How inventions once depicted in science fiction can help students think about the possibilities of technology in the future

Paul Woodward
10th November 2017 at 17:07

After numerous blogs on the subject of D&T in the classroom, I would like to think I have earned the opportunity to indulge in a mix of two loves of mine: technology and film. So today's blog is simply the result of a bit of daydreaming while watching a film about a killer drone.

As an avid follower of technology and gadgets, I began to wonder just how many inventions, once simply science fiction (or fantasy), have actually become a reality in the 21st Century. Also, how many were prophetic – think Blade Runner's dystopian future cityscapes that look just like contemporary downtown Tokyo – and how many simply planted the creative seed needed to nurture an idea until technology caught up.

This might well make an interesting discussion for your class and an alternative take on the "chicken or egg" conundrum.

So, join me as I recall a few notable technologies once considered the stuff of science fiction that have become reality:

1. Matter transporter

Ok, this one is a bit of a stretch, but a key feature of the Star Trek shows, which started back in 1966, was the "replicator" that allowed for food and drinks to materialise at the touch of a button. Admittedly, not quite there yet with organic matter, but 3D printers have the basic ability for something to "materialise" in front of your eyes. Originally limited to plastic, we have already seen metal, food and even body parts printed. Suddenly, having a pizza materialise at the push of the button doesn't seem like science fiction anymore. 

2. Cloning

This could be traced back as far as Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956. No science as such in that film, but the idea that people could be replicated completely is a taboo subject today, even though we know it's technically possible (thanks, Dolly the Sheep). Many more films have explored the concept over the years such as The Island, Moon and Blade Runner.

3. Flying vehicles

As far back as early films such as Metropolis in 1927, the future has envisaged flying vehicles other than planes and rockets. Drones are an extension of this concept and a practical use for defying gravity, but there are already flying cars being developed. How long before the drones are as big and dangerous as those in the Terminator films?

4. AI

In the 1977 film Demon Seed, a malevolent computer designed to control an entire house takes over trapping the inhabitants and tries to replicate, but this was preceded by Hal in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey and later by Mother in 1979's Alien. Nowadays, AI is a common theme in films and TV and an area of technology that is rapidly developing.

5. Virtual reality

A concept touched upon in numerous films that explored alternate worlds and dreamscapes, 1992's Lawnmower Man was the first film to use CGI to explore the possibilities of virtual realities but even stories as far back as Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass suggested alternate worlds we could step in and out of while Back to the Future II in 1989 saw characters wearing VR headsets much like Google Glass. Today, computer technology makes it possible to be immersed in almost photorealistic virtual environments or to augment the real world with colourful characters through VR.

6.  Robots

Metropolis again (1927) was the first and perhaps most iconic recognisable robot in films but books as early as the late 1800s made reference to mechanical men doing laborious work which is where the word 'robot' was derived. Today they are common in large factories but are slowly making their way into domestic and leisure industries.

7. Driverless cars

It's been featured in many science fiction films, but Logan's Run (1976) introduced the concept of the driverless "pod" that drives citizens around the city. In Total Recall (1990), a robotic taxi driver takes customer around a futuristic city in an electric car of all things. Driverless cars are now very much a reality.           

8. Deep Space Travel

Despite Melies' 1902 A Trip to the Moon addressing the theme of travel to the Moon, Rocketship X-M from 1950 tells the story of a manned mission to Mars; a subject addressed more realistically in more recent films like The Martian. Interstellar travel is now a very real thing with return expeditions to Mars expected in the 2030s.

9. Smartphones, smartwatches, tablets and video chat

Star Trek introduced us to the communicator, which is eerily similar to some of the first flip phones, and the first two movies saw characters wearing wrist-worn communicators which could be seen as the forerunner of the smartwatch. In 1984, the third film returned to the flip style communicator which the inventor of the first cell phone cited as his inspiration and the series regularly featured characters holding digital tablets many years before the iPad. In 1982's Blade Runner, the protagonist makes a video chat call to a client years before it became a reality using PCs but even this had already featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968.

10. Invisibility cloaks

Again, Star Trek gave us cloaking devices for spaceships but perhaps more famously 1989's Predator sees an alien with the technology to become invisible, long before Harry Potter's magic cloak but enough to inspire cloaking in the real world and already being used by the military.

 

Despite there being thousands of science fiction movies, the shortlist above shows that just a few of them contain several visions of the future that became reality. Movies, while prophetic, are a fairly recent medium and literature has often been even more visionary. Credit cards were first hinted at in a novel from 1888, while HG Wells suggested in 1903 the use of tanks. Earbuds were mentioned in 1953 in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 – 47 years before Apple designed them. Video chat was demonstrated at the 1964 New York World Fair but mentioned in literature as far back as 1911. The moon landing was first referenced in the 1800s, even though it was 1969 before man set foot on the moon, Electric cars? References go as far back as 1969. Video surveillance? Just look at George Orwell's 1984. Satellite communication? Take a bow, Arthur C Clarke, back in 1945. And let's not forget that Nikola Tesla hinted at wi-fi as far back as 1800. 

So, visions of the future that simply came true or fantastical inspiration for the young designers that eventually developed the technology? You will have to decide. But thanks to science fiction and fantasy stretching back hundreds of years, we now live in a technologically advanced world where things that were once only dreamed of are now reality. If you had told someone just 20 years ago that you could carry a rechargeable device in your pocket that could access all of human knowledge, play games, music, video and take photographs, you might have been considered a little crazy. We now take such things for granted as new technology is developed at a much quicker pace. I wonder if it's actually possible to dream up future fictional technology anymore and, should it become a reality, if it would seem as visionary as today's technology when we look back at it in the future.

 

Paul has taught and led Design and Technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator and D&T consultant. Having taken a break from teaching to work in the design industry, he recently returned to education to lead a Creative Arts faculty.

 

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