Tech, The World, Now + Beyond

These 15 tech inventions were totally inspired by sci-fi movies

Much of the technology that's totally commonplace today was once a pipe dream to a science fiction writer. Check out these pieces of tech that were inspired by sci-fi TV and movies.

Science fiction has always given us a peek in to what the future could hold. The minds behind these future worlds dream of a place that looks little like the world we know. These futuristic worlds are always packed with technology that seems like the stuff of dreams.

As these science fiction worlds get older, and technology advances, some of the technological dreams of these worlds have come true. There are plenty of items that once only existed in movies and television that are now completely commonplace.

In many cases, these technologies were actually inspired by the science fiction movies and television. Here are a few examples of tech that were inspired by sci-fi.

1. Cell Phones

Star Trek TOS Communicator
Wikimedia Commons

Martin Cooper, the inventor of the first mobile phone, got his inspiration from an episode of “Star Trek: the Original Series” where Captain Kirk used his communicator to call for help. In “Star Trek: The Original Series,” all the crew members all carried handheld devices, that looked remarkably like flip phones, that allowed them to communicate while on the ship and even from planet to planet.

When the show came out and all phones were wired to the wall, the idea of a handheld device capable of communication across town, seemed like fantasy, but in 1983, less than twenty years after “Star Trek” aired, the cell phone was a reality.

2. Tablets

scene from 2001 space odyssey where man watches BBC on a tablet

In Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the astronauts carried handheld computers that contained all the information they could possibly need. In the “Star Trek” movies and television shows, crew members had PADDs, which stood for Personal Access Display Device. Both of these are examples of the earliest conceptions of tablets.

Interestingly, the  tablets used by the astronauts in “2001” were the basis of a Samsung lawsuit against Apple in their legal battle over the creative rights to tablet computers. Apple claimed that the iPad was the first instance of a handheld computer. Samsung fired back that the idea had existed in science fiction for a long time, citing “2001” and therefore they were allowed to develop the idea.

3. Self-Driving Cars

Will Smith in self driving car
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Movies like “iRobot” and “Total Recall” presented the idea of driverless vehicles. They envisioned a world with no car accidents, where no one had to waste their time actually driving during their commute. Until just recently, this vision of technology still seemed like science fiction. Enter GoogleX and their team of genius innovators. Google is actually testing driverless vehicles right now.

These vehicles won’t be available to the public for some time, but in California, there are driverless cars on the road today.

4. Holographic Performances

Princess Leia's message

One of the first uses of a hologram to represent a person was the iconic scene in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” when Princess Leia’s image is projected out of R2D2. Using a special screens and a series of reflected images layered on each other, scientists have managed to create the illusion of 3D images. This technology has led to the use of holographic images for performances. At the Billboard Music Awards in 2014, a holograph of Michael Jackson was projected while his music was playing. The result was a rather convincing ‘performance’ given by the musician, who had passed years before.

5. Universal Translators

Captain Kirk holding a universal translator

Another idea that comes to us from “Star Trek: The Original Series” is the Universal Translator. Kirk and his crew were flying all over the galaxy and even Uhura didn’t know all those languages, so they had a device that would automatically translate any language.

Though there isn’t a device that acts as a universal translator, Skype has developed software that allows for near real time translation of conversations had in the desktop and mobile versions of the Skype application. Words spoken are translated and repeated in headphones. It is also displayed in text on the screen. Of course, the translation isn’t seamless, but it’s an amazing jump in our ability to communicate on a global scale.

6. Video Calls

2001 A Space Odyssey, man placing video call to daughter

Video calls made their appearance in science fiction very early. The 1927 movie “Metropolis,” which was one of the first movies in the science fiction genre, featured a wall mounted video phone. Since then, video calling has been a ubiquitous feature of science fiction worlds, appearing in  “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” “Back to The Future II” and many more.

Today, video calls are just as pervasive as they were in these science fiction universes. Businesses frequently hold major meetings and even conferences through video call applications like Skype and GoToMeeting. Thanks to our iPhones, we also have video call capabilities in our hands with the iPhone app.

7. Bluetooth Devices

One of the first visions of wireless communicators small enough to be worn by the users came from the original “Star Trek” series. The communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, wore a device in her ear that allowed her to monitor communications throughout space. In “Star Trek: The Next Generation” all the officers wore a device aptly called a ‘communicator’ on their uniforms. These devices allowed crew members to communicate with each other, even from great distances.

