Scientists may be bright, but they aren’t the only people capable of thinking up cool inventions. In fact, sometimes inventors need a little inspiration from those with less technical know-how. Although we’re still waiting on the hoverboards from Back to the Future, many of our biggest and most unexpected achievements in technology have come to us thanks in part to out-of-the-box ideas spawned by science fiction authors and filmmakers.
10. The Flip Phone
While it’s hard for many of us to remember a time when people weren’t so attached to cell phones, mobile devices haven’t always been permanent staples. Nor have they always been sleek and convenient — in 1996, Motorola made an effort to improve the cell phone industry by offering the StarTAC flip phone, a small, stylish alternative to other mobile devices. It bore a strong resemblance to the clamshell communicators on Star Trek and was the first cellular phone to provide a vibration mode. It was also the lightest phone on the market at the time.
Although StarTAC users couldn’t quite play Angry Birds, it was a huge improvement from existing technology. Martin Cooper, Motorola’s director of research and development, said that the objective in creating the first mobile phone, released in the 1970s, was to create a design similar to that of the phones on Star Trek. Which, ironically, are now vastly inferior to our own.
9. The Taser
Long gone are the days when police only used Tasers to incapacitate hooligans. Inspired by a concept Jules Verne proposed in the 1700s, Taser International’s wireless projectile Taser shotgun bullet is truly something out of science fiction. However, even the standard Taser has sci-fi origins.
Jack Cover, inventor of the Taser, was inspired by science fiction stories produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a company that churned out books for young adults. Their stories featured several inventions that later became realities, such as the “photo telephone,” or modern fax machine, and a “house on wheels,” which predated the modern mobile home. Cover figured that if authors could invent something, so could he. “Taser” is short for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electronic Rifle,” a homage to a character in one of Cover’s favorite novels. Without the Stratemeyer Syndicate and authors like Jules Verne to excite researchers, we might not have devices like Tasers.
We’ve all seen someone flicking through a tablet computer in public over the last few years. However, tablets were thought of long before they really existed. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured touch-based tablets called PADDS, short for “personal access display devices.” Sound familiar? They resemble the tablet computers we use today. However, the show’s art director, Matt Jefferies, created the tablet-like PADDS as an improvisation because his department had a small budget.
Throughout the course of the show the device remained believable, as everything it could potentially do was a product of high-tech software. Like the tablets of today, Star Trek’s mobile computers featured smooth hardware and impressive software. However, since they weren’t really functional, the PADDS’ visuals were primarily accomplished through editing. As a result, simple tasks that seem like second nature to us today, like zooming in and out on an iPad, took time in post-production. If only tablet computers existed when The Next Generation was produced, the show could have saved time and money in the editing room.
7. Universal Translators
Today, anyone can whip out a smartphone, select the right app, and have a passable conversation with a stranger in just about any foreign country. However, universal translators have permeated science fiction for a lot longer than they’ve actually existed in the real world. In 1945, Murray Leinster’s novella First Contact was one of the first stories to boast instant universal translators. Later, Star Trek included its own device. Even Douglas Adams included a universal translator, the babel fish, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Fortunately, real-life researchers have been working at making these fictional devices possibilities. At 2014’s Code Conference, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella announced the Skype Translator, a new feature that aims to bring diverse people together. Microsoft is keeping quiet about how many languages the Skype Translator will cover, but the technology behind universal translation exists and is rapidly growing.
6. Holographic Communicators
While the Star Wars series inspired the research of life-changing technology ranging from lightsabers to warp drives, it also inspired the creation of more practical, everyday gadgets like holographic communicators. Ostendo Technologies Inc. has developed a tiny projector that can be placed in devices like mobile phones, TVs, tablets, and even smart watches. Ostendo’s projector allows people to see 3D images without 3D glasses — eventually, this technology could be used to send holographic communications just like in Star Wars.
Messaging as we know it could evolve as a result of this research. Much of our communication is expressed non-verbally — there are simply things that you can’t adequately communicate with just your voice or text. The perfection of Ostendo’s research could mark a huge transformation in the effectiveness of communication technology. Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and other companies are also researching holograms. HP even affectionately named their study Project Leia.
