If you’re any bit of a geek, sci-fi fan, or just someone who loves movies, today — October 21, 2015 — is “Back to the Future Day”, with Back to the Future 2’s 2015 date finally coming to life. In the movie, 2015 was a very different place, though, so what did the movie get right?
First of all, you need to know that while BTTF2 imagined 2015 as a futuristic world, it was a movie, and a fictional one at that about time travel, so let’s get something out of the way first off: these weren’t predictions.
You can bet that Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and the rest of the creative team that produced the script, art, and built the movie didn’t try to make the most realistic flick they could. Rather, with the film produced in the 80s and released in 1989, they made 2015 have a bit of whimsy, with gadgets and electronics that could be eye popping and crazy, but still blend in with the whole “future” vibe the movie needed.
So Back to the Future 2 didn’t have predictions as such. It had ideas about what the future might have. How close did it get to what we have today?
Let’s start with an easy one, with Marty — Michael J. Fox’s character — needing to take a call from a potential partner in crime and then his boss over a video call.
This actually happened, and video conferencing, despite having some rocky starts, eventually got off the ground when mobile phones received front-facing cameras.
Microsoft’s Skype also made dents in this area, as has Google’s video-connecting Hangouts and Apple’s FaceTime, and now anyone can talk on the phone by looking at the person on the other end.
Video calling still isn’t quite as common as audio-only calls, and most of us communicate using either text or voice, but this technology did come to life, and even stuck around.
Now the fax on the other hand…
Yeah, faxes still exist in the real 2015, but they’re used far, far less.
In the movie 2015, however, they were a big deal, used during the video conferencing scene of the flick, and even provided with a special mailbox set up around Hill Valley.
We never really got to see one of these used, but we’ll hazard a guess that it was a computer setup to send faxes quickly across the world.
You know what does that in the real 2015? E-mail.
Back to the Future nailed this one, because we still have newspapers, and while the internet is definitely eroding their readership, the newspaper is still about.
We don’t know if USA Today quite has the readership of “3 billion readers every day”, and highly doubt that it will arrive “via compu-fax satellite” (whatever that is), but newspapers are still here.
Possibly the best part of the newspaper in BTTF2 isn’t that it’s used as a prop to show how time changes based on what the characters are doing to alter time, but rather the extra news that would theoretically be happening tomorrow, like how the president says she’s tired of reporters asking the same questions.
We got close to this one, though it’s not quite the same.
While the real life 2015 won’t have you screaming as the umpteenth version of Jaws flies out of the movie to scare the living daylights out of you like in the movie, reality has provided 3D movies.
Once seen as the way for movie cinemas to keep making money and send people to the movies (and 3D movies were also that much harder to pirate), 3D has proven that it’s no fad, with more films released with the 3D gimmick than you’d expect.
Nearly every animated movie gets 3D in some form, and flicks like “Avatar” have shown that some filmmakers can do more than just rely on a post-production workflow to bring 3D cinema to life, with James Cameron even helping to change the way we capture 3D movies at the time.
3D hasn’t quite been the be-all end-all for reshaping motion pictures, and many still question whether it’s used for a good reason or not. Few movies that we’ve seen have made fantastic use of it, and it’s debatable as to whether or not a 2D or 3D version of the movie is better. We’ll normally argue 2D as it’s the version the director has paid more attention to.
Augmented reality is the other side of this technological pipe dream, with mobile phones and tablets allowing us to see almost holographic imagery when we hold the device over other gadgets or special codes.
Look around you, and the first thing you see on the roads are cars. Land cars, with vehicles reliant on at least two wheels, whether it be a motorcycle, truck, four-wheeled drive SUV, minivan, or just, you know, the regular car.
Where’s this so-called flying car? The DeLorean could fly, and it was 2015, so where is my flying car?
This has been a dream of inventors since well before the 80s when Back to the Future was made, and we’ve heard of prototypes as early as the 1920s, though there were concepts that seemed a little more feasible in the 1950s.
Most of the flying car concepts around seem to exist around one basic idea: it may well be seen as a car that flies, but the designs are more suggestive of an aeroplane that you can drive like a car.
That’s a fundamental difference because cars and planes are designed very differently, and roads are currently built for cars and not necessarily aircraft. Not to mention how much petrol would be required (and possibly a different kind) to get a flying car off the ground.
But they do exist — sort of — it just might take a few more decades before you see them outside of a design house.
In the original “Back to the Future”, Doc Brown’s DeLorean needs plutonium to kickstart the 1.21 gigawatt reaction required to send the car through time, but things are a little different in the future.
When Doc Brown returns from the future — 2015 — the car has a different mode of petrol, and it’s the “Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor”. This little gadget allows the Doc to throw garbage in the engine which converts the waste to power, doing what the plutonium would normally do.
Back in the real 2015, we are a long way from throwing banana peels, excess beer, and anything else into an engine to make it into petrol, though electric cars, as well as hybrid motors, are beginning to provide something a little more eco-friendly than standard fossil fuel petrol.
The closest thing we probably have to a Mr. Fusion, however, comes out of the UK, where in 2010, Volkswagen worked on a special version of its Bug that relies on a petrol made of gasoline and a new “biogas”.
This biogas was the most interesting part, running on human waste, specifically sewerage.
At the time, the research suggested Volkswagen’s BioBug could run on the waste from 70 homes to take it 16,000 kilometres, though it may not have smelled particularly fantastic to drive behind.
After reading about waste-based petrol, we’re sure you’re keen to check out food, because there was a food gadget in Back to the Future 2, even if its appearance was fleeting.