Today, we are all familiar with bluetooth devices, which allow for the hands free operation of our cell phones. We wear bluetooth devices in our ears, remarkably similar to the one Uhura wore.  In an homage to the show that gave us this technology, the geek product company ThinkGeek has actually created bluetooth devices in the form of the ‘communicators’ from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

8. Voice-Activated Computers

interface of hal 9000 computer

Pretty much every science fiction movie in existence features voice activated computers. Whenever the characters need something, they simply address the question to the computer and get the answer. Voice recognition software has been around since the 80’s, but being able to ask a computer a question and have it search a database for an answer is much more recent.

The ability to find an answer required search engine technology, so when Google came along in the early 2000’s major breakthroughs in voice activated tecnology started to happen. Siri launched as a iPhone feature in 2011, and three years later, as the technology continued to improve, we got the Amazon Echo, which is basically everything science fiction envisioned a voice activated computer would be.

9. Smartwatches

Dick Tracy looking at Smartwatch

One of the first appearances of the Smartwatch was in the “Dick Tracy” comic strips in the 1940’s. The Super Detective, had a watch that he could speak in to and that would provide him information on the fly. Since then, Smartwatches have appeared on the wrist of many a futuristic hero including James Bond, “Men in Black’s” Agent K, and Inspector Gadget.

Today, the Apple Watch allows users to answer phone calls, look at texts, and browse the Internet all from their wrists. Devices like the Garmin Fenix combine a smartwatch with a fitness wearable, allowing users to track physical activities, and check their texts and notifications.

10. Virtual Reality Devices

VR headset being used in the movie "Hackers"

Devices that transport the user to a computer created reality, virtual reality, are also common in science fiction movies. In “Total Recall,” “The Matrix,” and “Surrogates” characters plug in to virtual realities in complex chair setups that connect the whole body to the VR. Other movies, like “Lawnmower Man,” “Hackers,” and “Johnny Mnemonic” envisioned virtual reality headsets that the user put over their eyes to see a virtual world. This is the vision (pun intended) that has come to pass.

Samsung just released its first virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, last year. Other companies are working to get their VR technology out as soon as possible to compete with the Oculus Rift.

11. Gesture Based UI

gesture interface computer in minority report

The ultimate in computer technology in science fiction is the gesture activated computer screen. Spielberg portrayed this masterfully in “Minority Report” and Iron Man’s computer is the envy of all.

Interacting with computers based on motion sensors started with the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect. Both had sensor bars that connected to the gaming systems and picked up on users’ movements. Now, a company called Leap Motion has released a  device that plugs in to your USB port and allows you to control your computer via hand movements.

12. Handheld Medical Diagnostics

Dr McCoy using a tricorder for a diagnosis

In the “Star Trek” universe, all medical officers carried around devices called tricorders. The device was hovered around the patient, and it collected medical data from the patient, processed it through a medical database, and delivered a diagnosis. The medical world has been fascinated with tricorders since their inception, so much so that a company called Qualcomm organized a competition to create the first real life tricorder.

Devices entered in to the competition must be able to read a patient’s vital signs, provide basic blood tests, and contain a diagnostic database. The competition just announced its winner on April 12th, and the winners are doing further testing of their prototypes.

13. Needle-less Injection

Dr McCoy preparing to use hypospray on Captain Kirk

Another tool in the “Star Trek” ‘sick bay’ was the hypospray. This device delivered medicine through the skin without the need for injection. It could be programmed to deliver any medication as needed. Scientists at MIT have developed a needleless injection system that is effectively the same as hypspray. The device will deliver liquid medications at extremely high pressures, allowing them to penetrate the skin without being injected.

14. Digital Billboards

Digital Billboard from Blade Runner

The classic science fiction masterpiece, “Blade Runner” envisioned a techno-pop world where everything was robots and flashing screens. In the cities, massive billboards with shifting images towered over the buildings, advertising the latest technological convenience. Just as “Blade Runner” predicted, digital billboards are now common, cycling through images or video advertisements, on the side of every highway in the modern world.

15. Energy Weapons

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All of the science fiction movies that depict space battles show spacecrafts using energy weapons as their primary weapons. This usually ends up looking like lasers being shot out of the spaceship. They tend to make a ‘pew pew’ sound. “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galatica,” and “Ender’s Game” and many others all heavily feature energy weapons systems. The US Navy is currently working on technology that would replicate these energy weapons.

It’s not ready to go quite yet, but they predict they’ll be up and running within the year.