Back to the present: 3 Technologies from ‘Back to the Future’ that are currently in their infancy

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Back to the future not what expected

Sean Stoker | Opinions Editor | @theroyalthey

In 1989 the classic Back to the Future series debuted its second installment, which featured an adventure to the distant and incomprehensible future: Oct. 21, 2015.

Though Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale never intended to make accurate predictions of the future when writing the script—Gale even wanting to play up the wild predictions of future tech for comedy—that didn’t stop audiences from dreaming of the bionic implants, hoverboards and rehydrated food that they would surely have in 2015.

Now that Oct. 21 has come and gone, we have the unique opportunity to look at wild speculations Back to the Future II made about our time and decide, are we better off? What came true? And what did they have that we wish we had?

Mr. Fusion

When Doc Brown comes back to 1985 to whisk Marty and his girlfriend away to 2015, Doc grabs a handful of garbage and throws banana peels and soda cans into a contraption called “Mr. Fusion”, which creates a small-scale nuclear fusion reaction, generating the 1.21 gigawatts necessary to travel through time.

We currently don’t have a means to create safe fusion reactions in our own backyards. For now it is strictly a secure industrial matter. However, as far as garbage-powered machines go, scientists at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory are developing EcoBot, a robot that uses microbial fuel cells as a power source, which could potentially break down things like human waste products and other organic matter to create energy.

3D movies

Walking through the futuristic landscape, Marty McFly comes across a movie theatre advertising Jaws 19 with a giant, poorly animated shark hologram that lunges at Marty and appears to bite off his head before dissolving into a shower of pixels. Recovering from shock, Marty proclaims, “Shark still looks fake.”

Though it isn’t quite in the same fashion we saw it in the movie, it’s no secret that we are inundated with 3D at the movie theatre. Ever since Avatar, any blockbuster worth its salt will inevitably release a jump-out-at-you version of the film, whether it makes sense to do so or not. And as for holograms, Digital Domain famously used a projector and a tilted mylar screen to resurrect Tupac Shakur as a 3D-looking hologram at 2012’s Coachella.

But while those things are undoubtedly amazing feats of technology, I’m still craving a “true” hologram like the kind on Tony Stark’s computer that you can see all sides of and manipulate with your hands and I may get my wish sometime in the near future. Yoichi Ochiai, CEO of Pixie Dust Technologies is leading research into the use of femtosecond lasers that turn air at fixed points into glowing plasma. These holographic images respond to the disturbance of a human hand moving into its path and adjust the projected image accordingly. Ochiai is also using an ultrasound array to project an invisible but tactile shape in midair through haptic feedback, similar to your smart phone’s vibration motor giving a quick pulse when you tap an app.


Being chased by thugs, Marty commandeers a little girl’s hoverboard, a skateboard-like device that floats several inches off the ground.

Growing up I would be hard-pressed to find another child that didn’t daydream about riding a real hoverboard. When I was 10 years old, I actually used an entire notepad writing and illustrating a wish-fulfillment story about a character with a wicked awesome hoverboard that he used to fight aliens. It was awful. But I digress.

But the thing is, we’ve nearly replicated the hoverboard experience portrayed in the movie. No I’m not talking about those mini-Segways. They may be cool, but they are by no means a hovercraft. Earlier this year Lexus produced the SLIDE, which uses liquid nitrogen cooled superconducting materials to repel magnets.

The bad news is that it only works on specially designed tracks or a park that Lexus made specifically to show it off. That, and the thing guzzles liquid nitrogen, as in refilling it every 10 minutes. It doesn’t seem that SLIDE was ever intended for the public, at least not any time soon. At the moment, it may be awesome, but it’s completely impractical for general use.

At this point, though it doesn’t have a clunky, Jetson’s-inspired aesthetic we’ve come to expect from the future, it’s undeniable that we live in a futuristic world where exciting inventions abound. We’re just going to have to wait a little longer for the good stuff to get better.