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Movies and TV shows, when done right, are great ways to entertain and tell stories. They can be fascinating avenues for experiencing some phenomena we may never actually witness in real life. They can also be ridiculous or laughably awful when scientific liberties are taken a bit too far. Join the CR4 team here in the Physics in Film blog as we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the science and engineering we see on the screen.

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Back to the Future Tech - How Do We Compare?

Posted October 23, 2015 7:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

So two days ago was October 21, 2015 - the monumental day when Marty McFly time traveled into the future in the movie Back To The Future Part II. Besides being a great sequel in an epic trilogy, the movie was memorable and unique in its creative vision on technologies of the future. In a belated celebration of "Back to the Future Day", I wanted to give a shout out to some of the gadgets shown in the film, and see how the real world measures up.

1. Hoverboards

The Movie - Perhaps the most memorable moment in the movie is the chase scene with Marty riding on a hoverboard, a skateboard esq. device that hovers in air above the ground, similar to the landspeeder in Star Wars.

Real Life - If you read the last post on this blog you'll know that hoverboards do exist today in various forms. Some get their lift from air via rotors (like helicopters), others from electromagnets (like hi-speed trains). See this link for details. Unfortunately, all of them have severe limitations to their functionality, so we definitely aren't close to having a free-floating board that feels and acts like a skateboard.

Winner = Movie

2. Flat Screen TVs and Video Chat

The Movie - At his house, Marty's son projects a bunch of TV channels up on the wall simultaneously, and later Marty takes a video call from his friend Needles on the same screen.

Real Life - We have innumerable sizes of flat screen TVs, and projectors that can act as TVs to throw images up on the wall. With the right setup (split screen processor and multiple cable boxes, or similar), one can certainly project multiple channels on one TV display. And Skype, Google Video, and other services have given us video chat capabilities for many years now.

Winner = Real Life

3. Hydrators

The Movie - At the house, Marty's Mom Loraine puts in a tiny pizza shaped food into a device known as a hydrator, and in three seconds pulls out a fully sized and cooked pizza - YUM! Presumably, the hydrator works by hydrating and heating dehydrated foods for quick meal preparation.

Real Life - The closest conventional tech we have for fast cooking/heating today is the microwave, and the only realistic way to "hydrate" food is to boil it in water. But wouldn't it be nice...

Winner = Movie

4. Holographic Images

The Movie - When Marty first begins walking around the city of the future, a giant holographic image of a shark pretends to eat him alive, projecting from the "HoloMax" theater. This is similar to the projections seen in the Star Wars films.

Real Life - Holographic images may be a staple of science fiction, but they are moving towards reality. One approach using graphene materials and complex photophysics has brought about small holographic displays about one centimeter in length. But researchers say there is no limit to the size as the technology improves. Considering the amount of money spent on entertainment, I fully expect to see some form of movie-like holographic images in my lifetime.

Winner = Movie

5. Auto-fit & Auto-dry clothing

The Movie - When Marty puts on the jacket and shoes of the Future given to him by Doc Brown, the shoes and jacket both "autofit" to his size. In addition, after the chase scene when Marty gets out of the water, the jacket dries itself.

Real Life - NIKE, whose name was on the "power lace" shoe that Marty wore, has actually made an auto-lace shoe called the MAG based on the design from the movie. And while we don't have self-drying or auto-fitting jackets, there are advances being made in fabrics that repel water (and thus stay dry), and in smart clothing that can charge your phone or monitor your heart rate.

Winner = Tie

Some honorable mentions (for the sake of brevity):

The Pac Fax (street fax machine). Winner = Real Life (cell phones > fax)

News TV drone. Winner = Tie (Hobby drones anyone?)

Fingerprint scanner for house lock and ID. Winner = Tie

So it looks like in some ways we haven't quite lived up to movie-makers expectations of what the future would look like, though I think we made a fair showing. Considering some things in the movie however (like the inside-out clothing trend), I would say I'm quite happy we with where we are. Here's to science fiction movies, and the innovation they inspire!

Links:

CNET - Back to the Future Tech Reviewed

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#1

Re: Back to the Future Tech - How Do We Compare?

10/24/2015 12:15 AM

We now aid the Iranians in acquiring technology to make fissionable grade material for weapons, and VW helps the cars get up to critical speeds for time travel without regard for emissions. Drones make hoverboards unnecessary since the cameras allow us to monitor everything. The suburban sprawl has been slowed by the recessions and Pepsi Free went out with New Coke. So it turned out not to be a very accurate portrayal of life in the 21st century, except for the flux capacitor which VW uses to cheat on emissions tests! Garbage in; garbage out.

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Re: Back to the Future Tech - How Do We Compare?

10/26/2015 10:23 AM

And the newspaper was wrong, the Cubs do NOT win the 2015 World Series, they don't even make it to the game.

For a while there, it was looking pretty good for that prediction...

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