Do sci-fi movies impact the future?

Today I was reading yet another article about how a movie, in this case Iron Man 2, shows a possible future for computing. I think its kind of silly to put much faith in devices designed for movies, but that’s not a surprise since I think the future of UI will be boring.

My point is simply that filmmakers use technological ideas in movies to serve narrative and stylistic purposes. They are designed for how cool they seem to watch someone else use, rather than for actual use. Things that are designed to be used by actual people 100 times a day tend to be boring, because they should be comfortable, simple and natural and not cause repetitive stress injuries. But that makes for boring style, which filmmakers rarely want. Flying cars, jet packs, Virtual Reality headsets, AI and voice recognition, all sci-fi staples for years, have little practical market value, despite how cool it is to watch characters in movies use these things.

But in an attempt to call BS on myself, I wondered this:  Have design or software ideas from sci-fi movies ever become successful real products?

I’m not saying movies haven’t inspired people. Sure they have. Star Wars inspired me to draw, and play with lego, and think about all sorts of things. But I never actually made something I saw in Star Wars into a successful real product in the real world. And given the lack of working x-wing fighters and light sabers I’ve seen in the last 30 years, I’m assuming no one else has either. And that’s my hypothesis. Not that sci-fi movies don’t have a purpose, just that they’re lousy at predicting the future of anything, much less product design.

Even if there are some (star trek communicators = cell phones come to mind) the odds seem so bad: sci-fi movies are awful predictors. That’s my bet, but prove me wrong.

The question: Can you think of any specific design / UI / software / computer thing that was shown in a movie, and later invented for real, and became successful? Lets make a list.

33 Responses to “Do sci-fi movies impact the future?”

  1. goofydg1

    Star Trek is filled with them. The tricorder. Energy Shields. Lots of communications stuff (Uhuru had the first blue tooth). There’s actually been a couple documentaries that cover the topic. There have been reports that they developed a transporter. The military has stuff that has appeared in various scifi stuff but you can argue which inspired which (exoskeletons, rail guns, there was a crazy story the past couple days on the work they’re doing with brain replacement for soldiers).

  2. Scott Berkun

    Can you name the documentaries?

    Star Trek did exceptionally well compared to nearly every other sci-fi movie I could think of. The track record otherwise seems abysmal – Star Wars, 2001, The Matrix, Terminator, Aliens, Back to The Future, and Blade Runner – can you think of any examples from other movies?

  3. Bryan Anderson

    Satellites and specifically communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit are one good example.

  4. Scott Berkun

    Bryan: It’s not an example if you don’t say what movie the idea appeared in before it was a product :)

    Sputnik was a communications satellite launched in 1957. Unless you can name a sci-fi movie before then, you can’t make that claim.

  5. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    A Trip to the Moon: Rockets

    Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: Not a movie, but the U.S. Navy says:

    Educated as a lawyer, Verne lacked formal training in science and engineering, but nonetheless chose so shrewdly from the speculative technologies of his day in creating a futuristic submarine for his protagonist, Captain Nemo, that the essentials of his undersea vision

  6. Nick Finck

    I guess it depends on your definition of success. In some cases having just one specific ultra focused use is success, on other cases success is only at a level of mass adoption.

    Take a look at Star Trek’s communicator device and older generation mobile flip phones, the digital clipboard device crew members used and the iPad or other tablet PCs, the computer interface on ST:TNG and the Microsoft Wall is another example. All loosely adopted, but I feel some of their roots are there in Star Trek

    Devices that are still in the prototype stage or have yet to be fully adopted: Minority Report’s gesture based computer system and display with G-Speak and Microsoft Wall… later re-imagined in Iron Man 2. Sixth Sense is also a variation of the same gesture based concept only wearable.

    I am sure we could find some examples from Blade Runner and Star Wars as well.

    None fully adopted or really deemed a success, but give it time.

    That said, I don’t think its really SciFi movies that are setting the standard. It’s SciFi writers. You should really have a chat with Bruce Sterling next time you’re in Austin. He probably has way more accurate examples than I came up with here off the top of my head.

  7. Scott Berkun

    Thanks Drew.

    I know there are definitely examples. But my hypothesis, given the hundreds of sci-fi films in even the last 50 years, that sci-fi movies have an awful track record.

    It’s hair spliting, but my specific point is not whether a sci-fi film predicted the future.

