By Howard Shirley, Teen Department
Last time we reviewed the predictions that Back to the Future II got completely wrong, such as the computerized celebrity waiters, dust resistant paper, self-fitting clothes, and weather control. Now we’re going to look at the predictions that were almost right (different technology with the same purpose, technology that has almost the same function, ect.), as well as the technology predictions that are absolutely correct.
Flying Cars. This, of course, is the biggie (if you don’t count time machines, which we didn’t have in 1985 or 1989, either). And though a perennial favorite of science fiction and future predictions, we still don’t have our flying cars. But we do have “driveable planes,” like the Transition, an aircraft with folding wings and four wheels. Designed to comply with road safety regulations, it’s intended as an airplane which can be driven home on ordinary roads and parked in a garage. Rather than a car that flies, it’s a plane that drives; it still needs an airport for takeoffs and landings, and requires a pilot’s license to operate. So a true “flying car” that one simply hops in and takes off into the air whenever and wherever is still a fantastic dream. BUT there is something a lot closer which may soon be available– the hoverbike. Demonstrated a few years ago, a hoverbike consists of two large horizontal counter-rotating fans, on top of which is mounted a saddle-seat like a motorcycle. Supposedly simple to operate and fly, the device has been featured in a number of videos, and even appears briefly in an advertisement for Honda (who bought the design from its inventors). Thought the videos only depict the hoverbike operating a few feet over the ground, the vehicle could achieve heights of several thousand feet, making it, if not a flying car, a flying motorcycle. Can you get one? Well, not yet, though rumor has it the device is being considered as an expensive luxury sport item. It may not be headed to your garage, but if you know any billionaires, maybe they’ll give you a ride one day.
Flying signs. The “skyways” of 2015 America don’t appear much different from the roads of 2015—congested, confusing, and marked by signs… only these signs can fly, hovering in place in the flight paths of the flying cars we don’t have. Some even offer advertisements, like billboards without posts. Well, not having flying cars, we obviously don’t have (or need) flying signs. But could advertising drones be far away? Like planes flying over beaches and sporting events, pulling signs touting local diners, drones could easily carry similar signs, or even hover in place. No one has done this yet, but it’s certainly possible… though we might end up wishing it wasn’t.
Doc Browns’ visor glasses. At the start of the film, Doc Brown hops in his now fusion-powered flying Delorean and flips down a set of opaque sliver glasses, which presumably he can see through. Although how they work is never shown, Doc’s visor appears to transmit visual information to him while driving, not unlike a “heads up” display used by military helicopter pilots. In a way, it’s a combination camera and information device. Remember Google’s infamous attempt to introduce “Google Glasses?” Instantly ridiculed by comedians and amateur YouTube productions, these modern version of Doc’s visor provoked such strong reactions against “secret spying” as to lead some bars and restaurants to ban Google Glasses before they even got started. Ironically, the same capabilities are present in just about any common smart phone– perhaps spying from one’s hand is more acceptable than spying from one’s head? (In an ironic twist, a few of the comic videos depicted male Glasses wearers taking secret photos of women and calculating “vital statistics.” This appears to be a feature of Doc Brown’s binoculars later in the film. As he tracks the movements of Marty’s future son, the binoculars keep shifting an “aiming” crosshair to women who walk past the boy, with numbers spinning briefly into view, implying that Doc is a bit of a voyeur. This also echoes Marty’s father’s teenage Peeping Tom misadventure in the first film.)
Self-tying shoes. Not to be outdone by the jacket, Marty’s 2015 sneakers (Nike, no less), lace themselves with a button push. The dream of boys everywhere (and exasperated parents), this little wonder of the future is, alas, not here… yet. Nike itself has promised to release exact replicas of Marty’s shoes, complete with powered self-lacing feature, this year in honor of the film. Replica versions of the sneakers, without the automatic laces, are already available (and they still look funky and futuristic, thirty years later). But as yet, the dream has not been realized, though sources insist that Nike is on track. After all, there are twelve months in 2015, and the movie is set in October.
