Note: This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK in 2014. It’s still mostly accurate. Well, as accurate as Back to the Future Part II can be.
If you grew up in the 1980s there’s a good chance Michael J Fox was your hero. As Marty McFly, he made skateboarding to the sounds of Huey Lewis and the News look like the coolest thing in the world, and certain lines from the Back To The Future franchise have become part of the very fabric of our society. (Think, McFly, think!) Scarily, Marty’s 30 year leap into the future is now upon us.
So apart from guessing correctly that we would end up obsessed with the ’80s, how are all the other Back To The Future Part II predictions panning out?
While filming the Griff vs Marty chase scene, the actors actually “hovered” via harnesses and cables with their shoes attached to the boards, necessitating helpers to carry them around between takes. (Who’d work in showbusiness, eh?) In a Behind The Scenes Special in 1989, director Robert Zemeckis mischievously claimed that hoverboards were real and had only been held back from release because of over-protective parent groups. Result: lots of disappointed kids, and curses from the telephone-answering staff at Mattel.
But are real hoverboards on the horizon? We’ve had a few false alarms (such as the Christopher-Lloyd-endorsed hoax from Funny Or Die, which featured miraculous boards created by “HUVrTech”), but real inventors are giving it their best efforts. Artist Nils Guadagnin created a board which does indeed float; the bad news is that it requires magnets, and our roads are made of boring old tarmac.
Researchers at Université Paris Diderot have successfully experimented with liquid nitrogen and magnetic tracks, but skateboarders aren’t known for their love of pre-planned routes. And to paraphrase Doc Brown, I’m sure in the future liquid nitrogen will be available in every corner drugstore, but in 2014 it’s a little hard to come by.
Sadly the best Mattel have come up with is their limited edition, non-hovering lookalike from 2012 – but what’s a hoverboard without POW-AH?
Marty McFly is a crack shot at The Wild Gunman game, but fails to impress the kids (including a pint-sized Elijah Wood); apparently using your hands means it’s “like a baby’s toy”. How games are actually played in 2015 remains delightfully mysterious.
We’ve already got a few options, such as body motion detection and voice commands. Playstation’s EyeToy, Xbox’s Kinect (and even Wii if we count remote control) have got it covered. But what next? A game which tracks your thoughts? Soon a BCI (Brain Computer Interface) could be used for more than just controlling artificial limbs: companies such as NueroSky and Emotiv are creating headsets which respond to the brain’s electrical signals, and Samsung have announced that they’re working on mind-controlled tablets and mobile phones for future release.
Is anyone else excited and freaked out?
Marty’s first view of the future is a skyway full of streamlined cars zooming along lanes illuminated by hovering lamps. (Luckily the DeLorean fits right in: as Doc says, “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”) But even the skyway gets jammed; whether this is a hint that “progress” is useless, or a prescient joke about future overpopulation, who can say?
Flying cars are a fairly recent addition to Hill Valley; there are still ordinary-looking vehicles alongside the super-sleek, and Goldie Wilson III helpfully pops up to advertise his business of converting cars into skyway flyers for $39,999.95. So when can we get our own flying cars? Actually, they do exist. Well, sort of; they’re more “small aeroplanes with wheels” but it’s a start, isn’t it?
The Delorean features a barcode number plate – an idea already raised in the USA, although it’s still very much at the “Neat idea, guys, but civil liberty laws will never allow it” stage. (And how would anyone without a scanner report a car crime?)
Marty also notices the Texaco garage now features robots; prototypes for robotic pit stops date back to 1998, but it’s never really caught on. However, Google has debuted its driverless car, and not to be outdone, Volvo is working on a driverless system which will involve magnetised roads – which have also been touted as a way of charging up electric cars. (Maybe the hoverboard isn’t such a distant dream after all.)
The most useful piece of technology has got to be “Mr Fusion”, the “home energy reactor,” which enables Doc to convert rubbish into power via nuclear fusion. (If nothing else, the film predicted our 21st century eagerness to recycle.) We’re constantly discovering new ways to use stuff that would otherwise be wasted: cars can run on old chip fat, a group of African school girls designed a generator which runs on urine, wee has also been used to produce rocket fuel, and there is a way to run cars on compost. Fossil fuels are so over.
Incidentally, there’s some debate about how the Delorean works. From the first movie:
Marty: “Does it run, like, on regular unleaded gasoline?”
Doc: “Unfortunately, no, it requires something with a little more kick. Plutonium.”
Marty: “Ah, plutonium… Wait a minute… Are you telling me this sucker’s nuclear?”
Doc: “This sucker’s electrical, but I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need.”
By Back to the Future Part III, the technicalities appear to have changed slightly; when they run out of fuel, Doc explains that “Mr Fusion powers the time circuits in the flux capacitor, but the internal combustion engine runs on ordinary gasoline and always has.” Ooh, that fibber!
In a twist of fate, it was announced back in 2012 that Deloreans were to be re-launched as electric cars; this doesn’t seem to be the case but we can still hope, right?
The characters of 2015 mix the outrageous with the average, and combine 1980s flair (bright colours, ra-ra skirts and skintight spandex) with a healthy dose of “generic futuristic”. Where Back To The Future Part II really, ahem, nails it, is with the manicure of the woman in the antiques shop. Intricate designs were once the territory of 12-year-old girls, but in the 21st century, everybody who’s anybody has “nail art”.
