and special effects have made it easier for Well's successors to portray their ideas. An interesting phenomenon is, aptly called by one commentator, ‘The Star Trek Effect’—the enthusiasm of fans to try and convert imagined gadgets into real life, working models. Take the case of Jules Verne, popularly called ‘The man who invented the future” and whose ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’, contained the first description of a modern day submarine.
Star Trek introduced some radical concepts as seen in Lt. Uhura's communications earpiece and the handheld communicator pictured to the right, which looks remarkably similar to a present day flip phone
There are many such examples, more so in recent years, when film makers have taken to the science-fiction visionary business with a professionalism that would make Donald Trump shed tears of joy. In 1999, Steven Spielberg invited thought leaders, scientists and architects for a three-day conference at a swanky five-star hotel in Las Vegas to brainstorm over what the world of future would be like, the result—the absolutely brilliant concepts showcased in ‘Minority Report’. Let’s take a look at some other ideas on the cutting edge of technology that were first showcased in movies but are now a part of AV reality.
Beam Me Up Scotty
It’s only fitting that we start off this journey with ‘Star Trek’ and one of its more iconic devices. We are talking, of course, of the trusty Starfleet standard issue, handheld communicator, which looked so like a modern day clamshell mobile phone or flip phone. The communicator was one of those essential tools that no Enterprise crew member ever left behind on their planetary sojourns. In fact, Dr. Martin Cooper, who invented the first handheld mobile phone, credits the Starfleet communicator as the inspiration behind mobile technology—a classic case of ‘The Star Trek Effect’.
In one of the most iconic scenes in Hollywood history, Luke Skywalker watches a hologram of Princess Leia Oragana hidden within R2D2
Another communication predecessor was the communicator earpiece, usually sported by Lt. Uhura and which resembled a steel lock. And what do we have today that can compare with it? Why, of course, the Bluetooth hands free earpiece, which carry out the same function and look decidedly more fashionable.
Kubrick Beats Apple To The Tablet
Everyone must have heard or read about Apple’s legal attempts to halt sales of Samsung’s Tab. Apple’s argument is that the ‘Tab’ is way too similar to its own tablet, the iPad. Things had been going more or less Apple’s way, but then, Samsung’s legal team came up with a sucker punch. In August last year, Samsung filed a petition in a US court stating that Apple’s claims regarding the iPad were invalid since the iPad was predated by decades by…Stanley Kubrick's iconic '2001: A Space Odyssey'. If you think this is mind-boggling imagine how Apple must have reacted to it.
Steve Jobs holds up an iPad, though it seems astronauts in '2001: A Space Odyssey' were already using them. Now if only we had manned Jupiter missions.
The Samsung blokes had helpfully included a YouTube link to the scene in their filing (which is easily available on the Internet) and having watched it, we had to say that the rectangular, black devices on which the two astronauts—Bowman and Poole, are watching an interview of themselves, look very similar to the tablets of today. For those of you who are interested in seeing for yourself, the scene occurs just before HAL unleashes his dastardliness on the unfortunate astronauts. Interestingly, the first commercial tablets were released towards the end of the 20th century, very near the timeline of '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Looks like Kubrick was not that off the mark in his vision of the future.
Smoke And Mirrors
To say that ‘Star Wars’ was ahead of its time is like saying that the blue whale is a big animal. So, when the trusty R2D2 projected a holographic message from Princess Leia pleading to Obi-Wan Kenobi for help, it stunned a whole generation of cinema-goers. Since then, holograms, for communications and other purposes, have become a stock in trade in sci-films from ‘Total Recall’ to the 2005 flick ‘The Island’ and, more recently,?‘Avatar’.
In real life though, practical applications have not been as smooth as we would have liked and it’s not due to any lack of trying. The few, ‘holographic’ projections that have been seen till now have been little more than fancy optical illusions, albeit very smart ones, and have done little more than serve as marketing gimmicks. For example, we had a hologram of will.i.am (of The Black Eyed Peas fame) in conversation with a CNN correspondent in 2008, which turned out to be created by 35 HD cameras set in a ring to create a 3D image. Similarly, when the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur suddenly appeared on stage during a concert in Coachella earlier this year (more than 15 years after his death), jaws dropped, but it was just a centuries-old illusion technique known as Pepper’s Ghost (The name's kind of ironical, isn't it?).
General Motors' designers and engineers use the CAVE 3D virtual reality program to develop design ideas.
