Geek Beat: Back to the Future Day


We’re in the future? Where’s my flying car?

We served up a bit of pop-culture whimsy for this morning’s Geek Beat segment on Hawaii News Now’s Sunrise morning news show, with geeks the world over celebrating “Back to the Future Day.” It’s the day when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive to save Marty’s kids in “Back to the Future II,” released in 1989.

As with most science fiction from the past, it’s fun to compare today’s reality to what we thought life would be like way back when. But time travel is the central conceit of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, and the specificity of the date and time mentioned in the film compared with its delightfully complete predictive picture of everyday life in 2015 make this kind of reality check impossible to resist. While there have been more than a few rundowns of the filmmakers’ vision from over a quarter century ago, here was our local take.


bttf-hoverboardWhile there are popular electric wheeled platforms that kids these days are calling hoverboards, we know we really want the cool Mattel hoverboards we saw in the movie (pink or no pink). Fortunately, the movie inspired a lot of future geeks 26 years ago, and lots of people are working on making them a reality.

Automaker Lexus demonstrated its hoverboard in August, which was impressive… but required an on-board liquid nitrogen cooling system (for the superconductive magnets) and only works on metal surfaces. Until our streets are paved over in copper, we won’t be using these outdoors. Earlier this summer, Omni Hoverboards unveiled its propeller-based prototype, but they are far from consumer ready and would obviously stir up quite a tornado anywhere they’re used.

Virtual reality goggles?

bttf-gogglesThe depiction of VR headsets in “Back to the Future II” is probably hits the closest to what we have today, although that’s in part because technologists have been working on them since the 1960s (and they were just breaking into the public consciousness in the 1980s). Microsoft turned heads with its HoloLens demo earlier this month, and in August, maker Oculus announced its Oculus Touch headset and controllers.

And in addition to the hardware, the content side is starting to come together. You could have watched last week’s Democratic presidential debate via virtual reality, and the New York Times just announced yesterday that it’s going to release a virtual reality documentary film in November. Local entrepreneur Ka’i Ka’u (who launched the Hawaii VR Club) is building VRCHIVE, a startup dedicated to hosting VR content.

That said, I think the real insight that “Back to the Future II” nailed dead on was demonstrating how ridiculous, uncool, and disconnected people using VR goggles look. Even two decades later, that’s one challenge of this tech that no one’s been able to fix.

Flying cars?

bttf-flyingcarAs I said on Sunrise, humans can’t manage to drive well in two dimensions, so adding a third is just asking for trouble. But the proliferation of super-stabilized and increasingly automated remotely piloted aircraft systems (a.k.a. UAVs or drones) definitely gives us hope on two fronts: one, that taking flight in vessels smaller than airplanes is both feasible and increasingly affordable, and two, that it will be harder and harder to do dumb things with them.

Fortunately, back on the ground, things are moving quickly in the field of autonomous vehicles. Just last week, Tesla upgraded its cars with autopilot features, although they’re not quite ready for you to completely surrender control. Google’s self-driving car is several generations into development, the latest prototype even lacking a steering wheel or any easy means for human passengers to screw things up. And now rumors are flying that Apple is going to enter the fray. Disruptive transportation network company Uber sees driverless cars as its future, hoping to speed up the end of car ownership in general.

I think self-driving cars will get here far faster than we think, and probably faster than regulators and governments will be able to adapt. (See also: drones.) But this is a part of everyday life that needs disruption. Car accidents kill over 30,000 people a year. I’m hopeful that in the next decade or two, I’ll be able to let my car (or a car) do the driving… so I can wear my VR goggles and watch immersive movies on the way to work.

Food hydrators?

Extracting moisture from foods is no problem. Putting it back is the real challenge, and at this point, still technologically impossible. We’ve made great strides in flash freezing, allowing us to preserve food without it exploding with ice crystals, but apart from Cup Noodle and boiling hot water, we’re a long way away from being able to put heat and moisture back into a dehydrated pizza.

Self-lacing shoes?

Nike will never miss a chance to ride a cresting wave of pop-culture buzz, so it just announced today that it will sell the self-lacing shoes from the movie… next spring. But they’ve already given the first pair to Michael J. Fox, as they should.

So what are the next checkpoint dates for forward-looking movies of the past? Possibly November 2019, which is when the sci-fi classic Blade Runner is set. And we’ll see if we’ll be eating each other by 2022, which is when Soylent Green takes place.

1 Response

  1. November 8, 2015

    […] Foundation is putting the spotlight on the crossroads at which we stand today. Echoing “Back to the Future Day” last month, the non-profit organization is hosting a time-traveling […]

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