Back To a Healthier Future

The 1989 sequel to the time travel classic got so much right, but misjudged our motivation for creating a gadget-filled future.

When Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown touched down in their ‘modified’ DeLorean DMC-12 in 21 October 2015, the Hill Valley they saw was teeming with technological advancements that were hilarious and mind-blowing to audiences watching in the late-1980s.

However, three decades later, it seems like the director Robert Zemeckis and his fellow writers predicted the future with startling accuracy — with one big exception.

As well as a fun look at the future, Back to the Future 2 served as a snapshot of its time, when materialism was reaching its peak. Therefore, most the technologies that Doc and Marty run into in 2015 are based on personal gain, leisure and entertainment, making everyday chores simpler, or simple ‘cool’ factor. It might warm Doc’s innovator’s heart to learn that — in actual 2015 — while we don’t yet have self-tying sneakers, time machines or (thankfully) fax machines in every room of the home, most of today’s really big breakthrough technologies are driven by more altruistic and socially-minded motives.

Hover board

Of course, the hover board is the standout gadget of the 1989 movie; which child of the 80s didn’t dream of one day heading out on his or her very own floating platform? And while science continued to make incredible advances during the 90s and 2000s, many young-at-heart types lamented the lack of a real hover board.

Perhaps inspired by the upcoming Back to the Future 2 landmark, a spate of innovators and companies have revealed real, working hover boards in the past year or so, with hover boards from Japanese car company Lexus and start-up Hendo Hoverboard looking to be the most impressive.

But Arx Pax — the company behind the Hendo — doesn’t dream of a future in which teenagers chase each other across town squares on floating devices; for them, the Hendo Hoverboard is a calling card or, to a degree, a PR stunt. The end game for Arx Pax is for their ‘magnetic field architecture’ technology to be used on buildings such as schools and hospitals in at-risk areas so that they can move and remain safe and intact during natural disasters like floods and earthquakes.

Meanwhile, Canadian inventor Catalin Alexandru Duru has created a hovering board that uses propellers instead of magnets. Talk is that such an innovation could be invaluable in delivering medical aid, supplies or expertise in hard-to-access areas during natural catastrophes.

A weather-forecasting watch

At one point in Back to the Future 2, Doc Brown looks down at his watch and predicts the rain stopping with unerring accuracy. Today, detailed minute-by-minute weather apps are nothing new but — unlike the Doc — we use wrist-based personal devices to do much more than tell us if we need to take an umbrella or not.

Increasingly, our watches are telling us more about what’s happening inside than what’s happening outside: such as monitoring heart rate, how much we move, the amount and quality of our sleep and how many calories we’ve burnt. Even more exciting is the way that this data can connect to and correlate with devices such as scales, blood pressure monitors and thermometers — and in turn feed all that data into platforms like the Philips HealthSuite and related apps to produce impactful, personalized and actionable insights for managing conditions ranging from heart health to back pain. Think, McFly. Think!

Smart glasses

Long before Sergey Brin was spotted riding the subway in a pair of futuristic glasses — which turned out to be Google Glass prototypes — Marty’s kids and Doc Brown were sporting futuristic connected headsets. The doc’s had a rear-view camera — nothing special in this day and age — while the McFly kids’ goggles allowed them to watch TV and answer calls. Sound familiar?

In reality, head-based devices haven’t quite taken off in the consumer space, with watches — less obtrusive for everyday use — seeming to be the most acceptable form of wearable. But futuristic headsets are taking off in other more specific areas: Recon Jet, for example, is gaining traction amongst cyclists and skiers who want to view their directions and data without having to look away from the path in front.

But, once again, it’s the field of healthcare that provides arguably the most exciting uses of head-mounted wearables; one Philips proof of concept used Google Glass to enhance surgeons’ access to data in the OR. While the upcoming Microsoft HoloLens — which also looks almost identical to the McFly kids’ futuristic goggles — is also predicted to change the way scientists view the human body in the future.

Robotic gas pumps and waiters

Back to the Future 2 predicted a world in which many service industry jobs are performed by robots; strangely, the rise of the robot has never been a hotter topic than it is in 2015. However, once again, the focus has moved away from ease of lifestyle and consumption and towards a healthier planet.

Robotic exoskeletons help baggage handlers at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to lift heavy luggage by detecting movement and providing battery-powered assistance. The same technology, it is hoped, could soon allow paralyzed people to walk. In hospitals, meanwhile, robotic surgical systems help surgeons to perform highly-complex but minimally invasive surgery.

Smart homes

The McFlys’ Hill Valley home in 2015 would have been almost unrecognizable to 80s audiences, but many of its modcons are indeed everyday items in today’s homes. The giant flatscreen TV that allowed video calls was fairly close to the wafer-thin HD smart TVs that now give viewers access to Netflix, Skype and more through their TV screen; they can also provide ambient light according to the colors on screen and 3D experiences in the home.

And then there were the McFlys’ virtual windows that showed different scenes from the outside world — much like those used by modern hospitals where they also mimic natural light cycles — the fingerprint door locks, voice-activated gadgets and, best of all, all these devices seemed to magically talk together in these pre-internet days.

Today, we call this the ‘smart home’ or, better still, ‘caring home’ technology; and while practical applications such as app-controlled door locks are becoming increasingly common, it’s again in personal health that connected smart home devices are excelling. Think app-controlled smart air purifiers, thermostats and fire alarms that automatically adapt to the seasons and your home usage; wifi connected home appliances that make it faster and easier to cook healthily for your family, and home lighting that can turn off and on automatically as you arrive or leave home and can produce the perfect lighting to imitate sunset and sunrise helping your body and mind get closer to their natural circadian rhythms.

“Great Scott!” is what Doc Brown might have said if he’d realized that the future — as predicted by 1989 Hollywood — would, in many ways, come true by 2015. But we should be grateful that, rather than the inane gadgetry for its own sake that appeared in Back to the Future 2, we have a world filled with innovators who are passionate about creating a better, healthier and more sustainable planet. Oh, and we should also all be grateful that those double ties never took off!