Tomorrow’s gadgets: now

Steve Dinneen
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HAVE you ever seen a science fiction blockbuster and thought: “I want one of those”? Whether it’s hoverboards or self-driving cars; the ability to learn by plugging into the Matrix or wiping someone’s memory with a magic wand, science fiction is full of incredible gadgets and inventions. But will we have the chance to experience these things in real life? And if we will, how long are we going to have to wait?

To celebrate National Science and Engineering Week, which runs from tomorrow until 24 March, we asked some of the UK’s top scientists to give us the lowdown on our favourite sci-fi inventions.


What is it? Forcefields are a common occurrence in science fiction, most recently used in The Hunger Games to prevent contestants escaping. The invisible field gives anyone who touches it a shock to prevent them from leaving a designated arena.

When can we see it? Dr Ruth Bamford, plasma physicist at STFC, says: “Theoretical work is looking promising. In the past we thought you needed a huge magnet for this to work but our research has shown a plasma deflector shield using an artificial magnetic field will work. We could have force field technology in three to five years, and on a manned spacecraft in 10.”


What is it? Author Malcolm Gladwell’s says successful people spend at least 10,000 hours practicing their skill, but who has time for that? I want to “plug in” to the Matrix and become a martial arts expert overnight.

When can we see it? Dr Peter Földiák from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews University says: “This is theoretically possible but there are huge scientific and technical problems that need to be solved. To ‘implant’ knowledge directly into the brain, we would need a much better understanding of how information is stored in the brain by neurons. Still a distant dream.”


What is it? Star Trek’s holodeck is an artificial reality facility where objects and people are simulated by a combination of replicated matter, tractor beams and holograms.

When can we see it? Mark Bolas, director of the mixed reality lab at the Institute of Creative Technology, University of Southern California, says: “If the goal is to make someone feel like their senses are immersed in an alternate world, then we do this every day, using head-mounted displays. I expect consumer products to hit the market early next year. Technology that projects images without the need for a head-mounted display are further away.”


What is it? The Neuralyzer is a key item for the Men in Black. It gives a bright flash which destroys the memories of the past hours, days, weeks, months or years, depending on the setting.

When can we see it? Neil Levy, deputy research director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, says: “This is not at all realistic, in the near to mid-term future. We don’t have the technology to target specific memories without devastating other areas of the
brain. With certain drugs, however, we can delete very recent
memories. If events are very recent, this form of drug treatment acts much like the Neuralyzer.”


What is it? The 2010 Oscar-winning blockbuster Inception featured a thief who commits corporate espionage by infiltrating the dreams of his targets.

When can we see it? Prof Jan Schnupp from the department of physiology, anatomy and genetics at the University of Oxford says: “All mental activity, including dreams, is the product of the activity of billions of neurons in our heads. The main obstacle is how we intercept the signals to get a clear picture of what is going on in a dream. There are no non-invasive technologies on the horizon – right now, we would need to drill into the brain. Your dreams are safe for now.”


What is it? I’ve wanted a hoverboard ever since I saw Back to the Future Part II. This year Mattel, which was fictionally depicted as the manufacturer of the hoverboard in the Back to the Future series, announced it would be retailing a replica version of the hoverboard that would be able to “glide” instead of hovering.

When can we see it? Prof Phil Blythe, chair of the transport policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says: “This technology is decades away, perhaps up to 20 years, but hopefully we will eventually develop this as a stepping stone to flying cars.”


What is it? I’m not a big fan of needles so I’d love to see the hypospray next time I need a jab. Featured in Star Trek, the hypospray is needleless and can be applied through clothing, rather than using a hypodermic needle.

When can we see it? Prof Ian Hunter from the department of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says: “We have developed a system that injects medicine using a high-pressure jet, which can deliver specific amounts of medicine to variable depths beneath the skin without the need for a needle. It could solve many of the problems with existing drug delivery.”


What is it? Who hasn’t wanted a chance to drive the Batmobile? The car has gone through numerous incarnations, allowing it to stay a step ahead of real-life advances. In The Dark Knight, it became a tank-like vehicle, complete with machine guns, a cannon and tank treads. Batman says the only thing that can penetrate its armour "isn't from this planet."

When can we see it? Prof Phil Blythe, chair of the transport policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says: “The technology is here already, there just isn’t a big enough market to go into production.”


What is it? Self-driving cars are a regular feature in science fiction films like Knight Rider and Total Recall, and the opportunity to pick one up at your local garage is closer than you might think.

When can we see it? David Evans, chair of the innovation panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says: “Self-driving cars have been demonstrated by manufacturers on private test tracks already – the issue is how long it will take for the technology to become affordable and trusted by the public. My guess is this will happen over the next 10 to 20 years. Many of the components like sat nav are already in place.”


What is it? Jet packs first appeared in science fiction in the 1920s and became popular in the 1960s, when Sean Connery’s Bond used one in the title sequence of Thunderball. Imagine how useful they’d be for the military, or for popping out to get a pint of milk.

When can we see it? David Evans, chair of the innovation panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says: “It will be a very long time before we see a working and commercially available jet pack – maybe never. There are lots of big issues about the energy source used to power it and controlling stability in motion, not to mention safety.”