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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

HOW 8 SCIENCE FICTION GADGETS ARE BECOMING REALITY


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How 8 Sci-Fi Gadgets Are Becoming Reality
By John Brandon,
Popular Mechanics, 20 July 2012.

Muscle-toned vigilantes have all the cool tech toys these days. But while we don't know all the details about the amazing quadcopter in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, we do know where filmmakers often look for inspiration: defense contractors. In fact, many of the fantastic creations from the most famous summer movie franchises turn into real gadgets and tech.

1. Movie Tech: Total Recall's Robotaxi
Real Tech: 2GetThere robotaxis used in Masdar City, United Arab Emirates

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Remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger climbed into a robotaxi in the original Total Recall? Yes, I'm trying to forget that scene as well, especially since there's no reason to have an automaton "driving" the vehicle other than comic relief.

Today, if you visit built-from-scratch Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, you can hop into a real robotaxi. A European company called 2GetThere runs a fleet of 10 autonomous taxis transporting 25,000 people per month. Granted, the drive-by-wire cars follow a prescribed route in a closed city without any other traffic, so they won't get quite as creative with navigation as a New York City cabbie. But Google and others are trying to bring us a future of true self-driving cars, whether we're ready for it or not.

2. Movie Tech: The Avengers's Holographic Displays
Real Tech: Head-up display on windshields

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Throughout The Avengers, Iron Man taps on videos, swipes through screens, and adjusts sliders on his holographic displays. Tech labs around the world are trying to build Tony Stark's technology, but the closest thing we have in production today is actually the 2012 BMW 3-Series. As you're driving, you can see your current speed, the posted speed, and an arrow pointing the way for navigation. The display for speed has been around for several years - it's even in a Buick LaCrosse. GM is experimenting with pop-up displays on the windshield, too, and there's a pop-up HUD on many modern warplanes. They work by emitting an image at an angle above the dash that you perceive as floating in space.

If you want a pedestrian augmented-reality experience, though, you might have to wait for the consumer version of Google Glass.

3. Movie Tech: Prometheus's Real-Time Mapping Orb
Real Tech: Google Street View handheld for local mapping

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Prometheus might be a muddle of freshman-level philosophy and stoner big ideas, but at least it has some cool tech. When the ship's crew reaches the caverns of an ancient alien alcove, they throw a batch of floating orbs that fly through hallways and into rooms, recording everything they see to make a holographic map.

Google Street View might be the closest real-life analogue, with its armada of cars that drive every public roadway to snap panoramic images. The Mountain View search giant even sends out bikes, snowmobiles, and occasionally a portable cart. Street View project is an intense geo-mapping exercise, because the images are tried directly to GPS coordinates, but Google has also mapped the interior of buildings such as Las Vegas casinos.

It's not entirely clear what technology the Prometheus mapping orbs use, but it appears to be less like Google's cameras and perhaps more like the lidar that, for example, satellites use to map the topography of glaciers.

4. Movie Tech: Minority Report's Face Scanner
Real Tech: Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

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It's amazing to consider that when Minority Report came out in 2002, there really wasn't a consumer version of a biometric face scanner - the kind that knows who you are when you walk through a mall or sit down at your computer. (Biometric technology for scanning your face was available in a lab at the time, though. At least, you couldn't use one to log in to your smartphone or your laptop.)

Today, face scanning is available on everything from the new Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook to many Android phones, including the Samsung Galaxy SIII. To use the scanner, you just sit still for a moment and look at the camera. The detector scans your face and examines your nose, the distance between your eyes, and the shape of your cheeks. Unfortunately, face scanning is not perfectly accurate yet. If someone who looks like you tries to break into your phone or laptop, the biometric reader will probably grant him or her access.

5. Movie Tech: Red Planet's Flexible Display
Real Tech: Corning Willow Glass

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I still remember watching this B-lever sci-fi action flick way back in 2000 and thinking of the flexible display as a far-flung-future concept. Since then, tech companies have made a lot of noise about flex displays. And today we're getting close.

Corning just announced a new Willow Glass material that is paper-thin, bends easily and could work for an electronic reader. Unlike the rolled-up display in the movie, Willow Glass might be a thin sheet you use more like a tablet and stow away in your laptop backpack. The rumour mill that heats up in advance of any Apple launch is even suggesting flexible display tech on a 2013 iPhone.

6. Movie Tech: Star Trek's Replicator
Real Tech: HP DesignJet 3D Printer

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No, we don't yet have a device that can magically deliver you a cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot. But the 3D-printing revolution is helping to realize the idea of quickly fabricating an object on demand as long as the plans for it are already available.

For now, most of the objects you can produce are hard plastic parts that can be assembled into a model. But the costs are high for the casual hobbyist. And there's a complicated process involved with creating the materials for replication. But there are simpler, less expensive 3D printers coming out.

And if you wanted to go from a real-life object to digital, rather than the other way around, there are new systems such as the $400 HP TopShot. You can place an object on the scanning surface and snap a 3D photo. Those objects, which look like they were produced in a photo studio, can then be used on websites. The scanner combines six different images to make the 3D photo.

Bonus points to Star Trek: The Next Generation for anticipating the iPad too.

7. Movie Tech: Iron Man's Exoskeleton
Real Tech: RB3D Hercule


For years now the U.S. military has been trying to build exoskeleton prototypes. The idea is for soldiers to wear a robotic frame that improves strength and endurance. The RB3D Hercule is supposed to be available by 2014. When wearing the device, which is fitted to your legs, you could easily lift about 200 pounds, perform menial tasks in the garage without as much effort, and gain endurance for long hikes or climbing a mountain. The bot lasts about 12.5 hours on a charge and does not require any training to use, since it augments the normal movement of a human.

8. Movie Tech: The Dark Knight Rises's Aircraft, the Bat
Real Tech: Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

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Like pretty much everyone, we're champing at the bit to see the newest Batman movie, and we're particularly keen to see the quadcopter-like flying vehicle, called the Bat, that shows up in the last part of the new The Dark Knight Rises trailer.

There's nothing quite like it on earth - yet. For now, if you want to try something with four rotors, that flies to insane heights, and that can be controlled with your iPad, we recommend the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The 22-inch, 4.6-pound drone can record 720p video and snap photos, plus there's a new feature in the app for performing flips.



[Source: Popular Mechanics. Edited. Top image and some links added.]


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