Marty will be here soon. Do we have all the tech he needs?

 Displayed at the 2015 Hill Valley retro auto show

Displayed at the 2015 Hill Valley retro auto show

I like writing about self-driving vehicles, drone deliveries, 3D printing, and other technology that has great potential to shape our future. Occasionally however, I like to look back at how today was conceptualized by generations before ours. One great example of this was released in the form of a film known as Back to the Future II. When Marty arrived in October 21st, 2015 the setting was quite a bit off from what we will really see on that day. Let us take a look at some of the predictions made by that film and how close they actually came.

 

Flying Cars

Doc, Marty, and Jennifer arrive in 2015 on a skyway. A skyway appears to be an interstate in the sky which flying cars can use to more efficiently travel longer distances. Flying cars were not conceptualized by the Back to the Future writers. In 1962 the animated series, The Jetsons, traveled by flying cars. Every kid growing up in that era knew that by the time they were adults, flying cars would be ubiquitous. Perhaps the culture that was started with The Jetsons is the main reason that many times when someone expresses disappointment of the present, they commonly utter the phrase, “Where’s my flying car?”

In 1940 Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company fame, said, “Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” Where are we on Ford’s promise?

Of note are the Moller Skycar M400 and the Xplorair PX200. Both of these are what is known as vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The Xplorair is a single seat aircraft, while the Moller can accommodate up to four people. Moller states that the skycar is “an aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, is able to fly at high speed, yet also able to travel at low speed on the ground and narrow enough to fit on urban streets.” The Moller uses rotary engines, unlike the Xplorair which takes advantage of the Coandă effect to propel itself into the air. The Xplorair has been funded by the Government of France and is scheduled for a drone flight in 2017 at the Paris Air Show and commercialization thereafter.

As you can see there are challenges to creating flying cars. Engineering something that is going to be practical takes time. But we haven’t given up yet and maybe by the time we get there we will even have flying cars that drive themselves!

Auto-Lacing Shoes

In 2015 Marty looks very out of place in his 1985 style. So Doc gets him some more current apparel including the Nike Air Mag shoes. So do we have Nike Air Mags today? Well, sort of. You can get a pair of officially licensed Nike Air Mags from an online costume shop for around $100. However you will be disappointed to find that there is no auto-lacing technology in these shoes. But, hey, they have functioning lights!

So what hope do we have for auto-lacing shoes? Well there is a company called Powerlace who have designed an auto-lacing shoe that works simply by pressing your heel down to tighten the auto-lacing. The problem is that their Kickstarter campaign never got fully funded and so it remains to be seen whether Powerlace will ever release a product.

The other, perhaps more promising, hope comes as a confirmation from Nike designer Tinker Hatfield who reportedly said that his team is working on delivering a Nike MAG with Power Laces sometime in 2015. The year is quickly slipping away, but maybe we will see them. I wonder if this would be more of a case of Back to the Future inspiring the future than predicting it, however.

Hoverboards

When Marty runs into Biff’s grandson, Griff, he manages to anger the violent psychopath and “borrows” a hoverboard to escape. Griff follows him on his own, more featured hoverboard which was jet powered. Not knowing that hoverboards would not work on water without jet power he was stuck and so to escape Griff he jumps off causing Griff and the gang to crash into the courthouse. Griff was arrested and Marty got away.

If you want something that looks more or less exactly like the board that Marty hovered around on in the movie, you are in luck. That product does exist today. When it was originally released, it cost a mere $120. That sounds like a pretty good deal for a hoverboard until you realize that it is a prop replica and is little more than a plastic board. It does not hover. Every once in awhile I see these things around. But then I am the type of person who hangs out at geek conventions where there are souped-up DeLoreans made to look like a Back to the Future time machine. I usually see the hoverboard sitting in the back seat next to the flux capacitor.

As far as an actually functioning hoverboard, there have been several attempts. As far back as the 1950s the Hiller Flying Platform was a hovercraft which was quite a bit more cumbersome than anything similar to a skateboard, but did accomplish the task of propelling a person in the air in a sort of hovering effect pretty early on. Jamie Hyneman built a makeshift hovercraft for MythBusters, dubbed the Hyneman Hoverboard. It was made using a surfboard and leafblower, but was still not very practical.

The closest that we have gotten is the Hendo Hoverboard created by a company called Arx Pax. The boards use magnetic field architecture technology to work. To the recreational hoverboarder all you need to know is that it requires a special surface to operate. According to Arx Pax: “Hoverboards have been in high demand since their launch in October 2014. Building Hoverparks and retro-fitting skateboard parks will soon be underway for this new sport to take flight.” There has also been a press release from the company just today that a next generation of their hoverboard will be unveiled on October 21st. This new version will supposedly feature a more skateboard-like design and feel and was collaborated on with famed skateboard guy, Tony Hawk.

So I guess we sort of have hoverboards now.

All of these advances are still far from commonplace though as depicted in the film. The challenges with these ideas are many and while we are forever trying to be inspired by our science fiction dreams of the future, reality always has laws that limit the extent to which we can reach them. But still we try and eventually we come up with some pretty interesting uses of technology. Some of which past fictional ideas never could have thought of.

Lastly, if you want to see a pretty funny fan-fiction comedy of Marty and Doc coming to the real October 21, 2015, I encourage you to check out College Humor’s: Back To The Future In ACTUAL 2015.

(ed note: Some non-tech predictions. Back to the Future predicted a Cubs World Series win. Is it going to happen? Universal also released a preview for Jaws 19, go check it out).

Kirk Aug

Kirk is waiting for his automatic drying jacket to turn on. He got all wet when his wheeled hoverboard ran him into a creek. Follow Kirk on twitter @kirkaug.