Fact from fiction: how sci-fi has shaped innovation

What was once science fiction, is now reality

For decades, science fiction has inspired real-world innovation. Stories from great minds like Isaac Asimov have helped society imagine far-off futures in which humans use unrealistic gadgets and gizmos far beyond current-state capabilities.

More and more, these gimmicks become reality, developed by scientists and engineers who are directly influenced by ideas first introduced in sci-fi content. With the recent passing of another National Science Fiction Day, there is no better time to highlight examples of real technologies that were once fiction.   

Born in Space

Going back to the 1970s, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes have both sparked innovation through their creative depictions of futuristic technologies. Martin Cooper, creator of the first personal cell phone, cites Captain Kirk’s portable communicator as his source of inspiration. The show also provided early takes on numerous other technologies, including GPS, teleconferencing, and tablet computers.

Samsung has reportedly developed a phone screen that can project high-quality, 3D holograms, much like how R2D2 did in “Star Wars: Episode IV” to share Princess Leia’s iconic distress message. Although not commercially available yet, the technology could surface with the company’s next Galaxy smartphone.

The Internet, Virtual Reality, and Hacking

Over 30 years ago, William Gibson published his novel, “Neuromancer,” which told the story of a young hacker who lived in a world in which humans could plug into a global computer network called the “matrix.” Although set in a dystopian society, Gibson’s story depicts cyberspace, cybercrime, and virtual reality in a way that feels familiar to what we experience today.

The 2003 Tom Cruise film, “Minority Report,” popularized the concept of gesture-based user interfaces that can respond to slight user movements. Today, we can pinch, swipe, and scroll screens on smart devices to easily navigate and execute actions in a similar fashion. Household entertainment consoles such as the Wii and Xbox Kinect also enabled players to experience gesture-based user interfaces in their own living rooms.

Pioneered by Heroes

Dating back to 1946, comic hero and police detective, Dick Tracy, used a two-way wristwatch radio to communicate with others in the police force. Nearly 75 years later, millions of people wear smartwatches, sending and receiving digital information from their wrists.

Marvel’s Iron Man character is known for his high-powered, armored suit embedded with augmented reality and artificial intelligence capabilities. The U.S. military’s TALOS (tactical assault light operator suit) robotic exoskeleton is modeled in much the same way, giving wearers greater strength and perception. The TALOS suit is set to go into testing Summer 2019.

In the 1982 television show, “Knight Rider,” David Hasselhoff fights crime with the help of KITT, an AI-powered driverless car. Today, many of the world’s most innovative companies are investing heavily in autonomous driving technology, recognizing the efficiencies and safety benefits of smart, self-driving vehicles.

The Future Becoming the Past

Undoubtedly, science fiction has planted the seeds of innovation for many technologies that we interact with and use today on a daily basis. Although many are executed differently than how they were originally envisioned, we have generations of sci-fi nerds to thank for some of the coolest and most impactful innovations of our time.