Feature

8 scientific breakthroughs straight from the movies

"Star Wars"-style holograms? Fabric that mimics Harry Potter's invisibility cloak? Some of the most implausible sci-fi concepts are becoming a reality

Hollywood has long been obsessed with ahead-of-the-curve technology — flying cars, time machines, self-lacing sneakers. In certain cases, however, science is catching up, creating functional versions of Hollywood's most futuristic ideas. Here, 8 once-merely-cinematic innovations that are being developed for real life:

1. A 3D hologram (Princess Leia hairdo not included) It's been more than 30 years since a stunted 3D hologram version of Princess Leia implored Obi Wan Kenobi to help her in George Lucas' original Star Wars. Now University of Arizona researchers claim they're close to creating a similar effect using 16 cameras to record the original "message" from different angles. Once the data is sent to a 3D holographic printing system, lasers "write" the images on a photosensitive polymer screen. 

2. An invisibility cloak worthy of HogwartsIn H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, a scientist learned how to prevent his body from absorbing or reflecting light. In both fiction and on film, young wizard Harry Potter stumbles upon a cloak that can do the same thing. Now, British scientists have invented a material called "Meta-flex" that interrupts and channels the flow of light so that, theoretically, an object covered with Meta-flex could not be detected by the naked eye.

3. A Spotless Mind-like memory eraser?In Michel Gondry's 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a man (Jim Carrey) is able to erase the memory of his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) using a fictional process the film describes as "technically... brain damage." Now, a team of neurologists at Johns Hopkins University have found a way to remove a certain protein "responsible for recalling fear" from the brains of mice. Lead researcher Dr. Richard L. Huganir tells The Daily Mail that the technique may, one day, be "applicable for the treatment of... post-traumatic stress syndrome associated with war, rape or other traumatic events."

4. "Precrime" detection in the style of Minority ReportSteven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) offered a vision of life in 2054 in which law enforcers could arrest people for crimes they had not yet committed. In a real-life twist, Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice is using IBM predictive analytics software to identify teen offenders who are likely to commit more crimes. Teens who are judged high-risk are steered into intervention or rehabilitation programs — a better fate than that of Minority Report's would-be criminals, who were put into a deep freeze.

5. A real-life Iron Man suitIn the blockbuster Iron Man franchise, industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) dons dizzyingly high-tech armor and manages to end every war on the planet. Seemingly inspired, defense contractor Raytheon has developed an exoskeleton suit that it claims will let soldiers lift 200-lb. weights several hundred times without tiring, punch through three-inch blocks of wood, and walk up stairs — if not as nimbly as the acrobatic Iron Man.

6. "Beam me up, Scotty": The first step Teleportation, a staple of sci-fi films since 1958's The Fly, was popularized by the original "Star Trek" TV series. According to Trek lore, the teleporter will not be invented until the 22nd century — but a team of scientists at the University of Vienna managed to send data through thin air using "quantum teleportation" as early as 2007. "Data," of course, is hardly comparable to a human (or Vulcan) body. True "Trek"-style teleportation remains a theory.

7. An Inception machine? You must be dreamingIn last summer's sci-fi blockbuster Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio and friends are able to enter a dreamer's subconscious to steal corporate secrets. While science is not quite there yet, a device that allegedly allows you to control your own dream went on the market as long ago as 1993. The NovaDreamer sleep mask stimulates "lucid dreaming," a state in which the sleeper is aware he is dreaming and can exert control over the dream. The mask was developed by psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge, who says it can help cure sufferers of nightmares.

8. Back to the Future's self-lacing sneakersIn 1989's Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) time-travels to 2015 and gets his hands on a pair of self-tightening shoes with "power laces." Watch out: Nike has patented a comparable design and hopes to release its futuristic shoes in time for the movie's 26th anniversary in 2015. Sadly, no one has yet patented a hoverboard.

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