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The future ain’t so fancy! 10 sci-fi movie props that are actually real gadgets

Science-fiction films and TV shows are famous for creating out-of-this-world gadgets to help create the illusion of a futuristic world. But sometimes the art department looks a little closer to home for inspiration. Here are a few real gadgets that stand in for future technology in some of your favorite sci-fi universes.

Stargate’s all-purpose gadgets are Palm-powered


Stargate SG-1 and its sister series are almost unique among space-faring TV shows in that they’re set in the present day — most of the technology that Stargate Command uses is conventional, semi-real military and consumer tech augmented with some fictional alien hoodoo. It’s almost appropriate, then, that as the series stretched closer to Star Trek levels of technology-focused sci-fi in the later seasons, the prop department simply grabbed a real Earth gadget for team members’ handheld computing needs.

At various points in Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, you can see the scientist characters using a curvy little PDA-style gizmo to detect alien artifacts, re-activate ancient satellites, or control sci-fi energy reactors. That gizmo was in fact a Tapwave Zodiac, a one-off design that attempted to create a portable game machine running a modified version of Palm OS. Since the Zodiac was from a time when most handheld computers lacked both cellular and Wi-Fi connections, it seems unlikely that you could use one to shoot Wraith hive ships out of the sky.

The fleet controllers in Ender’s Game are Razer Nostromo game pads


In Ender’s Game, a group of children are trained by the military to command enormous space battles against an intractable armada of Buggers. (You, in the back, stop laughing.) Since the climax of the movie revolves around an incredibly high-stakes, holographic war game, it’s only natural that the fleet commanders would use setups that looks surprisingly similar to gaming PCs. there’s a bit of holographic movie magic thrown in, and Ender himself is in the middle like a conductor on a Minority Report orchestra, but the Battle Schoolers themselves kind of look like they’re playing Starcraft.

The setups include some suitably futuristic one-handed keyboards that the kids use to give commands to their holographic fleets. But regular PC gamers will be able to tell that they aren’t that futuristic: They’re actually the Razer Nostromo, a left-handed pad that’s designed to replace a gaming keyboard while your right hand uses a mouse. Razer adapted the design from the old Belkin N52 series of pads, then named it after the 1904 epic naval novel, or more probably, the spaceship from Ridley Scott’s Alien. And so the circle is closed.

J’s flying Mercedes in Men In Black II is powered by PlayStation


One of the more iconic scenes in the original Men In Black is when Will Smith’s Agent J presses the “Little Red Button” and sends the Crown Victoria into rocket mode. For the reprised scene in the sequel, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is in the driver’s seat, and instead of a speed boost, he’s piloting a flying car with an alien-looking steering mechanism replacing the steering wheel.

J’s quip about the Game Boy is obvious to anyone who plays video games, as the replacement control mechanism is actually just a Dualshock controller painted silver with a few extra graphics stuck on. The prop choice may or may not have something to do with the movie’s production company, Columbia, owned by Sony, which is infamous for its heavy-handed product placement. (The intact PlayStation logo means it’s probably intentional.) Whatever the reason, gamers could probably tell you that standard twin-stick gamepad is actually surprisingly efficient for flight control.

The Death Star’s laser control panel is a video switchboard


It’s interesting how science fiction, despite often being set far in the future (or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”), seems to reflect contemporary technology. For example, the gadgets in the original Star Trek series (late 1960s) seems to rely on an awful lot of buttons and knobs, but they’re replaced with touchscreens by the time The Next Generation (1980s and 90s) rolls around.

Star Wars’ infamous Death Star seems to fall squarely into the “buttons and knobs” category when it comes to controls. Video editors who watched the original movie in 1977 might have felt a little odd during the famous destruction of Alderaan, since the laser control panel looks a lot like a video switchboard. A very specific one — the ISI/Grass Valley Switcher. The story goes that director George Lucas cut in a few split-second shots of a real video editor working at local Los Angeles TV station KCET to get the right look.

The anti-surveillance gadget in V For Vendetta is a simple book light

The anti-surveillance gadget in V For Vendetta is a simple book light

In the near-future British dystopia of V For Vendetta, everyone has to watch out for Big Brother the Norsefire Party. The oppressive government constantly monitors its citizens, which leads to the widespread use of anti-surveillance devices by the titular vigilante V and other characters to keep their discussions private.

CONTROL’s Cone of Silence from Get Smart might have worked better than V’s bug-proof gadget, since the latter is an ordinary book light. You know, the kind you see on nightstands, long airplane flights, and drugstore bargain bins. You can see the more conventional version in the video below. The prop master probably liked this particular model because of its spring-loaded, flip-out design. Swap the white LED in the lamp for a red one, and bingo, you’ve got a futuristic anti-snooping gizmo.

