Back to the Future Day: 9 sci-fi technologies that totally didn't happen by 2017

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Jul 3, 2017, 11:00 AM EDT

There used to be a fantasy in science fiction that the year 2000 would take us rocketing into the "future." This was a brave new future in which people could close their eyes and suddenly end up on another planet, where the weather could be altered with the flip of a switch, where cars flew off into the horizon and you could make your elevator burst through the ceiling and into the open sky if you felt like it.

Except none of those technologies exist ... and it's 2017.

So why does hypermodern tech like personal force fields and airborne autos still fly through the pages of sci-fi novels and across movie screens? Where there aren't scientific impossibilities, there are scientific (and other) obstacles. Some technology is viewed as possible but so complex that we are still in the prototype stages. Some has been theorized but not even researched yet.

Not all possible outcomes are as positive as vivid imaginations make them out to be, either. Maybe you could be surrounded by your own electromagnetic force field if you wore some not-yet-invented suit that would make you a charged object ... but could also make you either Super Energy Deflector of the Universe or a charred skeleton.

Travel through time, space and these nine futuristic visions that have been dreamed into fiction for decades ... but still haven't quite become science.  


Flying cars

Flying cars zoom all over the cityscape of Blade Runner in what's supposed to be 2019 (and in Back to the Future Part II in what's supposed to be 2015), so why don't we yet see them darting between the skyscrapers and billboards of New York or LA? It would sure be convenient for your convertible's wings to unfold and take off. Cars with hidden wings have never actually launched, though there have been many crashed attempts at developing automobiles that defy gravity and rush-hour traffic. Hyped as the airborne Model T, Ford's Flivver prototype looked more like a compact aircraft than a car. It could fly ... until it ended up as scrap metal after a fatal accident. The idea never really launched after that. Airphibians, Aerocars and SkyCars looked like shiny portals into the future but mostly stayed Earthbound. Cars with wings haven't soared out of science fiction yet because of Infrastructure, safety and air traffic concerns, not to mention the potentially astronomical price tag ... but we could be hovering closer.

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Cryosleep Chambers

While movies like Alien and Interstellar could almost convince you that it's standard pre-launch procedure, using cryo-chambers to send astronauts in a state of suspended animation until they reached their destination light-years away has stayed frozen in sci-fi. There's a reason that you don't brave subzero temperatures in your underwear. Extreme cold brings on frostbite, which could leave you with nerve damage and even necrosis if not treated stat. That might change. Hypothermia is medically induced in the case of trauma patients plunging into critical condition, but now NASA is considering hibernation as a radical solution that would eliminate the need for an estimated 20 tons of supplies that may or may not run out on a mission to Mars. There is still an entire galaxy of questions to be answered about safety and practicality. While it sounds ideal for the final frontier, we're just about as far from inducing cryosleep as we are from the Red Planet.

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Aura projector

Spawned from the neon chaos of Neo-Tokyo, the aura projector in Akira exists by 2019, which means it was probably invented and perfected in what we now consider our past. Even if someone started trying to devise one right now (taking that this technology was actually possible), it probably wouldn't be able to get the necessary patents and approvals by the two-year deadline. This mythical machine merges New Age thinking with hypermodern technology that uses sensors to project someone's aura based on the data they mine. How and where that data is found, never mind how scientific proof of an aura that would be needed to base this thing was even found, is a mystery. Never mind the magic crystals; you can't detect something without tangible proof it exists. Even more baffling is how being exposed to the sensors apparently gives you disturbing hallucinations of giant teddy bears and rabbits that disintegrate if they see you bleeding. Spooky.


The Feelies

It sounds more like an affliction than an invention, but the Feelies were dreamed up by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World as the tangible answer to cinema. So why aren't we literally feeling superpowers or epic battles or things creeping up on us today? With the exception of 3D glasses and IMAX, any other cinematic attempts to bring the virtual into reality have had an unfortunate history at the box office. Smell-O-Vision didn't get five stars for pumping perfumes of everything from rain to pipe tobacco into the theater (and someone has the bright idea of bringing it back). Audiences weren't exactly thrilled with the electric buzzers that went off on their seats in 1959's The Tingler or at the flying skeleton that was probably responsible for more than a few fainting incidents at showings of House on Haunted Hill that same year. Anyway, would you really want to ask someone to the Feelies for a first date?


