Opinion: Do sci-fi films get advanced tech right?

Real-time e-surveillance? Absolutely. Genetic engineering? We're well on our way. Warp engines? Not so much.

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Virtual reality

At the movies: When we're not creating life, we're creating virtual worlds. What is reality? It's a question philosophers have asked themselves for ages -- though it was only recently that the answer might have been "a virtual construct designed by our machine overlords to enslave us."

The world of The Matrix was a wonder not only of artificial intelligence, but also of virtual reality. In the film eXistenZ (1999), the virtual game was so real, players could never be sure if they had actually disengaged from the system or if the illusion of doing so was simply part of the game. VR is envisioned as a technology that would give humanity the power to create and shape worlds so real that we lose ourselves in them.

VR in Lawnmower Man

VR as depicted in The Lawnmower Man.

© New Line Cinema

Sci-fi has depicted these landscapes as mental projections (The Matrix), combinations of photons and force fields (Star Trek's holodeck), or drugs and gyroscopes (The Lawnmower Man).

In reality: Virtual reality has never been as seamless as actual reality. Early consumer applications, such as the 1991 game Dactyl Nightmare, required bulky visors and body suits that kept the player firmly tethered to the arcade.

Given the difficulty in replacing one world with another, it is more likely that VR will be implemented not as an alternative to the real world, but integrated with it through a variety of visual displays. For example, a company called Mobilizy is working on an app for GPS-enabled smartphones that augments the display with geotagged data. You could point the phone's camera lens at a restaurant, for instance, and see reviews of the establishment superimposed on the picture.

Human Pacman game
A game of Human Pacman, courtesy of the Mixed Reality Lab, National University of Singapore.

Employing this "mixed reality," a research team in Singapore has developed a game of Human Pacman, in which a head-mounted display overlays pellets in a real-world setting; they appear to be floating in midair in front of you as you walk down the street. Such devices hold the potential to augment, not supplant, our world, giving us more reason to exist within it than to escape from it.

In 1992's Lawnmower Man, Pierce Brosnan's character insisted that "Virtual reality holds the key to the evolution of the human mind," and "This technology will free the mind of man, not enslave it." Were the machines that power these worlds to become innocuous extensions of our own bodies, then the line would indeed begin to blur. But such an integration faces a variety of technological -- and ethical -- dilemmas that may keep virtual reality, at least as movies depict it, firmly in the realm of fiction.


At the movies: Whether they're virtual worlds or corporate networks, computers need to be restricted to trusted parties. For all the patches and firewalls in today's networks, cybersecurity most often comes down to not losing a laptop with unencrypted, sensitive data. But Hollywood doesn't find purloined property to be sufficiently sensational and so often represents IT management in ways that make actual security experts guffaw. We don't just mean standard thrillers like Firewall (2006) and Die Hard 4 (2007); science-fiction movies have many cringe-inducing security moments as well. Most often, the fiction comes from the interfaces through which hacking occurs.

PowerBook in Independence Day

A PowerBook saves the world in Independence Day.

© 20th Century Fox

The most glaring and memorable instance of impossible interfaces may be in 1996's Independence Day, when the world's freedom was restored by an Apple PowerBook's ability to interface with and infect an alien operating system, promptly disabling the alien fleet's shields. Viruses are designed to exploit specific flaws in operating systems and applications; for Jeff Goldblum to have deciphered an alien computer's code and instantly developed a virus that could take it down was perhaps the greatest work of fiction IT managers will ever witness.

In reality: Viruses and other malware are rarely so focused. When the Conficker worm spread throughout the Internet earlier this year, it did so indiscriminately, not targeting government or alien domains specifically. Although malware can be used to send personal data back to a central computer, as the "spider-bug" did in Transformers (2007), it is unlikely to be able to distinguish a shipping invoice from a military schematic.

But so what? The more capable and precise a virus is, the better it suits a megalomaniac's goals -- just what Hollywood ordered.

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