Posted by Jim Martin 12 January 2015
What Back to the Future Part II got right and wrong about tech in 2015
It's a new year, and 2015 has special status for many movie fans: it's the year to which Doc and Marty travel in Back To The Future Part II. To be precise, they travel to October 21st 2015, which means there are just over nine months until we should all have flying cars and wear two ties to the office.
To give credit where it's due, although it doesn’t have the defining classic status of the original, BTTF 2's writers had a surprisingly accurate vision of 2015's gadgets. We may not ever see the Hoverboard become a reality (and certainly not by October 21st) but the film gets a heck of a lot right, and makes one major oversight.
Here, the TechAdvisor team looks back over their favourite gadgets from Back To The Future Part II to see if current tech can match 1989’s dreams.
Ok, so let's deal with the biggest failing first. Even when the film was written in the late 80s, the writers completely failed to predict the internet. Instead, there's still a heavy reliance on paper in the film's version of 2015. Throughout the futuristic sections of the movie, fax machines churn out paper - in one instance to tell Marty he's fired, and there's a reference to the latest innovation of 'dust-repellant' paper.
Back To The Future Part II got one thing pretty much bang on with its representation of wearable technology. Not only did Doc Brown have his stylish aluminium shades but Marty had some radical specs looking something like a chunky Google Glass prototype.
And other firms have been quick to announce their smart glasses (Samsung, Epson, Sony and Toshiba to name but four) and thankfully they're a little more refined that the ones Marty was sporting in the film. Virtual reality is also gaining traction again thanks to devices such as the Occulus Rift (and even Google Cardboard).
A cross between a skateboard and a hovercraft, hoverboards were the kids’ version of the flying cars in Back To The Future Part II. There’s no hope at all that Mattel or anyone else will release a working hoverboard in 2015, but it's possible they could be a reality at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Various theories about how the producers made hoverboards work for the film were bandied about, including hidden magnets. However, as with all illusions, the reality is much more mundane. The actors were suspended on wires that were removed in post-production, and the hoverboards stuck to their feet.
Real hoverboards would have to use a quantum superconductor for levitation, but with the limitation of sticking to a pre-defined path instead of being able to travel anywhere. Quite whether the techniques used in the video below can be translated to support the weight of a human remains to be seen.
Drones (The automatic dog-walker)
In a classic caper, the automatic dog-walker that appeared in Back to the Future Part II distracted Marty McFly for long enough to allow Biff to steal the DeLorean and travel back to 1955. It consisted of a drone attached to the dog's collar by a lead. That drone could presumably be programmed to follow a particular route.
While they're not being used for dog walking, civilian and commercial drones are indeed becoming a common sight. It's yet another remarkably prescient prediction from the BTTF writers.
Amazon is considering using drones to deliver parcels to your door as part of its Amazon Prime Air project. Drones are also being used for filming and surveillance purposes. In the film, a drone is sent by the USA Today to take photos for the paper.
Returning to dog walking, an enormous robot called Luna that was unveiled by RoboDynamics in 2011 could be the answer to automatic dog-walking. The robot can also help with various tasks around the home, including walking your dog. RoboDynamics expects that there will be a robot in every home by 2021.
Of course, you could always train your dog to walk itself (below).
Video conferencing is one technology that we saw in Back to the Future II that is already part of every day life. In one famous scene we watch Marty's colleague Douglas Needles convince him to get in on a work related scam, but unfortunately the call is being snooped on by his boss, who then fires him. Unfortunately having ended the video call Marty's boss sends a fax to confirm that he has been fired, not so high tech.
It's slightly disconcerting to see all the information about Needles flash up on the screen, age: 47, birthday: 6 August 1968, address, wife… It's as if his NSA file has just been opened up, and just like today we wonder if the NSA and other government agencies are listening in on our calls like Marty's boss was.
Now we are actually in the future, video conferencing isn't only used for bad though. A friend of mine got a job recently after being interviewed over Skype. The first time he met his new employer was on the first day in the new job.
Today video conferencing is a popular way for businesses to communicate with colleagues and clients who are based around the world. It saves money in travel costs, and also stops our carbon footprints from getting too big. It's not clear where Marty's boss Ito Fujitsu was based, but perhaps we can presume that he was based in Japan and Marty does indeed work remotely.
The scene with Marty’s boss snooping on him reminded me that many organisations keep detailed records of their employees, customer, rivals and more using HR systems and ‘customer-relationship management’ software like online service Salesforce. For business reasons (apparently), we even volunteer information ourselves through LinkedIn.
As for bosses snooping on their employees calls, that’s a reality for city traders and the like - even on their mobile phones. Tech companies such as Cognia offer tech that lets financial firms record their employees’ calls and messages – with their permission (though granting permission is usually part of their terms of employment) – to avoid insider trading and commercial espionage.
In Back To The Future Part II’s imagined 2015, fingerprint scanning is commonplace, used for home security and electronic payment. Most people unlock the door to their home by pressing their thumb against a scanner; charity muggers carry around portable versions of the thumb pad to solicit instant donations, which are subtracted from online accounts on the basis of biometric IDs.
We’re not quite there yet, but fingerprint scanning is pretty widespread in our timeline too. Apple famously gave the iPhone 5s a fingerprint scanner for one-touch login – analysts expect the company to expand this component’s capabilities in future – but they’ve been around for a lot longer than that. We’ve seen them built into laptops since 2004, and we’ve even seen them on portable storage drives.
And maybe biometrics are finally becoming practical. On the home security front, heavy-duty fingerprint-scanning padlocks are available (below), although they remain rare; the need for batteries makes us wonder how much the old faithful padlock really needed to be improved. At least you don’t need to worry about losing the key.
At any rate, let’s hope one aspect of the thumb pad in Back To The Future doesn’t appear in our own society: the practice of ‘stealing’ other people’s thumbs in order to access their money and property. Thumbs down to that.
I loved the first Back To The Future. I went to see it in the first week of 1985 with the 12 Morley Cub Scouts – and yes, watching in 1985 a film set in 1984 and 1954 is a kind of time travel. In the intervening 30/60 years time travel has not become a reality – but I could have told you that in 1984, 1954 or any other time inbetween then and now.
Time travel as depicted in Back To The Future 1, 2, 3 or any future reboot is the one bit of tech that we will never see. Ever. We'd know about it if time travel was invented at any point in the history of our civilisation (or those that came and went before and after). If time travel exists at any point in history it exists in all points of history, so unless Doc Brown is hiding his invention over in the States we're forever out of luck on that score. Which is a shame, because I think I'd rather suit Marty's body warmer.