    But rather whether the inspiration to invent X came from someone seeing X in a movie first. But I can sort that out once there’s a list of “claimed sci-fi impacts”.

  8. Leif

    I remember waiting for the day I could order pizza online after watching The Net (not sci fi though), that day finally did come. What strikes me with movies and their handling of future progress is how they tend (and this is anecdotal, I can’t back this up with hard evidence at present) to give no credit for progress with small(er) things (say communication or shrinking computers) and way too much credit for bigger things (immortality, space travel, flying cars, world peace). I’d guess that is largely because it is more difficult to foretell the evolution of something you know over a period of decades.

  9. Scott Berkun

    Leif: My point is that the things seen in most sci-fi movies, most of the time, is not designed to have any basis in reality. It is designed to serve the plot, wow the audience, or help convey a sense that the movie inhabits a world different from our own.

    There are many exceptions of course, but most of the time the people who sit down to design these things in movies do not have any serious interest in trying to think of things that would be useful, practical or even beneficial. They’re creating films where the primary goal is entertainment, not product design or software development.

  10. Nick Finck

    Speaking as someone who has a formal background in cinematography (tho not in the industry myself) I agree with your general point, Scott. Most mainstream movies have digital interfaces and technology that visually impress the audience. This is often defined in the script by the screenwriter but sometimes can also be created as an improvised solution by the prop designers where needed and if directed to do so. For SciFi its often the case that a futurist (often a SciFi author) is consulted on set for such things.

    Movies, specifically ones that focus on the future like SciFi, often inspire people to think beyond what they consider common place today. Does that inspire new innovation, I am not so sure. Does it motivate creativity, of course. Much like future car design challenges and other things seen at worlds fairs inspires creativity and forward thinking. The bigger question is, is it the right direction to go in?

  11. Franke

    Not a sci-fi movie, but one of my favorites from the 80s. In “Jumping Jack Flash,” Whoopi Goldberg’s character communicates in an IRC/IM-type interface with Jack. The movie was from 1986, so it’s entirely possible that sort of communication capability existed at that time, via ARPAnet.

  12. mhi

    Hi Scott this is what Google came up with:
    Explore the inventions and ideas of science fiction writers at Technovelgy (that’s tech-novel-gee!) – over 1,870 are available.
    Movies are normally based on ideas / books or storyboards.
    People have wishes they want to be fulfilled. Someone who is not a scientist writes his wishes down. Then a scientist picks it up and actually implements it or it gives the scientist new inspirations. As far as I know Hollywood is even working together with scientists to find out how future could look like (e.g. Minority report: Normal people are not aware of the fact that scientists are already working on the stuff they are just seeing in the movie. While it takes years of research to implement it, it looks like the movie was there first.

  13. Daniel

    WPF and Silverlight (as well as their Linux equivalents) would be at the top of my list – since they are flexible enough to allow creation of fully-functional UIs that look similar to what you’d find in Hollywood movies. Minority Report, Star Trek and Iron Man are the obvious ones that have already been mentioned; another I can think of is Mission Impossible 2.

    Granted, it’s not necessary to have such fancy Hollywood-style UIs for the sake of it – the UI should be designed for better usability, i.e. make it clearer to communicate the concepts of the application and present them in a logical manner.

    An interesting idea came from Demolition Man – the voice-directed computer -> Voice recognition + Text-to-speech. Great for accessibility, especially when some of the target audience don’t have use of their arms. I notice some companies are also using it for automated phone systems – rather than the classic menu with ‘Press 1 for opening hours and prices’, it asks you what you are calling about and puts you through (e.g. TelstraClear in New Zealand).

  14. JulieG

    I tend to agree with you, Scott, but I will say that the first week that I was using my iPhone was the first time I felt like I owned a Star Trek style tricorder. I was able to check the weather conditions, identify sounds/songs, take recordings/photos (and now voice), get maps that identified landmarks. I was able to identify and interpret my surroundings no matter where I was. Fun times :) I don’t really think it was a direct influence though.

  15. Kevin Burke

    This is funny because in January I toured Microsoft with some kids from my school, and they showed off this crazy video, supposedly from the future where people were in an airport projecting arrows onto the floor from their phones that told them where to go, and capturing images on the wall onto transparent sheets of glass, and then performing highly complex user interactions with the simplest of touches.

    I raised my hand and pointed out that this movie’s bullshit because right now most people can’t even open Microsoft Word or open a webpage without clicking the mouse three times, and that movies lead people to have unrealistic expectations about UI and what it should look like. Everyone else just liked the video.