Self-drying clothes. Another dream of boys and anyone caught in a sudden shower, Marty’s outfit suddenly turns into a full-body dryer after he falls in a pond. Inflating like a balloon to the whir of hidden fans, the jacket blasts itself and Marty with air, declaring within seconds (in a computer voice like a video game) “Clothes dry.” Leaving aside how hot the air would have to be to fully dry clothes in less than five seconds, one begins to wonder how much these things must weigh to hold all the motors, batteries, and other components to perform the functions shown. Certainly no such self-drying wonders exist. However, polymer technology has produced coatings that shed water completely. Liquids, oils, even dust pour off treated surfaces like ball bearings rolling out of a pan. Already available in paint (bars in Germany coat exterior walls to discourage public, uh, “relief,” as any liquid simply ricochets back on its source), this technology could produce clothes which would never get wet in the first place (or even dirty).
Automatic beverage dispenser at a restaurant. Marty encounters this device in the local diner (the same spot where a diner existed in 1955). Repeating a standard product-placement from the original film, Marty orders a Pepsi (ironically, not the “Pepsi Free” product of the 1985 film, which had been renamed in 1987. Amusingly, what had been Marty’s preferred drink the day before no longer existed the next morning, when the second film begins!). Regardless of flavor, the restaurant counter opens and a bottle of Pepsi pops up, suitably surrounded by a cool mist. It’s practically an ad, and reminiscent of the Pepsi commercials of the era. Ad or not, cool or not, instant-Pepsi counters don’t exist that I know of. And, really, there doesn’t seem to be much point to this “advancement” over an ordinary vending machine or a refrigerated cabinet. Of course, self-serve sodas are a staple, and new computerized “mix your own soda” systems have become popular in some fast food restaurants. Also, some fast food restaurants use automated drink systems that dispense cup, ice, liquid and lid for their drive thru lines. So label this one a “sort of.”
Upside down soda bottles. Of course, issuing an ordinary Pepsi bottle from 1985 would not do for a futuristic film. So instead, Marty’s drink appears in a bottle that is, apparently, upside down, with the lid or cap on the bottom (ooo, that futuristic design!). This spectacularly nonsensical idea has not arrived, to no one’s real surprise. However, the concept has been applied to thicker semi-liquid products like ketchup and mustard, and some shower products as well. Instead of having to turn the bottle over and shake or pound it to get the product to slowly drain its way to the opening and onto a burger, the upside down bottle has the product already at the opening, ready to ooze onto your meal. The future is here!
Hoverbelt / brace. This device is shown as an aid for the elderly and (presumably the disabled) to help them move around. No such technology exists, or appears likely too. But several steps have been made in developing wheel chairs that will “stand up.” And maybe the Segway two-wheeled electric scooter counts as a similar approach?
Scenic window. Not so much, but giant, flat screen TVs exist, and images of all types can be easily produced, and DVDs of all sorts of repeating scenes are available. So if you want your TV to show you a garden or an ocean view or a crackling fire, you can find it.
Smart binoculars. I mentioned these in the discussion of Doc’s visor, so I’ll return to them here. In the film, the device looks a little like an iPhone with a wide edge, only Doc peers through the edge rather than using a screen. The binoculars are revealed to have a built-in “heads up” style display that provides information about whatever (or whoever) is being viewed. In some ways, this may be similar to military tech already in use (like the previously mentioned pilot’s helmets) — and of course, the infamous Google glasses. The capabilities of the device do look like a possible feature in a smart phone camera. We certainly have telephoto lenses and computer magnification available, serving a very similar purpose. Cameras also have “face” trackers that attempt to isolate faces to help provide proper focusing and framing for the eventual photo. So perhaps all the smart phones have out-guessed the futurism of the film. In some ways, Doc’s fancy binoculars seem almost quaint.
Trash robot. Cute and simple, this is basically a roving trash can that picks up street debris. While we don’t have those, we certainly do have creations like the Roomba robot vacuum cleaners and floor scrubbers, eagerly roving around homes and businesses, performing pretty much the same purpose.
