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

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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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