Stranger than Fiction

31 October 2012

Fact or Fiction?

Science fiction has minimal grounding in reality. While Stephen Hawking and illustrious company may still be going back and forth on time travel, we can all agree that overdosing on gamma radiation will incinerate you, not turn you into the Incredible Hulk.

Yet fret not, science students! Like-minded individuals have achieved scientific breakthroughs straight off the silver screens. Here are five such creations.

Harry Potter: Invisibility Cloak

Physicists from the University of Texas in Austin have cloaked a three-dimensional, 18cm cylinder in free space, rendering it completely invisible. The cloak utilises a custom shell of man-made plasmonic materials that present a ‘negative’ of the cloaked object, removing it from your field of vision. Plasmonic materials have a scattering effect on the light fields of the cloak and the object, which counter each other and effectively erase the object from sight.

However, the cloak has to be tailored for the object, and the idea has yet to work by visible light–at present it only works when viewing an object as electromagnetic microwaves. Plasmonic materials could be combined with other metamaterials to channel light for different applications, but we literally won’t see Harry’s famous cloak any time soon.

Doctor Who: Sonic Screwdriver

A Dundee University research team has created an ultrasound machine with functions to the sonic screwdriver. It uses ultrasound energy to form beams that push and twist objects. While not a screwdriver per se, it could streamline targeted cellular surgery and be used for more accurate steering of drug capsules in tumour treatment.

If you expected something less medical and more ‘timey-wimey’, The Wand Company has developed a command-based universal remote that looks like the actual screwdriver and controls electronic gadgets via infrared.

Star Trek: Atom Teleportation

Gene Roddenberry’s teleportation involved instantaneous scanning and obliteration of the source person before transmitting them elsewhere–basically, a death trap.

Teleportation is about transporting information, not moving matter. Christopher Monroe and his team at the Joint Quantum Institute have successfully designed and executed an experiment where information travels a whole metre between two isolated atoms.

They isolated a pair of ions in separate vacuums, holding the position with electric fields. Laser pulses triggered the emission of photons, which interacted in such a way that their parent atoms entangled. The encoded information vanished off one atom and onto the other. Sadly, this movement of atom information won’t work for humans, who have several atoms too many for safe teleportation to be possible.

Star Trek: Tricorder

Canadian Trekkie Dr Peter Jansen has developed a Linux-powered measurement device based on the Star Trek tricorders. These handy handhelds are the Swiss Army knives of measurement. They detect, analyse and record temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, magnetic fields, colour, light, GPS and surface distances, which should be useful when you need to figure out furniture placement.

Jansen’s schematics are online as an open source project for fellow technophiles. The lithium polymer-powered Mark 2 tricorder runs Debian Linux on an Amtel microcontroller, and contains touchscreen panels. The Mark 4 Tricorder will cost about $200 to produce, but probably won’t identify alien biology.

Minority Report: Gesture Interface

The software that enables Tom Cruise to wave through videos on a large screen is now a real interface, known to its Oblong Industries creators as G-Speak. Users can view and analyse massive amounts of data just by gesturing with a data glove.

G-Speak can also create large-scale video conferences. Participants upload data from multiple devices and integrate it into a single video display. You can fast-forward, reverse, or zoom in on a video.

The Xbox Kinect uses a similar interface, but G-Speak’s sophisticated engine can run Kinect software and many other systems. I’d personally love to see someone play Fruit Ninja on this.

G-Speak is being marketed to businesses, the American military, and TV shows. It currently does not predict crime.



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