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Seven tech advances that will make Minority Report a reality

Seven tech advances that will make Minority Report a reality

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Think the futuristic technology portrayed in the movie Minority Report is fantasy? Think again. Here are seven examples of tech from the film that have become a reality.

Have you see the movie Minority Report?

Starring Tom Cruise as John Anderton, a member of the Justice Department's elite "Pre-Crime" unit -- which can, yes, flawlessly predict crimes before they occur -- the movie is a drool-inducing look at futuristic science fiction technology, from automated urban vehicles to displays that can be manipulated with a wave of a hand.

Well guess what -- the future is now.

No, we can't predict future crimes just yet -- though the New York City-originated CrimeStat program is awfully good at predicting where crimes are likely to occur. But much of the "futuristic" technology shown in the film is already a reality.

Here are seven futuristic technologies from the film that are already impacting our present world:

THE HEADS-UP DISPLAY & AUGMENTED REALITY

Perhaps the most iconic scene of Minority Report is when John Anderton manipulates -- in orchestral fashion, no less -- a heads-up display interface at the Justice Department headquarters. With the wave of his partially-gloved hands, Anderton flings around virtual windows displayed on a curved, clear glass window in the search for the correct suspect.

The heads-up display is actually more than 50 years old and was first developed for military fighter aircraft who couldn't afford to look away from the sky around them. This augmented reality interface -- such as an overlaid radar map, or the use of an artificial horizon -- was projected onto the cockpit window. (Newer models use optical waveguides to produce the image directly on the surface itself.)

For the last two decades, HUDs have also been available in consumer cars and trucks, and more recently, in motorcycle helmet visors as well, displaying information such as speed and even highlighting objects on the road in front of the vehicle in real-time.

As for clear displays, those also already exist. Most recently, Samsung announced its new IceTouch MP3 player, the first such device with a transparent OLED ("organic light-emitting diode") touchscreen display.

Here's a look at the IceTouch:

CONTROLLER-LESS INPUT

While heads-up displays have been around for awhile, creative inputs to manipulate them have not. The first HUDs were manipulated with buttons, but new advances may do away with a controller altogether.

The most promising new technology for controller-less input is Microsoft's Project Natal, a project slated for the end of 2010 that uses a sensor to allow the user to interface with a screen using gestures, spoken commands and real-life objects.

Developed for the Xbox 360 gaming platform, Project Natal is intended to change the way people play video games -- it's one step farther than the gyroscopic Nintendo Wii -- and senses the distance you are from the screen to, with a little number-crunching, reproduce your precise movement on the screen.

It may be for gaming, but the implications are clear: without controllers, there's nothing stopping you from manipulating a computer display with nothing but your own paws.

Here's a promotional video for Project Natal:

In the meantime, those gloves already exist, too...sort of. Developed for gaming uses, Peregrine gloves have contact strips along the finger and palm sections of the glove to allow users to touch -- thus making contact -- them together to perform a specific action.

The company says the full-hand gloves can handle more than 30 different actions, and they even have little LED lights on them, just like the gloves in the movie.

Here's a demonstration of the Peregrine gloves in action:

AUTOMATED DRIVING

The cars depicted in Minority Report need no drivers to travel down, up or over the highway.

Believe it or not, a driverless car that can accelerate and decelerate, change lanes, brake and avoid obstacles has been in existence in some form for three decades, using various technologies such as cameras and lasers to keep the vehicles on the right path.

Several different organizations have shown interest or invested in autonomous driving research. Both car makers such as General Motors and the U.S. military have developed examples, the former in 2008 with its "Tahoe Boss" vehicle that won the U.S. Defense Department's DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Urban Challenge. Rival carmakers from Japan and Europe have also developed competing autonomous vehicles.

While many pieces of the puzzle have been put in place, there are still hurdles to ensure that an autonomous vehicle can "think" and handle the unexpected in a way that would please lawyers, judges and politicians across the country.