Dog walking drones. Arriving at his future neighborhood, Marty sees a hovering small saucer, a bit like a drone, holding the leash of a large dog; it’s a flying dog-walking robot. As it turns out, we do have drones. And we do have dog-walking robots (yes, really: http://theweek.com/articles/484714/luna-really-need-dogwalking-robot). But alas, the glorious wonders of the dog-walking drone have not yet appeared on the scene.
Laser discs as recycled trash. Everywhere you look in the future, you see giant reflective laser discs, gathered up in bales like stacks of recycled cardboard. Remember the laser disc? They were like CDs or DVDs, only as big a round as a vinyl record (okay, you post ‘90s types, bigger than a Frisbee). Once the Blu-ray of the day, clearly in 1989 people thought the laser disc would become as ubiquitous as, as, well as the DVD players which completely replaced them became. The irony of the scene is that, yes, laser discs were indeed destined to become trash, but within about ten years, not thirty, and there appear to be more laser discs in the town of Hilldale in 2015 than were probably sold in LA for the entire 1980s. So while the giant laser discs are indeed gone from the scene, they were never really all that much in the scene to begin with. Still, the smaller and far more ubiquitous CD/DVD/Blu-Ray disc might be on the way out thanks to downloadable digital music and video products. But the physical medium for holding artistic content still remains popular, and unlikely to vanish quite yet. Sure, CDs and DVDs do wind up in the trash, but that’s because we have so many of them that they’re easily replaced, not that anyone has stopped using them at all.
Bionic implants. Briefly mentioned in the film (and implied to be faulty), bionic implants are a staple of modern science fiction. Microchip implants have been demonstrated in reality, though not as commercial products. Much opposition to the idea remains, both out of health concerns and fears of what such implants might mean in a period of growing government surveillance and ever more intrepid (and nefarious) computer hackers.
Automatic gardens. Marty’s kitchen has a built-in garden that automatically delivers fresh fruits and vegetables on demand. So far, gardens remain traditional, or people are content to browse the produce section at the local supermarket. But hydroponic technology does offer the possibility of in-home, dirt-free gardens; though having this built into the ceiling seems a bit much.
Hoverboards. The most famous sequence in the film, of course, is the “hoverboard” chase between Marty and the future teenage grandson of his family nemesis, Biff. The chase mimics the skateboard sequence from 1955 from the first film, only the skateboards have been replaced with wheel-less “hoverboards” that float a little less than a foot above ground. This, of course, was probably considered even more fanciful by the film’s makers than even the flying cars, but guess what— hoverboards actually exist. Invented by two scientists just last year, the Hendo hoverboard has famously been demonstrated on YouTube and featured on network news. Unlike Marty’s board, this one only works over a metal floor, and operates on the principle of magnetic induction and repulsion. But it works—hovering a few inches above the surface, riders can spin it, turn it, and even try half-pipe moves. Of course, as a frictionless device it doesn’t operate exactly like a skateboard, as it can slide in any direction, not just forwards and backwards (control is very much an issue). It’s also quite heavy, so jump moves are out; you won’t be flipping this in the air for a kick-move or a 360! But it is a hoverboard and it does work, and you can bet Marty would love to give it a try (Tony Hawk has).
Thumbpad door locks. Access to Marty’s future house is not by keys but by a thumbpad that apparently only recognizes the print of the owners. Locks like this do exist, but the technology hasn’t been brought to the average home in any significant way. However, Apple’s new thumbprint security system for the iPhone 6 could be easily incorporated into “smarthouse” systems and apps to allow thumbprint approval for remote entry and security control. So if you want this “future tech,” you can probably get it.
Giant wall screens. Yep, we got ‘em, if you want to pay for them. (The author personally knows someone with a 72” wall screen. And yes, it’s huge, and yes, he bought it to watch football). Also, the film features multiple images on a single screen , a feature that is quite common, both built into a TV itself or from cable providers.