However, others seem to be taking the idea of holograms more seriously. Airports in the UK and a few other countries are said to be experimenting with holographic attendants who will materialise out of thin air to answer your queries. For now, holograms might just be smoke and mirrors, but the idea has caught the imagination of people and as we have seen in the past, converting dreams to reality seldom takes that much time.
Deus Ex Machina
In the 1982 flick 'Tron', Jeff Bridges finds himself trapped inside the ENCOM mainframe and at the mercy of its ruthless program overlord; becoming the first Hollywood star to experience the phenomenon of virtual reality. ‘Tron’ was the first movie to explore the concept of virtual reality, but hardly the only one. Other movies and shows were even more adventurous. Movies like the Matrix trilogy imagined a world ruled by machines who keep humans alive in a simulated reality environment for sustenance. David Cronenberg’s 1999 sci-fi horror ‘eXistenZ’ was completely set within a virtual reality game. And, of course, there was the popular cartoon show “The Real Adventures Of Johnny Quest” in which the virtual reality program QuestWorld played such an integral part.
In real life, unless the Wachowski brothers were right and we are all just living in an artificially constructed dream world, virtual reality (VR) programs might have not reached the sophistication of a QuestWorld, but they exist and have found myriad uses, perhaps the most common being flight and driving?simulators.
What if we could experience video games for real? 'Tron' was one of the first attempts at answering this question all geeks dream about.
Though most people equate VR with audiovisual feedback, the more advanced programs also include tactile information. The military and space agencies are a big believer in this technology, using it for training soldiers, astronauts and pilots in different scenarios. Who knows, perhaps very soon we might see armies of the world build huge danger rooms, like in the X-Men series, to train soldiers. On the commercial side, the biggest arena where VR is finding use is gaming, especially with advances in 3D. Sony have already announced their ambitions when it comes to VR gaming. Last year, at CES, they showed off a number of futuristic prototypes including a 3D head-mounted display featuring a 720p OLED display for each eye and simulated 5.1 surround audio. With related advances in gesture control technology, looks like our childhood dreams of whisking away to a fantasy world to fight trolls and giants or piloting a starfighter through space will soon become a reality.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
One of the coolest sights that we have seen recently in a movie has to be Tom Cruise dragging, flipping and stretching images by just moving his hands in the über futuristic ‘Minority Report’. Eight years later, Microsoft launched the Kinect gaming system, which did away with the need of controllers and how it does this is through an intricate system of gesture and voice commands.
T(ether) is an iPad app, which its inventors claim was inspired by the technology shown in 'Minority Report'.
In fact, John Underkoffler, the scientist who created the gesture control system that Cruise used in ‘Minority Report’, has started his own company—Oblong Industries, to move this dream further. Even South Korean electronics giant Samsung, has included voice commands and gesture controls in its latest 8000 series Smart TVs. Another group of MIT students have created an iPad app called T(ether), which allows manipulation of virtual objects on an iPad screen through head and hand gestures.
An even more radical use of gesture control are the 'magic gloves' developed by MIT media labs in collaboration with 5DT, x-io Technologies and Shure microphones. British musician Imogen Heap is known for endorsing the gloves and has been using them in her live performances. With nothing but hand gestures, Imogen is currently able to amplify/record/loop acoustic instruments and her voice, play virtual instruments and manipulate these sounds?live.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall
Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic ‘Blade Runner’ introduced the concept of smart windows that dimmed or grew translucent to control the amount of light entering the room. At this year’s CES, Samsung turned the whole concept of smart glass on its head. Rather than just being ‘e-curtains’, Samsung’s 'Smart Window' is really a transparent touch screen LCD that can be fitted to any window. It provides a resolution is 1366x768 pixels and is more iPad than Saint Gobain. A similar idea was showcased in ‘Minority Report’ too.
Though, Samsung might be the first to begin mass production of their smart glass (if the promises they made during CES hold), Gorilla Glass creator Corning had posted a couple of videos much earlier describing in detail all the things that could be done with smart glass.
Coring Glass' remarkable concept video introduced us to a world where your mirror is also your calendar, scheduler, watch, email client and a number of other things, as seen in this still from the video.
The two-part video, called “A Day In Glass” included glass walls that converted into LCD screens, augmented reality apps that could be ‘read’ by smart glass devices to create a more immersive environment, mirrors had widgets to read emails, check weather reports, etc.
Corning has admitted that there are difficulties in translating all these concepts into reality, but it will be surprising if with the brainpower and financial clout companies like Samsung, Corning Glass, etc. possess, they can’t figure out a way to realise this revolutionary idea.