The future of Weeds uses projection keyboards that we have right now


The finale of Showtime’s Weeds takes place seven years in the future, and features a few “day after tomorrow” personal electronics quite heavily. At one point a character parks his phone on a special stand and an illuminated, full-sized virtual keyboard appears beneath his fingers, allowing him to type his email in comfort.

There’s just one problem: We’ve had projection keyboards like that for over a decade. They shine lasers (and illuminated keys to guide you) onto a flat surface. When your fingers break the beams, the corresponding keys are sent to your phone over Bluetooth. They’re not especially popular, because they’re much less accurate than conventional keyboards, and the projection is hard to see in daylight. An episode of CSI Miami actually used one in a conventional setting — the fingerprints the criminal left after typing on the desk were used to recreate the message she sent.

This robot controller from Doctor Who is better at controlling Mario

doctor who

Doctor Who, which has been on and off the air for over half a century, certainly has some memorable gadgets. The TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver are undeniable icons of science fiction. But all those sets and props cost quite a bit of quid, and TV show budgets aren’t all that forgiving. It’s understandable, then, that the robot Santa killer Christmas ornament remote (don’t ask) in the 2006 episode The Runaway Bride looks a little familiar.

Yes, it’s another painted-over video game controller. The brand isn’t immediately apparent, but the shoulder buttons make it clear that it’s from something of the PlayStation 2 or GameCube generation. It may be a third-party controller, though — it doesn’t exactly line up to any stock gamepad we’ve ever seen, but the buttons and visible screw holes for the back plate make it clear it’s a production model.

To The Doctor’s credit, the prop maker tried a little harder with this one — various gewgaws and antennas have been tacked on to give it a more complex appearance, possibly salvaged from other unlucky consumer electronics. But look at the top, and it’s easy to spot the controller’s shoulder buttons — one of them even has the “L” indentation. In context, it’s a bit odd that The Doctor and company laugh at Segway scooters but don’t bat an eye at killer Santa robots.

The bridge of the Enterprise has a different kind of scanner


The 2009 Star Trek motion picture takes place in an alternate universe, so the Enterprise spaceship is completely redesigned. The familiar grey walls and blinking lights are replaced with gleaming plexiglass and J.J. Abrams-grade lens flairs. In addition to a spiffy new window (not a viewscreen), the bridge has been redone with all kinds of neat gadgets. Including several retail barcode scanners.

Yup, barcode scanners. See those sci-fi-looking protrusions on the center console, with the big red dots on them? They’re regular old barcode scanners, like you might see in any supermarket checkout aisle. Before the sequel appeared in theaters, specialty online shop Barcodes Inc managed to match no less than three barcode scanners lying around the bridge to their (very real) commercially available models. The Enterprise also seems to have a surplus of designer desk lamps.

The rocket launcher in xXx would be better at shooting a wedding video

heat seeker

Real guns are dangerous and expensive, and they require training and composure to use correctly. That’s why a lot of the weapons you see on TV are relatively harmless airsoft or pellet guns made to look like the real thing, or sometimes even painted NERF guns for the more outlandish examples. But the 2002 Vin Diesel vehicle xXx might take the cake in terms of fake guns, and I’m not talking about the protagonist’s over-the-top six-shooter.

Near the climax of the film, Diesel’s character picks up a “heat seeker rocket” to attack the bad guys. It looks like a serious weapon, complete with a flip-out digital targeting reticle… until you realize that it is, in fact, a regular old video camera. The camera has been glued into a fake rocket launcher body, complete with a huge tubular barrel and painted green with decals, but it appears to be a late 90’s member of the Sony DCR Handycam family. The next time you’re taking on international criminals, you might want something with a little more firepower.

Ender’s Game uses a real robot surgeon


This one might not count, since the set designers are using a real gadget exactly as it’s intended, just presenting it as a little more futuristic than it actually is. When the protagonist in Ender’s Game graduates from his earthly school, he gets a neural tracker removed from his head by a robot surgeon in a somewhat creepy scene. The tracker isn’t real, but the robot is.

In fact the robot is something of a celebrity, at least on the campus of the University of Washington. The BioRobotics Laboratory created the Raven II, a robot designed to perform laparoscopic surgery and assist in surgical side-tasks. UW students operated the Raven II just off-screen during the filming of the scene. You can count robot surgeons among wireless communicators (cell phones), replicators (3D printers), and flying cars (OK, maybe not just yet) in the category of sci-fi technology that’s already here.

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