At the dinner table, Marty’s mum throws a small disc of a thing in a specialty Black & Decker hydrator which turns the disc into a full 15 inch pizza after two seconds of rehydrating.
In the real 2015, we’re nowhere near being able to shrink food to such a level, and then needing to rehydrate it.
We can’t even imagine a world where that would happen, and if this were to occur, can only hazard a guess that we’d be a good 50 years from it happening, if it ever did at all.
Where we are, going, is printing.
3D printing has shown that you can actually print food, and pizza is one of them.
So is pasta, pancakes, and numerous other food items.
The technology at play isn’t quite as fast as what Back to the Future would imply, and a 3D printed pizza may not even taste as good as the real handmade thing, but it’s a similar step, even if it has forked into a different path.
“Broadcasting beautiful views 24 hours a day, you’re tuned to the Scenery Channel.”
Those are the words echoing in the 2015 residence of the McFly’s as the digital window shows a lovely garden to take away from the hum-drum life typically seen outside.
These windows were obviously not windows and were, in fact, screens capable of playing back video on a rotating basis to show you a different world, possibly one much nicer than your regular backyard.
In 2015 — the real one — these don’t exist, though you can always buy a big TV, mount it to a windowless room, and play back a landscape that doesn’t change if you really need to.
About the closest concept we can think of may be coming in the form of a commercial aeroplane.
That might sound crazy, but the organisation figured that if you could replace the windows with OLED screens which are light and energy efficient, you could display the outside world as the aircraft flew through the OLED screens.
We’re not sure how many people would feel comfortable with a view of the sky as they travelled to their destination, especially one quite as large as this — acrophobics, try not to look down — but the idea is about as close as we’ve seen to BTTF2’s digital windows.
Beyond this, one could argue that a TV is a digital window to a world beyond your own. You know, if you wanted to take that argument.
One of the things people don’t see quite as clearly in Back to the Future 2 are the digital doors, or more specifically the knob-less and handle-less doors.
In a 2015 world painted by BTTF2, doors are controlled by a small panel found next to the door where you press your finger against.
As you’re probably aware, most doors today still come with door knobs, but digital door knobs do exist, with Bluetooth locks produced that can be installed on your door at home.
Right now, the panel to open these isn’t installed as a fingerprint reader by your door, but has more in common with your smartphone.
If you have one of these gadgets, you can upgrade your door lock and wave your phone in front to unlock the door, with the lock able to pick up information from your phone and verify your identity.
In case you have friends coming over, you can give them a temporary pass code that the lock can withdraw later on, too, meaning you don’t have to make a key for a friend staying over.
It may not look exactly like how it does in the movie, but it’s 2015 and you can essentially pay with your thumbprint thanks to biometrics.
In real life, you won’t be scanning your thumb- or fingerprint on a dedicated scanner when it comes to pay, but if you have an app and a fingerprint-scanning phone, you may be able to pay using this technology to unlock your bank account.
That said, biometric payments aren’t exactly commonplace, and we don’t expect it will be that way for another few years, but we’re close, with phones able to pay thanks to the various contactless payment technologies rolling to smartphones across the planet.
This will get better with time, merchant adoption, and ongoing support in the various operating systems, but right now, we can sort of do this, so this one wasn’t a bad bet.
Self-adjusting, self-drying jackets
When you buy clothes today, you’re probably buying a fit that’s at least close if not spot on to what you’re wearing. You might have a bit of legroom, sure, but most of the clothing being bought has to match your measurements.
Not in the future painted by the film, however, which offered up a vision of self-adjusting clothes and self-drying clothes.
We haven’t heard of anything matching the former in reality, so you’re still going to need to buy your clothes to match you, but self-drying does exist in some form: heating clothes.
Not quite the same as a blowdryer built into a jacket or pair of pants, New Scientist last year reported on a development that relies on silver nanowire being used to create clothing that could heat your skin.
Only one volt is needed to bring it up to 40 degrees Celsius which could definitely keep you warm if you were cold, though it probably wouldn’t be useful to dry you.
Power lace shoes
A dream of anyone who has ever seen Back to the Future 2, the idea of Nike’s Power Lace shoes has provided tremendous inspiration to people who love shoes, hoping upon hope that one day these could be a reality.
Good news: it’s coming, and it may even arrive this year.
According to shoe website Nice Kicks, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield has been working with engineers to get Nike’s power lacing shoes to exist for real, and given that this is the guy that designed them for the Back to the Future 2 movie as well, that’s a big deal.
Outside of Nike, there have been a few other inventors try to come up with the power lacing mechanism, and there’s even a tutorial to try and set it up yourself, but these are coming.
UPDATE (October 22, 2015): On “Back to the Future Day” in America, a day after this article was published, Nike announced it had power lace shoes working and would be releasing them with a charity drive next year. Awesome, and you can read more about it here.
The classic “how close are we to Back to the Future” example, the hoverboard is one kids have been asking for ever since they saw the Mattel stamp on the back of the hoverboard Michael J. Fox used in Back to the Future 2.
You know Mattel, even if you can’t quite remember what they make: Barbie is its main bread and butter, but the company has been responsible for a ton of toys, and competes quite hard with Hasbro, which is probably among its biggest competitor.
Unfortunately, the science and mechanics of how a hoverboard would work haven’t quite been nailed yet, but Lexus — the car maker — thinks it might have gotten the closest.
Earlier this year, the company teased that it might finally have something that works, with Lexus calling it a “a highly advanced design that features liquid nitrogen cooled superconductors and permanent magnets”.
We’ve heard reports that this highly advanced design requires a specific magnet-based skate park, however, so it’s not quite the hover board technology Back to the Future is talking up.
Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and a step above anything else. Pun intended.