Back to the Future: Five Fictional Technologies That Became Real in 2015

In November of 1989, Back to the Future II was released, depicting a future chock full of things such as 3D movies, video chat systems, unmanned drones, and of course, hoverboards. While the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, says that the movie wasn’t meant to be an accurate prediction of the future, technology has been making tremendous strides in making the fictional future become a reality.

1. 3D Movies and Retro Reboots

In Marty McFly’s 2015, the blockbuster hit was Max Spielberg’s holographic film, Jaws 19. And while Jaws may not have quite that many titles to its name in the real world, many cinemas have at least one theatre dedicated to a 3D movie at any given time. Some of the biggest 3D films of the year include Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions, and The Fantastic Four. The Jurassic Park, Terminator, Star Wars, and Mad Max franchises also released new movies this year, all of which also included 3D viewing options; so while Jaws may not have made it, other popular 80s/early 90s movies are still going strong.

2. Commercial Drones

At the end of November this year, Amazon released a video of an unmanned, unpiloted delivery drone dropping off a package. While it’s not ready for active duty any time soon, an estimated amount of 1 million drones were purchased over the holidays, instigating the FAA to push for drone related rules, regulations, and registration. This technology has far reaching potential, especially since many other industries are investing in drone usage as well, including insurance and realty, agriculture, and aeronautics.

3. Hoverboards and Futuristic Scooters

No futuristic sci-fi world is complete without hoverboards. But how realistic are they? There are three working models in existence right now, but they’re still primarily just prototypes. The Lexus and Hendo hoverboards both use electromagnetism to suspend the board above the ground; however, because of the magnets involved, they only work on very specific surfaces. The Lexus also requires that liquid nitrogen be injected into the board in order to keep the magnets extremely cold. This also means that the board leaves a trail of steam as it moves along. It’s not particularly effective in terms of practical use, but it sure does look cool. As for the third model, the Omni hoverboard, it does actually work on any surface! It uses air propulsion, much like a helicopter, to lift itself up and navigate. The only problem is that it requires large amounts of energy in order to pull this off, and the battery packs are heavy, unwieldy, and are only good for a few minutes of use.

On the other hand, electric hands-free scooters are beginning to make their way onto the market. Companies like Swagway and Hovertrax make scooters for about $500 each while high end scooters like the IO Hawk and Ninebot are over $1000. And you really wouldn’t want to spend any less than that, as cheaper scooterboards use cheaper battery packs and chargers that are prone to exploding. On top of that, laws regarding the scooters are minimal and often conflicting. For example, hands-free scooters are outright banned in New York City, while California will soon be passing legislation that allows them to be used in bike lanes and highways with speed limits under 35 MPH.

They see me roll on my swagway. Patrollin’, they try to catch me riding dirty. Image courtesy of swagway.com.

4. Virtual Reality

While hoverboards haven’t quite gotten off the ground yet, Virtual Reality systems, another Back to the Future gadget, have been making tremendous strides since the 90s! At CES, the largest consumer tech show of the year, over 40 exhibitors will be showing off VR systems, along with other gaming hardware and accessories. While there’s no word yet if the Oculus Rift, probably the biggest name in VR technology right now, is going to be on the showfloor, it is set to launch sometime in 2016.

Speaking of the Oculus Rift, a Japanese startup called Adawarp intends to release a Virtual Reality Teddy Bear by the end of 2016. This isn’t just a case of exploring a new world through a headset — users will be able to control the motions of the teddy bear while seeing and hearing a room through the bear’s perspective. So far, the motorized stuffed animal can turn its head left and right as the user turns their head, and its arm are controlled by an X-Box controller, but its creator, Tatsuki Adaniya, hopes to eventually replace it with motion sensors to make its movements less robotic.

Meanwhile, in Germany, in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) lab at the Hasso Plattner Institute, developers are working on creating a Virtual Reality accessory that allows the user to feel virtual impacts. Right now, the system is made up of a small wristband which will deliver a tap to the skin, and a pair of electrodes that stimulate the wearer’s muscles, causing them to react reflexively. The theory is that being hit in a VR game and not feeling any feedback from it will break immersion, and that simulating sensation will provide a better overall experience. So far, the Impacto is just a proof of concept prototype, and really only works for “impacts” of 200 milliseconds or less, such as getting punched or hit with an object. Developers are hopeful that with some fine tuning, they’ll be able to mimic longer sensations.