TV phone. In one scene, the future Marty talks through his giant wall television set (yes, we have those) to both a coworker and his boss. Skype, Facetime and other Internet videoconferencing technologies have made this a common, everyday reality, though we don’t use our televisions, we use our computers. Ironically, the scene ends with the boss sending Marty a firing notice by fax. While we still have these devices, for the most part fax machines have faded from usage, replaced by digital documents, texting and “cloud” computing.
Voice activated lights/houses. Marty’s future house is voice-activated, with a talking computer operating the lights and other features of the home. This can in fact be done, though app-controlled “smart houses” seem to be the new trend, and quite expensive, not something found in the older middle class dwelling the future Marty owns. But any home can take advantage of systems like the Nest programmable thermostat and Nest fire alarm, which offer “intelligent” control of heating and safety systems, with these devices able to detect and respond to human presence. And AT&T (and others) advertises fully digital home control systems that operate everything from the water faucets to the door locks with the slide of finger on a smartphone. If you want Marty’s computer controlled house, you can get it.
Sound device that makes strange noises. These have been readily available as novelty items for years, and sound chips are in things as simple as greeting cards. Some devices and chips are programmable or let you record your own sounds. Of course, these days apps on a smart phone serve the same purpose. The future has clearly jumped well past the movie prediction!
Police computing tablet. In the film, police use an electronic pad to collect information about suspects or individuals, identifying Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (as her future self) and locating her (future) home. This moment is possibly the one truly prescient prediction in the movie, as the iPad and computing tablets like it weren’t even dreamed of in 1989, which was just seeing the advent of viable laptop computers. (Of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation showed viewers the PADD, a small, handheld, flat device about the size and shape of a thin book, as the futuristic replacement for clipboards and books, so the idea of a “computing tablet” was already in the minds of Hollywood science fiction writers). Today, tablet computing offers similar capabilities to the police tablets in BTTF2, and laptops and tablets are used in many police departments by officers both in the office and in the field.
So, there you have it—the future they thought versus the present we got. But perhaps the biggest difference between our present and their imagine future is what the filmmakers missed completely—the ubiquity of the cell phone. Not only are these not in use, they’re not in sight. Instead, their future 2015 still has phone booths. Even Superman can’t find one of those!
By Howard Shirley, Teen Department
1989, the first year of George Bush’s presidency (the father, not the son), the last year of the Reagan decade, and the year that brought the sequel to the blockbuster time travel movie Back to the Future.
In the first film, teenager Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) accidentally travels back in time to 1955, in one of the most unique time travel devices ever filmed—a stainless steel Delorean sports car. Exploring his now retro hometown, Marty inadvertently prevents his parents from meeting, a catastrophe that means he would never be born; unless he sets things right and helps his teenage parents find true love again. Aided by Doc Brown, the time machine’s eccentric inventor, he saves the day and his parents’ future marriage (and, incidentally, transforms their future lives from dull to dreamy). The film ended back in the year 1985, with the Doc Brown character zooming off into the future… and then instantly returning to take Marty (and his teenage girlfriend) to 2015 to save their own kids from that unknown future.
It took four years to find out what that future was—a time of flying cars, home fusion generators, and instant pizza. At least, that’s what the film-makers in 1989 thought the future would be like. Well, 2015 isn’t the future anymore. So what did they get right, and what did they get wrong?
Mr. Fusion home and car nuclear fusion generators. In the first film, the Delorean time machine is powered by a plutonium fission reactor (and, yes, small nuclear reactors are indeed possible and have been built for laboratory use). But when Doc returns from the future, he’s had it fitted with a plastic device resembling a food processor, labelled “Mr. Fusion.” Doc proceeds to stuff it with garbage (a banana peel, beer, and even the beer can), announcing he needs “fuel.” So apparently the future of 2015 was expected to have cheap and easy access to virtually unlimited energy that could produce nuclear fusion from any solid or liquid matter.
