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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Six Real Gadgets Minority Report Predicted Correctly

By Brian X. Chen


The future-predicting technology that drives the premise of the sci-fi blockbuster Minority Report is silly at best. And when the film hit theaters in 2002, the gadgets seemed pretty unrealistic, too. But eerily enough the slew of dreamed-up gizmos showed off throughout John Anderton's daring escape are hardening into reality.

No, our government hasn't yet imprisoned a group of nude psychics to combat crime. But some of the latest over-the-top gadgets are making director Steven Spielberg and writer Philip Dick appear to be fortunetellers themselves — of the technology world, at least. Here's a list of some disturbing, or just plain cool tech teased in the movie that'll be hitting home in one form or another.

Gesture-based Computer Interfaces


A visually awesome, albeit seemingly impractical piece of tech that the film highlights is the 3-D-hologram computer interface that Anderton controls with graceful hand gestures. Mgestyk Technologies is playing off the same idea with its gesture-based interface, which consists of a 3-D camera and software that translates hand movements into commands to control computer applications and games. From looking at the demo video, the interface appears to be a bit laggy, but progress is progress.

Flexible Displays


Spielberg and Dick clearly aren't optimistic about the future of print, because in Report the medium is entirely replaced with thin, flexible electronic displays. Even better, the displays automatically update with the latest news articles, presumably from futuristic RSS feeds. Thanks to the United States' tendency to dump billions of dollars into military funding, we'll see a gadget just like that in about three years. Composed of specialty polymer and thin stainless-steel substrates, the screens will display characters with the electrophoretic ink (E-Ink) technology seen on today's e-book readers (e.g., the Amazon Kindle). Hopefully by then E-Ink will achieve color.

3-D Holograms


Probably the cheesiest scene in Report is the one where Anderton is watching a home video of his wife and pre-kidnapped son. But more interestingly, the video is projected as a 3-D hologram, making it appear as if his wife and son are standing right in front of him. CNN tried to recreate that effect with its recent election coverage. Granted, the anchors and reporters being videotaped weren't actually looking at holograms. Instead, they were looking at monitors, and CNN used 44 small, fixed cameras and 20 computers to insert virtual holograms with real-time effects processing. Fake holograms! Wait, that's kind of redundant, isn't it?

Identity-Detecting Advertisement Cameras


Surely you recall the scene in Report when Anderton is trying to run from the PoPo — but cameras keep scanning his eyeballs, only to play targeted advertisements based on his identity. A new display from NEC is creepily similar. Announced in July and premiering in Japan, NEC's display utilizes a miniature camera to detect a person's age and sex so it can play specific commercials aimed at a shopper's demographic. Don't get a black-market surgeon to remove your eyeballs just yet: Playing ads on a TV isn't nearly as invasive as the ubiquitous holograms in Report. But it's the same intrusive, identity-probing idea.

Robot Scouts


You would think the police in Report go a bit too far when they deploy creepy, crawly spiderbots to chase down Anderton. But there's no limit line for the U.S. military, which has a pretty similar idea: Robot teams that hunt down culprits, according to a story in The Register. The "Multi-Robot Support System" will consist of software and sensors to detect human presence indoors. A human operator will be able to control a team of three to five robots that will weigh up to 220 pounds each. Hum. that's actually a lot more terrifying than the scout bots in Report.

We couldn't find a picture of the Pentagon's robot scouts for the simple reason that they don't exist yet. So, until they do, you'll have to pretend the goofy, costumed nerds above are actually a small swarm of terrifying, human-hunting automatons.

Predicting Mistakes


We're nowhere near figuring out how to see into the future, but neuroscientists are devising a method to predict mistakes. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study where researchers recorded neurological patterns preceding careless errors. This could lead to a biofeedback system that helps us catch mistakes before making them. That's certainly more civil than throwing a group of test subjects into a tub and plugging them in.

Photos: Fox Movies, Mgestyk, CNN,, Dan Coulter/Flickr happyvia/Flickr