Meanwhile, Google thinks all this new technology is a little excessive, and that all you need for a good Virtual Reality system is your smartphone and a cardboard box. That’s right, a cardboard box. Granted, the Google Cardboard comes with a few extra pieces, such lenses and a button that will interact with a phone’s touchscreen, but at less than $10 a kit, Google is certainly doing away with all the fancy bells and whistles. They want to make Virtual Reality accessible to everyone, as new way of experiencing videos and adding a new dimension of teaching to the classroom. This is a smart move for Google, as much of the hardware being produced for the Oculus Rift, and the Rift itself, is fairly expensive, making it difficult to put in the hands of the masses. The main problem now lies in Virtual Reality technology itself.

The sleek and high tech Google Cardboard model, courtesy of google.com/get/cardboard.

While today’s headsets are a vast improvement over those of the 90s, in regard to both responsiveness, and picture quality, it’s still not quite perfect yet. Although the Oculus Rift has reduced the lag between a person’s movement and the picture feedback to less than 20 milliseconds, some movements can still cause discomfort and nausea. This is a greater problem for Google Cardboard, which relies on the capabilities of a smartphone, but since Google does own the Android line of cellphones, what this probably means is that smartphone motion sensors and displays will see great improvements over the upcoming year,

5. Self-Driving Cars

So what about self-driving cars? Once again, Google is the company name leading the race, with Ford soon to be coming in close behind. At the CES show in January, the same one all the big name VR companies are bringing their wares to, Google and Ford will be formally announcing a partnership to produce self-driving cars. While Google’s “bubble” cars have been in the image of self-driving vehicles for some time, soon, auto-piloted cars may look no different from every other car on the road.

But Google and Ford aren’t the only big names on the road. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Volvo, and of course Tesla are all testing models with some degree of hands-free driving available. In 2017, GM is hoping to roll out a Cadillac with a system called Super Cruise, a hands-free option that operates only on the highway. In fact, most automobile manufacturers are aiming for the high-way only option: Google is the only company that has announced that it’s going full throttle for 100% hands-free vehicles. So far, Google’s fleet of test cars has performed admirably, but there’s one major concern that has nothing to do with safety: the cost of production.

The friendliest Sunday driver you’ll ever want to get stuck behind! Image courtesy of Motortrend.com.

Right now, Google’s self-driving cars use lidar, or light radar, which uses lasers to detect objects and map out the car’s position on the road. Lidar technology is incredibly precise and accurate, however it’s also incredibly expensive. One lidar unit costs a whopping $50,000 each, more than the price of most standard cars today. Velodyne, one of the major lidar producers, has stated that it intends to reduce the price to $8,000, a 84% reduction in price, but will it be enough?

Not to George Hotz, an independant hacker, known for being the first person to hack an iPhone and Sony’s PS3. This year, shortly before Thanksgiving, he hacked his 2016 Acura ILX using a lidar system, a camera mounted rearview mirror, a 21.5 inch screen, and a wireless keyboard. The hack was for highway operation only, much like Tesla’s autopilot feature and GM’s Super Cruise, and the first test run was a little shaky, but Hotz has high hopes and big plans. He hopes to market a camera and software kit that runs the entire hands-free system for just $1000 to automakers, or directly to consumers, if he doesn’t find any takers.

Meanwhile, at the Tokyo Motor Show in early November, Yahama unveiled a new robot named Motobot, a humanoid shaped robot designed to ride motorbikes. While it’s not yet ready to race against a human, it certainly intends to be. As part of the unveiling, it announced that it was created to “surpass you,” referring to MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi. What does this mean for self-driving cars? Yamaha hopes to use the data and information gathered during development to improve safety technology for human riders. This, in turn, can be applied to self-driving cars to help prevent collisions. This is a big concern for many people, as a large number are worried about the potential deaths caused by self-driving cars. Because self-driving cars are programmed to obey traffic laws at all times, human drivers have a habit of, well, running into them.

It turns out that the future doesn’t look all that much like Back to the Future, but then again, it really wasn’t supposed to. Fictional futures, much like Tex Avery’s World of Tomorrow cartoons from the 1950s, or the Star Trek original series of the 1960s, don’t really predict the future so much as they inspire it. As the year 2015 comes to a close, the world of hoverboards and flying cars hasn’t quite made it here yet, but technology grows in leaps and bounds with every passing year.


Originally published at www.deepcoredata.com on December 31, 2015.