We Were Promised Jet Packs (and a Whole Lot More)

When will technology catch up to the movies?

We Were Promised Jet Packs (and a Whole Lot More)
Illustration by Terri Lord

Scanning the South by Southwest band list, you may have noticed a group called We Were Promised Jetpacks. Yes, science fiction has promised us a lot of things now past their make-believe due dates, jet packs chief among them. We've been hearing similar protests since at least the year 2000, when, in our popular imagination, the future was scheduled to arrive in the form of teleportation and hover cars by some movies' estimates. Think of all the times you've heard someone cry, "Where the invisibility cloaks at?" Shoot, we don't even have the nail-polish changer from Total Recall. It's 2009, and certain expectations have not been met.

Question: Who is going to answer for this? Answer: the speakers on the Minority Report is Real panel, who will narrow their focus to how the sexy data interfaces pictured in movies inspire their real-life counterparts and vice versa. Which technological promises have the movies made good on? What did we get?

We were promised holograms, dynamic ones. Star Trek's holodeck sits at the top of my own wish list. Wikipedia lovingly describes it as "an enclosed room in which objects and people are simulated by a combination of replicated matter, tractor beams, and shaped force fields onto which holographic images are projected." You know, virtual reality. Information visualization's holy grail is out of this world and just as far out of reach. For now, video goggles are the best science has to offer. Expecting the holodeck to reach fruition in our lifetime is probably unrealistic. Then again, that's the whole point.

We're all familiar with R2-D2's holographic projection of Princess Leia's cry for help. Those who watched CNN's election-night coverage might have noticed something similar: news anchors joining the broadcast "via hologram," complete with bluish haze. Bloggers were quick to point out that these weren't true holograms but rather a camera trick utilizing hologram technology. In the studio, Wolf Blitzer was actually speaking to a cardboard cutout. But experts say true holographic transmissions are on the horizon.

Or consider the touch screen, now in wide release via the iPhone. We've grown accustomed to the practice of manipulating information by pinching and swiping at it. Now imagine similar gestures in tandem with the "touchless" screen in Minority Report. With the aid of Wii-like gloves, Tom Cruise remotely conducts an orchestra of information whizzing along on a nearby display. The exercise resembles a new form of sign language, which we could soon learn, because we're getting those gloves. See, the science adviser for the film actually created a comparable interface, though it isn't exactly ready for beta. See Oblong.com for a demo. The street date for this technology isn't until 2054, the year in which the film takes place. So the mouse hasn't gone the way of the buffalo yet. But we appear to be ahead of schedule.

You can't talk about movie technologies without talking about the Bond franchise. These movies sure do feature some foxy gadgets. Can we buy that stuff yet? In the latest installment, Quantum of Solace, British intelligence trace-marked bills by placing them on a multitouch screen table, which recognizes the currency then displays its travels worldwide on the tabletop. "Impress me," says M, Bond's boss lady. Multitouch – and indeed, very impressive – hand swipes commence. That technology is already here in the form of the Microsoft Surface, a multitouch screen coffee table now commercially available. Though not as sleek as its movie kin, the Surface is fundamentally the same science featured in Children of Men and The Island, among other films set in a not-so-distant future.

These handsome data interfaces promise to drive the panel's conversation. Do the motion-graphics artists of the movies inspire software engineers to invent, or, in the case of Minority Report, do the engineers guide the artists? Expect the panel to answer those questions, preferably on a SMART Board.

By now, We Were Promised Jetpacks has probably seen video of the man who crossed the English Channel by jet pack late last year. Yes, he had to depart by plane and land by parachute. The technology is not yet Rocketeer-grade. But crossing 22 miles of ocean in less than 10 minutes is nothing to sneeze at. No word yet on whether or not the pilot had William Shatner's infamous rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man" piped into his helmet.

Related Panel

Minority Report Is Real

Friday, March 13, 2-3pm, Room 12AB

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Minority Report, touch screen, hologram, Microsoft Surface, Quantum of Solace, data interface

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