What came first, the innovation or the egg?
We’re used to art imitating life, but sometimes reality is flipped on its head and it’s the course of life that does the imitating. But could it possibly be that some – or any – of the technological innovations that make our everyday lives smarter, safer, and more seamless were inspired by, or seen first, in fictional pop-culture stories and films?
It sure is! We all grew up reading novels like George Orwell’s 1984, or watching movies like The Island, Star Trek, and Avatar. We remember thinking how far-fetched a concept ‘Big Brother is watching you,’ was. Yet, today, here we are, in a world where the accessibility and leveraging of personal information is the smart city’s key to providing its governments and citizens with the data-driven insights they need to live better, 21st-century style. Largely concealed from the naked eye, yet well-known to all, sensors, cameras, and other innovative tech are very much “watching us” as we go about our daily business, making our cities as smart as can be. However, unlike these and other innovations first seen in movies, the technologies that now surround us have become positive partners in modern, smart city living, advancements we most certainly would not be willing to live without.
Which innovations started off as a sci-fi writer or producer’s wildest dreams? Here are some future-forward developments that made their debut – in one form or another – in books, television, or movies.
The 3-D printer
Remember watching The Jetsons as a kid? The beloved cartoon, set in a futuristic metropolis, began filming in 1962. During some of its episodes, the Jetson family can be seen eating food produced from a machine at the press of a button, much like food tech companies currently endeavor to produce eco-friendly edibles via the 3-D printers of today, an innovation that was only developed for the first time two and a half decades after the Jetson family’s first printed meal. In fact, the 3-D printer was first developed in 1986 by an American man named Charles Hull, who based his 3-D printer on Stereolithography or SLA technology conceived in the 70s and still in use today.
The cell phone
Did you know? Martin Cooper, the inventor behind the first-ever cellular phone, was inspired by an episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series?” It’s true! The show first portrayed crew members holding handheld flip communication devices, nearly twenty years before the first cell phone made its way to market. Back then, if you wanted to make a call, you had to locate a landline, either a house phone wired to a wall or a payphone wired to city infrastructure in the ground. In fact, Star Trek is, perhaps, the pop culture icon to foreshadow the most innovative developments of all time! Other innovations first seen in the well-acclaimed show include tablets, artificial intelligence, automatic doors, and more!
Self-driving cars are still future-forward, but great headway has been made in recent years, making autonomy on the road a likely near-future achievement. That being said, autonomous vehicles have long been portrayed on big and small screens. In 1949, a car is remote-controlled and used to assassinate a scientist, in “King of the Rocket Men,” in 1968, Batman summoned the Batmobile using a remote control, 1973’s Sleeper has actor Woody Allen enter a driverless car, and 1976’s blockbuster Logan’s Run featured autonomous “pod cars,” to name a few.
It will be interesting to see how the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow resemble – or differ – from those we’ve grown accustomed to in films and television.
While this particular innovation may not serve the average smart city citizen, it is both marvelous and indispensable for amputees and people born without limbs, due to congenital anomalies. Seen as early as the 1980s and 90s in films such as Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back (Luke Skywalker’s hand), and Edward Scissorhands (Edward’s hand), prosthetic limbs that could be controlled by human thoughts are a relatively new development. In fact, a recent study showed how people living with paralysis following strokes could use their brains to control robotic arms linked to a computer. With just a little training, participants were able to learn to use their brainpower to command the prosthetic limb to pour a cup of coffee, giving hope that many people may soon benefit from robotic limbs, regain their independence, and improve their quality of life.
Living in la-la land” and “dreaming in technicolor” are often used to mock innovative spirits’ development endeavors. However, considering how many of the indispensable advancements we have come to depend on today were first seen on television or in movies, we feel a change of tune is most certainly in order. At the end of the day, it is not important whether art imitates life, or life inspires art. What is, however, important, is that the innovative spirit continues to be nurtured in whatever way it sees fit to appear – on screen, in writing, or in physical construction, so that the people of tomorrow continue to enjoy new and exciting ways to make life better, smarter, and more enjoyable for all.