How To Engineer Iconic Sci-Fi / Fantasy

So after writing a while ago about my daydreams to build the mechanical owl Bubo from Clash of the Titans I wondered what other iconic ‘objects’ in fiction could actually possibly be built and was there any evidence of this? There is lot of discussion out there about fiction predicting future technology in a kind of chicken and egg scenario of what came first the fictional idea or the developing technology that inspired this?

However I wanted the things that quite clearly haven’t been made as they appear in their fictional form… At least not just yet, but they could be. So, after a late Friday night’s discussion amongst my Network of Nerds – I mean, my friends… I came up with the following, please feel free to comment below with further suggestions or ideas for the list!

THE GOLDEN SNITCH

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The third ball in the game of Quidditch in the Harry Potter series is described on the Harry Potter Wiki as “It is a small gold-coloured sphere with silver wings and is about the size of a walnut. It flies around the Quidditch field at high speeds, sometimes pausing and hovering in place. The Seeker‘s goal is to catch the Snitch before the other team’s seeker, which is worth one-hundred and fifty points.”

Whilst perhaps the immensely delicate and fragile wings as shown in the film adaptations might not be able to support the main body of the Snitch in flight, that style of rapid wing movement and quirky, unpredictable flight path can be made. DARPA’s Hummingbird Nano drone uses it … and even better, Carnegie Mellon University have released this technology as a Raspberry Pi compatible kit to make one yourself if you have the money!

I am not sure whether the 4 wires underneath the drone are for flight purposes or to communicate the camera images the drone is seeing and so I don’t know whether we’d have to compromise and include them in our Snitch design or not.

Additionally, the Snitches have “flesh memories and remember the touch of the first person who handled them in case of a disputed capture. Everyone, including the maker, has to wear gloves when handling the snitch until releasing one for each game. Because of this a new snitch must be used for each game”.

Many people know that finger-print sensitive technology is available and becoming increasingly common but did you know that Harry’s unique identifying first touch (SPOILER: he catches his first Snitch in his mouth) is still possible as everyone has a tongue print as unique as their fingerprints?

THE LUGGAGE

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In the Discworld series the Luggage is a very large chest that both carries luggage for its owner and doubles up as a sort of bodyguard for them. Hundreds of little legs can appear underneath it to help it run quickly and follow its owner everywhere they go and it has a large mouth with “lots of big square teeth, white as sycamore, and a pulsating tongue, red as mahogany” so it can consume threats to its owner.

So maybe we can’t make it with human-like legs as shown in Josh Kirby’s illustrations but we can make robots that walk on hundreds of little legs, such as one in a more centipede type way. As common sense suggests and studies show “since the centipede type walking robot has more legs than other type robots, a centipede type walking robot transports a heavier payload than an other type robot” i.e. lots of legs mean centipede like robots can carry more weight so we would possibly choose them because it also helps us carry more in the Luggage.

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Additionally we can make robots that follow you around, although only if you are carrying a transmitter and preferably not under thick clothing and have it facing behind you. At least that it is the case with the Budgee robot that has been developed to follow you around for helpful purposes. According to the website “the transmitter uses sonar and ZigBee to let Budgee know where you are.  Budgee has two receivers on his ears to pick up the signals. Software algorithms are used to sort through the signals to determine the direction to follow you.”.

Actually the development in annoyingly following you around technology may not be in one to one connections like this one but actually in larger interlinked networks that let robots develop a greater understanding of the general world around them and, by connection through that to the devices about your person, your location.

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As for the homicidal eating tendencies displayed by the Luggage, well there’s no questioning that we can make crushing consuming weaponry nowadays although most of the time we don’t feel inclined to do so. However the guard dog type defensive behaviour of the Luggage would be implemented through an ability to recognise aggressive behaviour in people around. Fortunately we already know we can get robots that “is also able to recognize affective intent through tone of voice” so all we would need to is make the Luggage react to this information with, …erm a bit of aggression?

 STAR TREK TRICORDER

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In the Star Trek universe a tricorder is “a multifunction hand-held device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data”. Now before you are attempted to dismiss this as an early prediction of current smartphones consider all the technology that is supposed to be included in a tricorder. They have the ability to examine living things both for medical diagnostic purposes and when exploring new planets and they are able to scan new surroundings or analyse engineering systems.

There are in fact multiple different types of tricorder in the series so not all of these functions have to be in one device to be faithful but there is still a distinct difference of additional sensors and ability to provide more information from interacting live with the surroundings that current smartphones are still not capable of. The medical tricorder for example has a detachable scanner.

Now whilst everyone know that medical technology is becoming increasingly smaller and more portable and with the development of the whole ‘quantified self’ movement it should be even easier but surely having so much technology in one device is still beyond our current limits?

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition is trying to change all that by offering very large sums of money to teams to develop a medical tricorder, optimistic that the technology exists to make this possible. They’ve said that “the device will be a tool capable of capturing key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases. Metrics for health could include such elements as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. Ultimately, this tool will collect large volumes of data from ongoing measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements.”

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 THE OCARINA OF TIME

(except without the actual time travelling bit)

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So in Zelda, the premise of the ocarinas (and actually other various other assorted instruments across all the games) is that when you play them whether just general musical noise or very particular tunes they will cause something magical to happen like summoning Epona the horse or changing night to day or, most famously of course, travelling backwards and forwards in time between particular points.

