Saturday, 20 September 2014
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Why I'm calling time on Minority Report technologies

One of the most exciting things about working for The Engineer is writing about and sometimes playing with technology that has previously only existed in science fiction. From self-driving cars to laser weapons, science and engineering is continuing to bring to life ideas that for over 100 years have existed only in the minds of writers, filmmakers and fans.

So it’s not surprising when journalists, including myself, use comparisons with sci-fi to help explain new advances. It can be a useful device to convey what a technology does, how it works or even what it looks like (and it helps make a story sound more exciting).

But sci-fi similes have to be used with caution. This week, the Independent and Telegraph newspaper websites ran stories based on The Engineer’s coverage of new computer technology that makes it easier to control a device by waving your hand in front of its screen, using ultrasound to give vibrational feedback that can be felt in mid-air.

The two papers chose to link the technology to that seen in the 2002 film Minority Report, where Tom Cruise uses his hands to navigate a large transparent computer screen. It may have been an easy way to shoehorn a celebrity into a technical story but there are two problems with the comparison.

Firstly, it’s become a huge cliché to use Minority Report as a way of illustrating technological advances. It’s been done many times already not only for gesture control but also retina scanners, electronic paper, personalised advertising displays and even the film’s (and original book’s) central premise of precrime ­– predicting crime before it happens (though in the real world this involves computer algorithms not the clairvoyant mutant children of drug addicts).

The Engineer’sfeatures editor, Stuart Nathan, has actually banned the rest of us from using the film to illustrate articles (although he is biased because he thinks it’s a rubbish film).

But perhaps more importantly, the “UltraHaptic” screen technology actually goes far beyond the devices shown in Minority Report. Characters in the film wear special gloves to control their computer screens but the point of the new system is that you don’t need to touch anything to operate the device or receive the vibrational feedback.

In fact the Microsoft Kinect already achieved touchless gesture control several years ago now. In some senses it would be more inspiring to consider the new system as the precursor of a forcefield or even a step towards a Star Trek-style physical hologram, albeit without the visual element.

It’s testament to Steven Spielberg and the filmmaking team behind Minority Report that so many of the ideas they portrayed on screen have become reality. This is in no small part down to the fact that Spielberg actually invited leading scientists, architects and futurologists to propose ideas for a realistic vision of the near-future that fed into the movie’s development. The film was able to predict what was coming because it had insight into work already going on (and it did it without clairvoyant mutants).

But it’s now been almost 15 years since these ideas were first discussed. Our world may not look like that of the film (thankfully so, in many cases), but much of the technology has already caught up with the vision. We could do with a new blueprint for what could still happen in the years to come, but no recent sci-fi films have the same kind of prescience as Minority Report.

Of course, there is always Star Trek. Partly because the franchise has been running for so long, the TV/film series has inspired technological visions like no other. And even though it is set hundreds of years in the future, our own advances are making some of the ideas it proposes seem much more realistic.

Not only have scientists managed to “teleport” atoms from one location to another and “cloak” tiny structures by bending light around them with metamaterials, but people have also compared 3D printers to “replicators” and new medical diagnostic tools to “tricorders”.

Despite so many of these comparisons, the Star Trek simile somehow seems less hackneyed than the Minority Report one. Perhaps it’s because so many of the latter film’s technologies have become an engineering reality in such a short time and have been covered in the media so frequently, unlike the occasional science experiments that pop up occasionally pointing the way to a possible Star Trek future.

In that case, we’re still left wanting for a near-term vision to inspire and inform us. Minority Report’s prophecies in some ways became self-fulfilling, drawn from information on what technologies were under development but also encouraging companies to match what they had seen on screen. And, of course, so we don’t have to keep seeing pictures of Tom Cruise every time a new gadget comes out.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Minority Report still I think has one leg to inspire. Much has been made of the IT related UI as discussed as well as the social messages of the film. But for me it is worth recalling the transport and infrastructure predictions made in the film. People still travelled around in cars – but if I recall the roads were of a form where the cars travelled on smooth surfaces and up the sides of buildings – maglev perhaps? Whether climbing up buildings makes any real sense is a moot point – but it does serve to remind us that we are too ready to accept rubber on tarmac as being the peak form of personal transport. The development of Driverless technologies are to be encouraged but we need to also think about transforming infrastructure to allow for high speed personalised mass transportation – if that makes sense.

    To me one pleasing part of the film design was how it mixed the current - intertwined with a built environment beyond what is possible now.

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  • On a darker side, perhaps the 'Owner' trilogy by Neil Asher develops the Sociological and Technological stages that may await us.

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  • In a way it is a real shame that we and all the celebrated engineers have to wait for introducing new, futuresque ideas by movies. Where is the imagination and inventiveness when it comes to the big shot engineers?!

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  • I've often heard that Star Trek is something of a chicken and egg; in that future engineers grew up "geekily" as big fans of the show and subconsciously worked towards devices they'd seen on the Enterprise

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  • We've certainly spoken to a lot of engineers who were inspired by Trek as kids.

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