Technology in films such as the “Star Wars” saga always captures moviegoers’ imaginations, whether it’s a bionic hand, a lightsaber or talking droids. But which “Star Wars” technologies can we expect to see in the real world?
Since the arrival of R2-D2 and C-3PO back in the first “Star Wars” film, “Episode 4: A New Hope,” in 1977, we’ve been fascinated by the potential for droids and robots in real life. From elder care robots to those that care for children, robots are making their way on the scene.
“There is an increasing interest in making robots that are partners,” V. Michael Bove Jr., a scientist and head of the MIT Media Lab’s Object-Based Media Group, told Power More.
In the original “Star Wars” film, R2-D2 extends out a light with a holographic video of Princess Leia. Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher, who reprises her role of Leia in the new film, “The Force Awakens,” and R2-D2 re-created this capability on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Nov. 23.
Lightsabers and first response
Lightsabers are a key weapon in the “Star Wars” movies, and the ability to use them wisely is the sign of a true Jedi. We’ve seen toys that resemble the famous weapons but what about a use in real life?
One product often compared to a lightsaber is the TEC Torch handheld thermal breaching tool from Energetic Materials and Products Inc. (EMPI). The gadget resembles the form factor of a lightsaber, although the famous weapon wasn’t an inspiration when designing the torch, according to John Granier, vice president of engineering at EMPI.
Still he welcomes the comparison.
“I love how Hollywood inspires people to push the envelope,” Granier told Power More. “[The TEC Torch] does resemble lightsabers.”
However, he added, “Ours is more thermal and chemical energy than photon energy,” which powers the fictional lightsaber in the “Star Wars” films.
Military personnel and first responders use the TEC Torch to cut through metal to rescue people from overturned vehicles and trapped doors. They can pry open downed aircraft or a Humvee when it is flipped over and crushed.
“I don’t know that there is any good science in the photon energy being able to cut things,” Granier said.
Despite its cutting capabilities, “it’s not a weapon,” Granier said.
Luke brings development of prosthetic limbs
In the 1980 film “Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke Skywalker’s hand was blown off in a lightsaber battle with his father, Darth Vader. How far have we come in designing replacement hands?
One product called the DEKA Arm System, or the “Luke,” was inspired by the character’s prosthetic arm. Following eight years of testing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the device for mass production.
During testing by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 90 percent of participants were able to use the robotic arm to perform tasks such as preparing food, feeding oneself and using zippers.
Inspired by the bionic hand in “Star Wars,” a company called Touch Bionics offers the Bluetooth-compatible i-Limb bionic hand, which is controlled by myoelectric signals. When electrodes detect changes in electrical patterns, they send signals for the i-Limb to open or close.
Princess Leia inspires hologram technology
Films such as the “Star Wars” episodes have famously projected 3-D images of characters, but does similar technology exist today?
“Holograms are used liberally to describe this impression of the technology,” said Michael Masters, chief marketing officer for Zebra Imaging. “There are multiple flavors of what people think holograms are.”
Today, holograms are used on stage in live shows to display concert footage of deceased artists such as Dean Martin, Buddy Holly, Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur.
One hologram technology that has been around since the early 1960s involves an analog replication of an object.
Zebra Imaging obtained a license from Disney to create a holographic “Star Wars” product. The company currently offers hologram technology consisting of a 3-D light field displayed out of digital data.
“When you think of Princess Leia [being projected] out of R2-D2, that active display is the leading edge, and we are advancing that forward,” Masters said.
In the first “Star Wars” film, characters also play chess on a holographic chess board aboard the Millennium Falcon, and this type of board now exists in real life. Designed by Ian Martin of Washington, the Dejarik table features replicas of the monsters that appear on the table in the movie. The table features 10 working knobs, 54 functional buttons, 26 lights and 2 LCDs.
“We can create elements coming off a light field on a table outside of a robot or something else,” Masters explained. “From that angle, we can create the true three-dimensional objects. The rendering or computing power required to do live video is doable or challenging, and we’re rendering that in real time. We have a prototype right now.”
Holograms will get more high-tech as computing gets faster and cheaper, he noted.
A Fast Company article called the hologram of Princess Leia a “pipe dream.” Is that really the case?
Light can’t be projected in 3-D from a robot at right angles, Bove said.
“Photons don’t just make a left turn,” Bove said. “That’s really the fundamental limitation in being able to do a Princess Leia [hologram] as shown in the  film.”
Holograms used to create celebrities such as Tupac Shakur employ a centuries-old technology called Pepper’s Ghost, in which light is reflected from a see-through mirror.
Still, for dynamic images that are true holograms, “you need a lot of pixels and you need to change them at video rates, so that’s what’s in the way of us doing that.”
That’s the real challenge: “moving that many pixels around,” Bove said.
Video connections are getting faster, which are bringing improved technology, he said.
“If you want the Princess Leia full size, that’s a little harder to do,” Bove said. “That is much more data to deal with.”
So what is the real use for holograms?
“Whether or not this has a well-understood set of practical applications right now, it clearly is something that people find exciting and appealing,” Bove said. “At some point even if we don’t have Princess Leia [holograms], we will have inexpensive and high-quality 3-D displays.”
And people will be able to project holograms from smartphones, Bove suggested.
“As computational capabilities increase, I think we will see the number of pixels per second that our mobile devices can do will continue to increase for many years,” he said.
Hollywood can foster innovation if certain technologies such as holograms capture the imagination of moviegoers.
“If there is an application that is emotionally and intellectually appealing to the public, that will drive innovation in how it’s stored, how it’s processed and how it’s computed,” Bove said.