5. House Cleaning Robots
Robots programmed to complete chores are no strangers to science fiction — partly because people have fantasized about someone else doing their housework for centuries. Luckily, house cleaning robots are no longer exclusive to The Jetsons. Even though the robots cleaning your home might not have as much personality, they’re definitely effective. Massachusetts-based company iRobot delivered its line of vacuum cleaners to curious consumers in 2002. Their devices minimize the effort needed to clean, and scheduling systems integrated into many robotic cleaners create peace of mind. Unless your have a cleaning emergency, you won’t need to tell the machines what to do and when to do it. And as far as products like the Roomba go, very little maintenance is involved. Typically, consumers only need to empty the vacuum’s dustbin when it’s full.
iRobot has also released robotic gutter cleaners, mops, and pool cleaners. Of course, robots in science fiction have had other jobs as well. In Terminator robots serve as soldiers. In Robot and Frank, robots help to care for the elderly. What will the robots of our future be able to do?
4. Floppy Disks and USB Drives
Hardly anyone uses floppy disks anymore, but Star Trek played a role in inspiring digital portable storage. The characters inserted small, square disks into computer consoles in order to save information. Although not as small or convenient as modern or fictional storage devices, the 3.5-inch floppy disks popular in the 1980s and ’90s were very much similar to the technology used on the show. Portable storage techniques continued to develop on Star Trek: The Next Generation, partly due to an effort to keep the series’ fictional technology evolving alongside real world technology. For example, the show featured chips that could store several gigabytes of data. USB drives can store amounts of information comparable to the chips on the show, which is much, much more data than our old floppy disks could hold. In fact, USB drives can now store a terabyte of information, proving that reality is still capable of surpassing fiction.
In 1995, thirty years after the concept debuted on Star Trek, the United States deemed a Global Positioning System a functional concept. America launched 27 Earth-orbiting satellites in order to test it. From then on, GPS technology has continued to evolve. Today, GPS systems in cell phones serve commonplace tasks like locating travel destinations and helping stores figure out the patterns in which customers move.
Although Star Trek influenced the invention of many vital devices, author Arthur C. Clarke did some inspiring of his own in 1956. His writing about satellites encouraged the development of high-speed communication systems. These communication systems are responsible for everything from letting you talk to people on your cell phone to finding your current location. On Star Trek, the Enterprise crew was located on the ground and beamed up by using GPS. However, without a little inspiration from people like Clarke, no one would have had the chance to say, “Beam me up, Scotty.”
2. Diagnostic Bed
Ever wish you could avoid back-to-back doctor’s appointments, invasive diagnostic surgeries, and unpleasant tests? Ever hope that one day you could simply lie in bed and get a surefire diagnosis? Well, your day has come — at one British hospital, you can do all of these things. The hospital’s space-age sickbay detects illnesses ranging from stomach viruses to cancer.
The machine itself contains an astounding variety of equipment, including parts of probes designed for Mars missions. The technology is compared to the scanners that Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy swept in front of bodies to diagnose illnesses. The real-world technology relies on state-of-the-art imaging systems and diagnoses disease by honing in on sights, sounds and smells. The best part about it? None of the diagnostic tools used by this technology are invasive. Unfortunately, unlike with Dr. McCoy’s invention, patients using the diagnostic bed still need to be hooked up to equipment for monitoring.
Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 predicted that society would be addicted to media and entertainment. The book proposed that along with television, “thimble radios” and “seashells,” which are essentially earbuds, would be how people sought out their information. These devices would occupy people with sounds, music, and talk shows. A society not permitted to read needs some kind of pastime, right?
Even though the story was published in 1953, it predicted numerous forms of technology, many of which are common today. Walls of televisions emphasized how technology addiction affected the characters living in Bradbury’s dystopia. A glance around any college campus will prove that people are hooked to their earbuds. Although books haven’t been banned, people today are absorbed in technology — only now, the TVs and radios that call us away from our loved ones can fit in the palms of our hands.