The future has arrived: the sci-fi inventions that have become reality

Tractor beams, hoverboards and invisibility cloaks were once just futuristic impossibilities. Not any more. Hey, Marty McFly! Hoverboard available on Kickstarter for $10,000

Hannah Ellis-Petersen. THE GUARDIAN. 21/10/2014

Michael J Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future. The hoverboard depicted in the second of the popular series of films has now become reality. Photograph: Allstar/Universal/Sportsphoto

They are the inventions and happenings that were once only dreamt up in the pages of fantasy novels and the far-flung corners of the imagination.

But, in a week where the first man with a severed spine has walked again and scientists have created their own versions of a tractor beam, it seems that inventions that were once a futuristic impossibility are now moving into the realm of reality. Will this be remembered as the week the future happened?

Science fiction, both in books and on screen, certainly has a good track record for predicting, or even laying the groundwork, for inventions we now take for granted. From IVF in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to flip mobile phones and automatic sliding doors in Star trek and even the internet search engine in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, each began life as a fictional fantasy before science and modern technology caught up.

Now, inventor Greg Henderson has unveiled a prototype for a fully-working hoverboard, the fictional levitating device iconically used by teenager Marty McFly in the 1989 film Back to the Future II and one of the most lusted-after fictional inventions.

While there have been attempts over the past two decades by generations of engineers at top firms and film fans in garages to build something reminiscent of Marty McFly’s flying skateboard, this week Henderson unveiled the closest realisation of the invention yet.

He has poured his life’s savings into the hoverboard, named Hendo after the inventor, which cost him $10,000 to build and can currently float an inch above the ground over a copper surface. It is also still a work in progress and Henderson’s company, Arx Pax, is currently trying to raise $250,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to turn his modern take on the hoverboard beyond a prototype that runs for seven minutes before the batteries die.

Yet, the take-off of the hoverboard is just the beginning of this week’s science fiction offerings. On Monday, laser physicists announced they have built a real-life reversible tractor beam, an idea originally envisaged in EE Smith’s 1931 science fiction novel Spacehounds of IPC and until now, only ever seen emitted from fictional spaceships and space stations, most notably in Star Wars and Star Trek.

While the laser created by scientists at the Australian National University has only moved minuscule particles distances of 20cm, a far cry from the large cargo beamed up by tractor beam fictional spaceships, it is still 100 times further than previous experiment.

Indeed, it seems this was just the beginning for the tractor beam as one of the project researchers, Vladlen Shvedov, said he could imagine the effect being scaled up, adding “Because lasers retain their beam quality for such long distances, this could work over metres.”

While it may have taken over 80 years to see the tractor beam come to life, last month demonstrated that younger generations may not have quite such a long wait to see their childhood fantasies become a reality.

The magic invisibility cloak, worn by Harry Potter and dreamed of by children around the world, may no longer be restricted to the fictional world of wizards, as scientists from University of Rochester have discovered how to use special lenses to make objects appear to disappear completely, while everything around it appears undisturbed.

Using the so-called Rochester Cloak, the researchers have cloaked a hand, a face, and a ruler, making each object appear invisible, while just like the fictitious cloak described in the pages of the Harry Potter series, causes no distortion of the background object.

“It can be used for surgery, in the military, in interior design, art,” said Joseph Choi, a graduate student who helped develop the optical method at Rochester. And unlike the complex technology behind the tractor beam and the hoverboard, this is one invention that can be made at home. The scientists have released simple instructions on how to create a Rochester Cloak at home for under $100 (£62) – as well as a video about the project on YouTube.

Yet some inventions, despite decades of scientific thought and effort, have still remained beyond our technologically advancing society.

The jetpack – the rocket-propelled gadget that enables the wearer to take to the skies – although feasible, is still held back by gravity, aerodynamics and the highly chemical nature of jet fuel. It featured in the opening ceremony of the 1984 LA Olympics, but has made only modest progress since. A group of engineers from the University of Toronto, last year made a pedal powered device that allowed the man wearing it to hover for just 60 seconds.

So what next? An internet implant in the brain, as envisaged by Iain M Banks? Or possibly pills to increase our lifespan, as written about by John Wyndham? To borrow the words used by the Rochester University scientists this week, the possibilities, it seems, are endless.

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