Well, nice try, but that’s not here, nor around the corner, nor even probable. As far as we know, nuclear fusion requires very specific isotopes of hydrogen or helium, not something you can unlock in a banana peel. And today’s fusion reactors remain pretty much what they were thirty years ago—immense, expensive and complicated machines that fill entire buildings, and require more energy to ignite than they produce from the fusion process itself. So it seems Mr. Fusion is a complete no go… but maybe not. Lockheed-Martin’s famous Skunk Works research division announced last year a potential way to create relatively inexpensive controlled fusion reactions without the massive power requirements which have so far been necessary (and have rendered fusion untenable as an energy solution). Lockheed expects to produce a viable, economically feasible fusion power plant that could fit on the back of a flatbed semi, and expects to do so in the next ten years. From any other source, this proposal might seem laughable, but the scientists at Lockheed aren’t given to absurd claims. So though Mr. Fusion isn’t here yet, just maybe he’s hanging out around the corner.
Instant sleep device. In the film, Doc Brown decides that bringing Marty’s girlfriend along is a bad idea, and he solves the problem by instantly putting her to sleep with an electronic device he shines in her eyes. Setting aside the questionable nature of using such an item on an unsuspecting person (much less a teenage girl), not to mention the underlying sexism of the moment (why is the future dangerous for her but not for Marty?), do we have anything like it? Well, not really. In a way, a Taser serves as a knock-out device, but far more violently, and isn’t intended as a path to unconsciousness for the victim (pleasant or otherwise), just a state of helplessness. Instantly induced, non-chemical sleep would be a medical wonder, but would we really want such things being available outside of a controlled medical environment? Probably not; the chance for abuse is obvious.
Weather Service (weather control). When the trio arrives in the future, it’s pouring down rain. Marty comments that the events Doc predicts don’t work for the weather. Doc checks his watch, and the rain instantly stops, with bright sun appearing immediately. “The National Weather Service. Right on the money,” he says—apparently in 2015, we’re supposed to be able to control the weather. Well, we’re not even close. We’re still arguing about whether what we do (by accident) affects the climate, and what we can possibly do about it if it even does. Controlling the weather remains as far in the future as it’s ever been.
Self-fitting clothes. Marty has to dress like his teenage son (conveniently identical to his some-day father). The jacket Doc hands him at first seems absurdly wrong—the sleeves are easily a foot longer than Marty’s arms, and the body dwarfs his frame. But a press of a tab causes the outfit to instantly contract to the proper size, the sleeves folding up like an accordion. As any parent of a young teen will tell you, this is an incredible idea. Imagine purchasing an outfit for a twelve-year-old and have it still fit him at age thirteen! But, alas, no such clothing exists. On the other hand, given the rate at which teen fashion changes, many teens would probably be whining about having to wear “last year’s” clothing again, whether it automatically fit or not.
Rejuvenation. Doc Brown brags about how “rejuvenation” has made him ten years younger—though to Marty and us, he looks pretty much the same as he did in 1985 and even 1955. Doc implies that the process somehow restores a person’s youth, a staple of science fiction for over a century. Well, no, we still can’t do that, though plastic surgery to make one appear younger remains in vogue (with somewhat dubious success; youth is in the eye of the beholder). However, certain research may indicate paths to restoring some measure of youth to older people. Experiments with mice involving stem cells and other genetic methods have indeed made older mice “younger,” in terms of their cells’ abilities to restore themselves (a natural process that is lost and in fact prevented over time, producing the effect we know as aging). These experiments, however, remain largely on the far edge of medical study, and as currently done have potentially dangerous side effects, especially a high risk of cancer. They’re certainly not ready now for any human application, nor likely to be ready in the very near future.
Windows in luggage. In a rather odd moment, Doc pulls a duffle bag out of his car, presses a button, and the plastic side panel on the duffle changes from an opaque white to a clear window, revealing the clothes inside. As far as I know, this device doesn’t exist, but why would such a thing even be needed? Maybe for easy inspection at airports, though I can’t imagine too many people want their packed undies to be revealed to everyone in the TSA line. I guess if one wonders if you remembered to pack that green shirt, you can reveal the window and glimpse inside without having to open the bag and move anything…
No lawyers, resulting in swift justice. This is a one-off joke in the film, to explain how in 2015 a character can be arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced all on the same day. Doc Brown simply says, “Since they abolished all lawyers, the justice system operates swiftly.” Thankfully, this development has not occurred, as the absence of competent representation would likely produce more injustice for the accused than the opposite. Whatever its faults, the justice system we still have seems superior to the one implied by this joke.
“Instant” pizza / food rehydration. The future version of Marty’s mother arrives to visit Marty’s family, declaring that she’s brought pizza. The pizza turns out to be a plastic-wrapped disc barely the size of a bagel. She rips open the package, stuffs the puny thing in a boxy appliance labeled as a “food rehydrator,” and presses a button. Seconds later, a full-sized large pizza slides out of the machine. Yum. Thankfully, we’ve dodged this particularly unappealing bullet. Still, quick meals have made quite an upswing in quality over the days of Hamburger Helper and the barely edible frozen pizzas of my youth, so maybe a rehydrated pizza really would taste good. I’m not betting on it, though.
Inflated prices. In the future Hilldale, an advertisement for converting a car to hover-capability suggest a “bargain” price of “$39,999.95,” which, even with the obvious luxury aspect of a conversion, implies a significant devaluation of the dollar, especially if such a cost is considered “within reach” and worth paying for on a used vehicle. Thankfully, while inflation has been bad enough, especially over the last decade (about 9-10%), it hasn’t been quite as bad as the movie suggests.
Pockets turned out as a teen fashion fad. Doc yanks Marty’s pockets out, declaring it’s the latest thing for teens. If only out-turned pockets were the “teen rebellion” fashion statement of the day, rather than exposed boxers (or worse, briefs). But the latter fad seems to be on the way out, so who knows what “kids in the future” (i.e. “this fall”) will decide to do to shock mom and dad instead?
Dust resistant paper. Nope. Though there are coatings that can repel dirt and grime might be a solution, if anyone really needs paper that always stays clean.
Extendable baseball bats. The future Biff grandson, as much of a bully as his grandfather, pulls out a baseball bat to attack Marty. The bat is collapsible, telescoping to full size with the push of a button. This innovation, which doesn’t seem to be of much use in sports, hasn’t arrived, but telescoping toy light sabers from the Star Wars films have been around for years, though they extend at the flick of a wrist, not by any power source.
Computerized celebrity waiters. The diner, like all good restaurants in the future, has dispensed with wait staff (or, apparently, any staff), replacing everyone with ceiling-suspended robot waiters, consisting of video screens with computerized images of Michael Jackson (alive in 1989, but tragically and prophetically dead today) and Ronald Reagan (looking and sounding very Max Headroom-ish, another blast from the ‘80s. The future back then w-w-w-as hi-hi-hip. And it stuttered). Yes, today some restaurants have experimented with apps and at-the-table ordering and paying systems, but a good old-fashioned living waiter still dominates the market. Digital celebrity appearances, however, have been incorporated into films, television shows, and advertisements, with deceased stars like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly appearing to endorse modern products created long after their deaths. And documentary footage has been digitally doctored in film to give the illusion of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon, among others, interacting with characters portrayed by modern actors. There is also a restaurant in Japan which has indeed replaced human waiters with bizarrely smiling robots, so maybe a dead celebrity robot server will come to pass. Personally, this writer hopes not.
3D holographic signs and images, without a screen. At one point, Marty is briefly terrified by the image of a giant shark that lurches out of the air to apparently swallow him. It turns out to be nothing more than a 3D hologram, projected into the surroundings by the local theater to advertise the latest iteration of the Jaws movie series (thankfully, Jaws IV seems to have killed that brand for good). As yet, 3D images still require either a projection on a flat surface or special glasses or curved screens to create; they can’t just be flung into the air. However, certain experimental devices have demonstrated ways to produce screenless 3D effects. One creates pockets of plasma in the air which will reflect laser light beamed onto the plasma. Multiple lasers can thus produce a three-dimensional image apparently in empty space. But this technology is nowhere near reaching the ability to create a giant shark munching down on a passerby.