Some sci-fi technology is fanciful, like time machines or teleportation, and some is plausible, like videoconferencing or handheld telephones.
While the various “Star Wars” movies are in their own class for predictive technology, “Star Trek” has the distinction of offering both types of sci-fi tech. The TV show’s communicator inspired Motorola engineer Martin Cooper to invent the first cell phone in 1973. “‘We actually knew that the communicator of ‘Star Trek’ was possible from the moment that we saw it,'” Cooper told Public Radio International.
The first cell phone is the most famous example of a concept crossing over from science fiction to actual science, but there are others. What authors dream up, engineers can sometimes will into existence, as these examples show:
The iPad/tablet in “2001: A Space Odyssey”
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece introduced Newspads, flat-screen tablet computers that sported IBM logos. As a recent Wall Street Journal article recalled, the devices in the movie were welded to tables and used hidden 16 mm film projectors to simulate video content. A few years ago, Samsung cited the Newspads in a lawsuit against Apple. After Samsung introduced its own tablet, Apple sued the company for patent infringement. Samsung cited the movie in its defense and demanded that Apple couldn’t have possibly invented the tablet computer because it was featured in Kubrick’s movie.
Videoconferencing in “Metropolis”
Perhaps it wasn’t such a huge leap to imagine that one day we’d be placing video calls. One of the first known references to video calls in sci-fi came from Hugo Gernsback, whose 1925 novel Ralph 124c 41+ featured a visual communication system for making calls. Two years later, Fritz Lang’s classic “Metropolis” also included a scene in which a man makes a video call.
A Self-Propelled Vacuum Cleaner in “The Jetsons”
“The Jetsons” had video calls too, but the 1960s cartoon’s most lasting legacy to sci-fi technology may be that it inspired iRobot CEO and cofounder Robin Angle to create the company’s Roomba vacuum. Angle told Fast Company that the show’s character Rosie the Robot was a major influence for the vaccuum and other iRobot inventions.
Virtual Reality in “The Matrix”
Depending on how you define it, virtual reality dates back to Morton Heilig’s patent for an immersive device called Sensorama in 1962. The idea had also been kicked around in sci-fi stories like Stephen King’s “The Lawnmower Man.” The idea that life is an illusion dates even further back to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”
But it was 1999’s “The Matrix” that offered a fully realized vision of VR. “The Matrix” posited a world in which most humans are enslaved by machines and hooked to pods that simulate a real world. The storyline follows the main character Neo as he breaks through that illusion to experience reality.
Honorable Mention: “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the Internet
As Slate observed, the internet was such a big concept that no sci-fi writer had ever imagined it — but that’s not quite true. On the 50th anniversary of the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” The Wall Street Journal noted that there was a planned scene in which a Newspad was going to sport a “New York Times” logo and a digital front page “complete with multiple story choices to be accessed by touch-screen command … If the page had been used, the movie would almost certainly now be seen as having predicted the Internet.”
What are you dreaming up that engineers can put into existence? Whether you’re a dreamer or an engineer — or somewhere in between — we may have a career opportunity for you.