Here's a look at the science behind automated driving:

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FLEXIBLE DIGITAL NEWSPAPERS

By now, we've surely all heard of e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle or tablet PCs such as the HP Touchsmart tx2. But what about a flexible dynamic electronic display for reading the morning news -- preferably one that's transparent and can roll up, too?

Believe it or not, they exist, at least in the lab. Several companies are developing flexible electronic displays, including U.K.-based Plastic Logic and Netherlands-based Polymer Vision, which are both working to create electronic-ink-based reading devices.

The U.S. Army has also expressed interest in technology that's lightweight, rugged and doesn't require a backlight.

Here's a look at a lab test of a flexible digital display:

There is plenty of interest from major consumer electronics manufacturers, too. Computer maker Asus showed off last week a prototype called "Waveface" that amounts to a digital display that's connected to the Internet, allowing for information to stream right to a wearable smartphone or flexible personal tablet device.

Here's a promotional video for the concept:

For now, the concept is only just that, but it shows what the company is working toward: a flexible information portal that auto-updates with information from the Internet.

INTELLIGENT INTERACTIVE BILLBOARDS

A frightening "Big Brother"-esque scene in Minority Report depicts John Anderton walking through a hallway as billboards "sense" his eyes and determine his identity.

"The road you're on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled," a Lexus ad says.

"John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right now," shouts another.

Here's the scene:

In that scene, Anderton's eyes are the functional equivalent of our current-day RFID passports. And those personalized advertisements invasively calling out Anderton's name when he walks by? Yes, those exist, too.

With face detection, digital head and perspective tracking, Immersive Labs' intelligent billboard displays are on that path.

Here's a look:

For sure, these billboards aren't quite at the point that they'll recommend to you an advertisement or product based on your interests. But integrate with your Facebook account and they just might.

Similarly, Intel last week showed off a proof-of-concept intelligent digital signage design (see it in a video here) that can tell when you're nearby, display content at your height and even augment the reality behind its transparent pane with digital information.

SICK STICKS

The primary weapon of law enforcement in Minority Report isn't the handgun -- it's a "sick stick" that prompts vomiting upon physical contact with a victim.

Scientists have designed a type of "sick stick" that uses light-emitting diodes -- LEDs -- to emit ultra-bright pulses of light at rapidly changing wavelengths. To the average human, that induces temporary blindness, disorientation, nausea and vomiting.

A working prototype of the "LED Incapacitator" has already been created at Penn State's Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technology, and the researchers plan on commercializing the device through Intelligent Optical Systems, Inc. by 2010.

But that's not all that's in the nonlethal arsenal. The Pentagon has devised a wave-beaming device called the "Active Denial System" that causes an intolerable burning sensation to a victim's skin, a blinding laser that doesn't cause eye injury and an acoustic wave-beaming device that briefly directs high-decibel sounds to a perpetrator.

AUTOMATED SPIDER DRONES

Another signature technological feat in Minority Report are groups of autonomous (and creepy, for that matter) spider drones that search for a hiding Anderton.

As luck would have it, those exist, too. British defense firm BAE Systems is working with the U.S. Army to develop "robobugs" that could replace soldiers on the dangerous front lines, according to a U.K. Daily Mail report from 2008.

Here's a promotional concept video from BAE:

The advantages? Plenty. With small footprints, the robobugs could enter places a combat soldier cannot to electronically report what's inside using small cameras and external sensors to detect chemical, biological or radioactive weapons -- or perhaps movie heroes on the run.

A DECADE TO REALITY

Some of these technologies are conceptual, and some have existed for decades, but it's hard to believe that the technology featured in a futuristic science fiction movie made just eight years ago has already materialized in the real world.

We may not be able to beam up Scotty just yet -- though quantum physicists are working hard to do so -- and we sure can't predict the future. But it's a testament to scientific discovery that the sci-fi creations of the late Philip K. Dick are alive and well in the 21st century.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure