The goal of sci-fi has always been to paint a picture of the future based on our understanding of the present. But technology often unfolds in ways we never could have predicted. Relatively few sci-fi stories from the ’60s have anything like the internet or smartphones in them, but they often have technology that seems ludicrous to us even now. Here’s a look at why the present doesn’t resemble The Jetsons in the slightest.
1. Jetpacks and Flying Cars
The dream: Who wouldn’t want to have their own personal flying machine? It’s the apex of the human desire to get off the ground. Imagine jetting off and laughing at the fools stuck in traffic in their grounded cars. The jetpack is even sexier – no bulky vehicle to control, just you, a backpack and the open air. These inventions permeate the earliest science fiction. With the proliferation of gas-powered travel in the early 20th century, flying machines seemed like the logical conclusion.
The reality: Both of these technologies technically exist, but aren’t feasible for day-to-day use. The problems arising from strapping on a pack full of jet fuel or rocketry are numerous: The packs are heavy and can only carry enough fuel for a few minutes of flight, and they’re difficult to control due to the high speeds they reach. Plus, the human body isn’t designed for flight, so using a jetpack puts a lot of stress on bones and muscles that could be permanently damaging. The US military attempts to perfect the technology in the 1960s concluded that the inefficiencies and dangers outweigh the benefits. So except for a few private enterprises, the world of flight tech has moved on.
Flying cars have the same problems of cost, safety, and fuel limitations. And as aircraft, they would need to be regulated by air traffic controllers (to make sure they don’t interfere with each other in the air), which would be a nightmare if everyone had one. That hasn’t stopped several companies from trying to develop them, but they always seem to be “coming soon”.
2. Food in Pill Form
The dream: No time to cook? No problem! Just pop a pill or two and get all the nutrition you need for the day in ten seconds. Obesity will be a thing of the past as everyone has access to a balanced diet. And they somehow manage to taste exactly like the food they’re replacing too.
The reality: It’s just not possible to pack everything you need into a little pill. The human body needs about 2000 calories a day, and the proteins, fats and carbs that give you those calories cannot easily be compressed. That’s without considering the balance of vitamins and minerals the pill would also need to contain. Today’s multivitamins are generally large and offer only a supplement to what you should be getting through food. In any case, even if you popped dozens of food pills a day, you’d still be hungry because your stomach would sense that there’s not much in it. I never understood why food pills were considered attractive, honestly. Don’t people like sitting down and enjoying their food?
3. Virtual Reality
The dream: If you grew up in the ’90s, you knew this was the next big thing. Computers and video game consoles were just starting to saturate the home market, and everyone expected we’d soon be trading our clunky CRT displays for a sleek pair of glasses and haptic gloves. The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a glut of game devices intended to create a VR experience, from the Virtual Boy to the Power Glove to more obscure offerings.
The reality: And those devices are not remembered fondly, for good reason. Their motion detection was clunky at best, completely unresponsive at worst. The Virtual Boy’s unorthodox display and searing red-on-black colour scheme gave gamers eye and neck strain after just a few minutes of playing. These devices were seen as junk and novelties, and are a large part of the reason the old ideal of VR faded away.
But it seems a renaissance of this technology is beginning. Microsoft’s Kinect is the best controllerless motion-control scheme we have. Its 3D camera tracks your body position in real time and people have made it do some pretty cool things, like virtual guitars and lightsabers. Meanwhile LCD screens have become small and cheap enough that head-mounted displays are starting to sound like a reasonable option. We’re slowly approaching different ways to create a more immersive virtual experience – we just need to put them all together.