  16. Nemo

    Berkun: an interview with a guy who designs movie interfaces and makes the point of them being designed for looks and storytelling, not long-term usability:

    Also, the comment about geostationary orbits is slightly askew from the question…

    …the orbit was, if not original to Clarke, became widely known due to his writings, and his speculation that it would be good for communications.

    And it’s still vaguelly known as the ‘Clarke Orbit’ for this reason

    …the origin was sci fi.
    …but NOT sci-fi movies.

  17. Mark Interrante

    The book Snow Crash describes a world of VR and the web in a very compelling way. It insipired myself and i’ve heard others credit it.

  18. Craig Brown

    A start trek documentary worth checking out is “How William Shatner Changed The World.” Light, funny, interesting.

  19. Calain

    Babylon 5 had some ideas.
    I know that the NASA asked if they could use the Starfury design as they though it would be a great design for a space only spacecraft.

  20. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    My wife has been cleaning out her parents’ attic lately. This week she brought home an issue of “Cracked” from 1986 and left it in the reading room. I was just reading a bit about the future or surfing. It included pools with man-made waves, and “hot rod surfers” using motorized boards.

    You know, Cracked and Mad used to do “the future of” bits all the time, and they were going for things that seemed ludicrous. But I’ll bet they’ve got at least as good a record as “serious” sci fi.

  21. doug mayo-wells

    IIRC Astronaut Dave uses something that looks a lot like an iPad in an early scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I think _written_ SF has a better (though still not good) track record of predicting future tech/

  22. rodica

    The drag-and-drop UI type that was shown in Mission Impossible (or some other Tom Cruise movie, I’m not sure) seems to have taken on as well.

    I’m not sure that’s precisely what inspired the whole wave of technology, but at least one vendor pointed that out to me during a training session :) I also see it in increasingly more web applications & gadgets.

  23. dish

    I think we are just about to start seeing technology in the market that emulates tech presented in such movies as Minority Report. For example consider Microsoft’s upcoming Project Natal for the xbox expected this fall/winter. If it works as well as shown in the early demos it will undoubtedly spread to other areas of computing. Also in the last 10 years we’ve seen transparent computer displays in a lot of movies (most recently Iron Man 2). That technology is very real but currently in its infancy limited to very small displays.

  24. JDsg

    I also agree with the “not enough time” argument, but more importantly, I would say that the entire premise (how much has SF movies inspired real life product development) is irrelevant. The change in technology, product development, you name it, that we have all gone through in the past 50 years is stunning in its breadth and scope when you really think about it, and yet much of it was not considered, let alone predicted by SF in any of its media. (Of course we take all this stuff for granted today.) In 2001, I received a questionnaire from my university asking me to rate my graduate school experience from the perspective of 10 years after graduation. And my biggest complaint was that the university and all of my professors had completely missed the introduction and adoption of the Internet by society. Innovation can come out of some of the strangest places, and you don’t need to watch a SF movie to figure that out.

  25. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    The responses just lead me to a hypothesis: Breakthroughs in how we interact with existing technologies are less common than breakthroughs in what we’re trying to do in the first place.

    How to use a computer? Display, keyboard, pointing device. Even Minority Report was just a multi-touch pointing device coupled with a 3d display. Not actually that revolutionary.

    Communicate in real time with anyone, anywhere on the planet? (ie: the Internet) Now that’s something new. Even though the interface to it predates its creation.

  26. Damian

    Hi Scott

    Interesting question but Star Wars is not sci fi! Its pure fantasy which is why you do not have a lightsaber. Sci fi has to be based on science and thus I think this explains why we tend to see inventions inspired by sci fi as the genre talks their language and whilst often going to extremes is often kinda possible. Therefore I think you may find examples quicker if you define the genre correctly!

    Also cell phones are nothing like star trek communicators – they are real time universal translators with advanced adaptable voice commands that allow full functionality without terrible GUIs and tiny screens. Might be nitpicking but hey I want it clear in the minds of all inventors out there that I am not satisfied with my cell phone and am still waiting for my comm badge!

  27. Martha Farag

    3) Self destruct options?
    4) Extraterrestrial life (hey, at least we are looking for it now)

    (Though I’m sorry I haven’t been siting my movies/shows, I’m sure all these things appeared in the Twilight Zone at one point or another…)


Leave a Reply

* Required