Whilst okay some of the magical things like time travelling aren’t actually physically possible yet (at least we think so) the concept of creating technology and other phenomena that will react to a particular tune on a particular instrument is actually possible. Sound activated technology has been around for a while now with things such as clap-activated switches now commonplace. More advanced technology such as voice and speech recognition is becoming more sophisticated with companies like Nuance developing both the iPhone’s Siri function and Barclay’s recent user voice identification systems, proving that our technology already exceeds that necessary for things to react to a particular ocarina tune.

The most common use for music activated technology at the moment is for reactive lighting however, most of the time this is actually only using the rhythm to alter just like the clap activated switches, it doesn’t necessarily react to the pitches.

As smartphones and other technology are increasingly capable of running Siri-like software and apps on them it may be that you could develop the software to react to particular tunes and spread it over sufficient devices so that instead of “the song of healing” you could have “the song of rick-rolling” and trigger everyone’s phones to start playing Never Gonna Give You Up.

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 BABELFISH

babel-fishAccording to the Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, “the Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

As with the ocarina of time above we know that increasingly developing speech-recognition software is available to us but this could be aided in the translation process by visuals from technology such as Google Glasses. Although at first it may not appear necessary when accounting for the fact that the Babelfish is translating meaning telepathically and the individual you are faced with may be trying to communicate by more than just speech, especially if they are aliens.

There may be problems in combining this technology into something that can just stick in your ear but technology is increasingly decreasing in size so this might be easier in a few years time!

The difficulty in making a Babelfish lies with the timing of the translation and communicating it to you ‘instantaneously’ as although you can easily stick a headphone “fish” in one hear and hear a translation this relies on interactions between the audio, visuals and the speaker talking to you which, especially if they are across separate devices, may struggle to process things quickly enough.

S.H.I.E.L.D. HELICARRIER

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In the Marvel universe the United Nations agency known as SHIELD have airborne aircraft carriers known as helicarriers as headquarters.

Firstly we have successfully made and used airborne aircraft carriers from zeppelins and planes before but not helicopter technology. Secondly we know that we have helicopter based flight technology and we know that we have aircraft carriers. The question is whether or not we can combine the two. Because it uses well established technology, it is a problem easily discussed using basic theoretical principles but not necessarily thoroughly as developing flight systems requires lots of complicated and expensive simulations and testing to develop.

A working combination of the technology may not produce a helicarrier that has the same proportions or even shape necessarily as the SHIELD one but is possible to build. However it hasn’t as it would be a very, very large unnecessary use of time and money so sadly no one has invested in one just yet….

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POKEMON!

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Okay so this is the most questionable on my list and as I am not a biologist I am aware that I might be getting things all wrong here but we could in theory currently make a real Pokemon if we tried. We have proven our ability to successful mess around with the significant and at least aesthetic features of existing animals to create marginally different new ones so it is only the ethical debate (and I suppose unjustified expenses of it) that are stopping us from going further and making completely new species.

I didn’t have one particular Pokemon in mind when writing this but I did have a good example of evidence of the level of our current biological capabilities as in August 2013 the news was announced about successfully growing glowing in the dark rabbits.

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Remember though that genetics is not everything and it is not as simple as adding together the genetic traits of animals to make a Pokemon, there would have to be other factors accounted for such as environment and some Pokemon features may only be achievable with additional artificial constructs. The infamous 1997 Vacanti mouse experiment added an ear to the side of a mouse but that wasn’t made using genetics but purely surgical and other biotechnological skills.

main-qimg-1c1dfe50e7019e360796519b0d7e3430The most difficult part of making a Pokemon wouldn’t I believe be the physical construct but rather the training aspect of them. However this is sometimes a problem in the Pokemon world anyway as Ash’s Pikachu demonstrates so who knows? Also problematic is whether, after going to the effort of making them, we actually want to make them fight each other.

SPIDERMAN’S WEB SHOOTERS

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 Although this may appear to be an obvious one to make technologically actually it is isn’t. Spiderman’s web is strong enough to support at least one grown adult’s weight (preferably more to carry people to safety of course), it has to be able to light enough to wear on the wrists and it has to be sticky enough to stay attached to any surface when someone is swinging on the web (dynamic weights are more difficult to accommodate for than stationary ones) and preferably not lose its stickiness after several uses like Sellotape does.

Making it sticky enough could use several possible recent developments in materials, although the most likely candidate is the recently made polymer-based synthetic gecko hairs that work by using the same principles as the lizard feet – millions of microscopic hairs that can use the intermolecular or van der Waals forces to stick to things rather than any chemical reaction. This enables geckos to remove their feet by just pulling them away at a particular angle and makes the process reusable. Supposedly this could be made even stronger by making the hairs from carbon nanotubes.

Although the existing suggestions for using this technology to imitate Spiderman have been to make a suit from them and climb walls, this also lends itself to making web shooters because its dependence on geometry for its stickiness means that the actual firing mechanism can be made to make sure it doesn’t stick to the walls of the shooter, only to surfaces it is shot at.

This could also be compatible with the lightweight strength as carbon-based fibres and threads have not only been able to show such properties but are currently subject to a lot of further research in that field.

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