Willy Wonka's Glass Elevator

Glass elevators have happened, though a glass elevator with a special button that you push when you feel like catapulting yourself through the ceiling and into thin air haven't, and probably never should. Even with the metal framework it has in the 1971 movie, anything made of glass would have to be entirely break-proof if it (and you) could ever be expected to stay in one piece when everything above shatters. Technology has just ventured to new heights with a cable-free innovation that uses magnetic power to move not just up and down but sideways. Called Multi, it is seen as a futuristic solution to skyscrapers that keep getting closer to actually scraping the sky, but it's not going airborne anytime soon. There is also the eternal question of how Wonka designed this rocket-shaped thing to propel itself hundreds of feet into the air and keep itself afloat without a jet engine. Magic must somehow defy the laws of physics.

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Weather altering technology

When roads are dangerously icy or you still have to attend an outdoor wedding reception in the rain (even with a tent), you may wonder what it would be like if we were able to develop something that controlled the weather so you'd never have to deal with your office's no snow day policy or another rain-or-shine invite ever again. Many forms of weather tech for Earth and alien planets have been imagined but never realized. Being able to use insanely high-voltage blasts to ionize the air and trigger the formation of rainclouds, or reverse the process to keep it from raining on your Memorial Day or Fourth of July parade, sounds almost scientific. Is creating your own forecast possible? China must think so, since it wants to face off against the forces of nature with a $168 million rain-inducing program that hasn't even been scientifically proven yet. Just keep an umbrella on hand for now.


Personal force field

While being able to deflect or at least absorb intense amounts of energy could be the ultimate defense in sci-fi warfare, it may eventually be possible for your starship ... but not you. Something made of metal could conceivably be cloaked in charged plasma or an electromagnetic force that even the Dark Side couldn't mess with. So long as the metal was able to exert at least the same amount of force to keep those Death Star rays from penetrating the shield, your spaceship wouldn't end up as space junk. Humans, however, have a particular problem when it comes to surrounding ourselves with a force field. Because other cosmological forces are too weak or limited, we could only use electromagnetism. But humans are electrically neutral. While it does seem tempting to suggest that we could get around that and turn ourselves into charged entities by wearing some specially modified armor, we'd either end up supercharged or electrocuted. Pass.

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Merging humans with machines is almost synonymous with sci-fi. From the Terminator and RoboCop flexing cybernetically enhanced muscle on the big screen to NatGeo's controversial new series Year Million touching on an Asimov-like reality so technologically advanced we will someday live outside our own bodies, these visions of flesh and metal have immense ethical implications. Prosthetic limbs and artificial hearts are one thing; being able to blast someone's head off with your left arm or having your brain programmed for superior intelligence is another. Those who support transhumanism argue that being augmented with abilities that don't come standard with DNA could be a positive force in the future. We could theoretically turn ourselves into X-Men by design. "Theoretical" is the operative word here. Technology may have so far been able to start a vehicle from a microchip implant in someone's hand, but cyborgs are unlikely in this lifetime — unless you manage to get transported by a time machine like …

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Doc Brown's Delorean

If cars haven't grown wings, they obviously aren't anywhere near getting zapped back or forward in time via a remote control. That was supposed to be in 1985. Bursts of plasma and the infinitely cool dashboard aside, time travel is one of the most hotly contested topics in theoretical physics, with arguments ranging from its impossibility in the face of science to scholarly papers that almost read like science fiction. Defects in spacetime and cracks in theory have led to hypothetical time machines that wouldn't be out of place in Marty McFly's world. Some think we could travel to another time through those elusive wormholes in space that have all but been proven. Others suggest building an infinite cylinder that would be like the universe's most epic roller-coaster ride. While we have been able to send subatomic particles into the future, we haven't done it with humans — and we've never been able to go back. Yet.