Griff’s buddies go for the timeless appeal of leopard print; they also wear face paint, plenty of plastic and fierce metal, wacky headgear, detachable finger claws and the odd breastplate, with or without sound effects. (Gadgets which made chicken noises on command were found on keyrings back in the 1980s, so it wasn’t such a leap to expect they’d become part of our wardrobes. But for almost-adult teens, really?)
The 80s was a time of speedy convenience, hence the attraction of self-drying clothes which double as hairdryers. We haven’t yet developed shrink-to-fit garments (not sure why it would be a good idea to start out with arms like elephant trunks) but Marty Jr’s sleeves dangle out of shape, neatly combining his natural misfit style with the recurring theme that modern technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But most importantly, when are we getting self-lacing trainers? Given that Nike first hinted at this with limited edition lookalike trainers in 2008, and moved on to actual flashy lights in 2011, the prospects of self-tying shoes looks pretty good; Nike designer Tinker Hatfield has confirmed that we’ll see power laces in 2015.
Nike filed a patent back in 2009 for button-controlled automatic lacing, although I think we were all far more excited by the Kickstarter project of fan Blake Bevin, who made a working pair of such trainers in 2010. (She pointed out that Nike’s patent is different from the vision she has for a final, marketable version: she’s aiming for the real, hands-free deal.
Doc tells Marty “all the kids in the future wear their pants inside out”, but evidently he was just being tactful, because Marty Jr is the only nerd who actually does this. However, for a brief moment in the early 1990s, rap duo Kris Kross wore their jeans back to front, so perhaps this counts as life imitating art? (Incidentally, nobody could have predicted the early ’90s trend for wearing plastic dummies. Shudder.)
Most of the male population of Hill Valley rock the double tie and / or double wristwatch look. Far from waiting around for Nike to get their act together, this is one prediction we can actually fulfil. Call yourself a BTTF fan? Let’s make this happen!
What the weather service actually does is hotly debated among Back To The Future geeks.
The line is: “Too bad the post office isn’t as efficient as the weather service” which suggests the climate is controlled, especially as the pouring rain stops so abruptly. Regulating the weather isn’t a ridiculous proposition; scientists have been working to find an effective method for decades, trying out techniques such as shooting silver iodide into clouds or seeding them with salt particles to create raindrops.
But who knew that email would leave the postal service with so little to do except sending out online-shopping parcels? Even that may slip from their grasp; Amazon boss Jeff Bezos now has plans to make deliveries by flying drones and DHL have already tried it in Germany. (I’m getting the idea that most of our scientific progress is down to people who think it would be cool to make life one big sci-fi movie.)
The most surprising thing about Hill Valley is how little the town centre changes; in reality the cute 80s nostalgia café would have been bulldozed to make way for a high-rise apartment building, or at the very least, turned into a Starbucks.
With a nod to the café’s past as a fitness centre, it features stationary bikes so you can eat and work out at the same time; these days we’d prefer to make our multi-tasking more ecologically useful with power-generating exercise equipment.
The 2015 café features talking heads (based on 1980s icons and the TV show Max Headroom) and service is automatic; luckily they have fewer glitches than supermarket self-service checkouts. We haven’t come up with electronic wait staff yet, but giant vending machines are beginning to replace the traditional village shop. As machinery gets more sophisticated, it will inevitably replace even more of the human beings who require salaries.
Inflation isn’t quite as bad as predicted; a Pepsi doesn’t yet cost $50. However, for those of us who remember the days when a Curly Wurly cost 10p and a Crème Egg was the size of your fist, we’re feeling the pinch. Back To The Future Part II successfully predicted food getting smaller – do they get points for that?
We have more on page two…sorry, it’s a long article…
Boy oh boy, you sure can hydrate a pizza! The film was made in the era of instant mashed potato and TV dinners; the prospect of even more freeze-dried, tiny packages fitted in with the general ethos (as did Marty Jr saying “When it’s ready, can you just shove it in my mouth?”). Little did they know that in the 21st century, we would all become obsessed with natural, organic food and nutrition in general: the most unrealistic part of the pizza-eating scene is that nobody asks if it’s gluten-free.
At the café Pepsi apparently comes in four flavours: Original, Diet, Max and Perfect. In 1993 Pepsi introduced their “Max” flavour, although this name didn’t actually make it to the USA until 2007. They’re fools if they don’t bring out a “Pepsi Perfect” in time to cash in on the Back To The Future memorabilia which will surely rule our lives in 2015.
Marty is surprised to find that the Chicago Cubs beat Miami in the 2015 World Series: in 1989, Miami didn’t even have a team. Whether it was a Nostradamus-style prediction or a lucky guess, the real- life Miami club did in fact make their debut in 1993. They studiously avoided alligators as a mascot, instead going with the Florida Marlins, before moving to Miami in 2011.
So, could Chicago beat them in 2015? Well, the Cubs still haven’t won the World series since 1908. And because both the Cubs and the Marlins are National League, they won’t be playing against each other – unless of course, there is a total restructuring of the baseball business in the next year.
Editor’s note: as of this update, October 20th, 2015, the Cubs are fighting for a chance to go to the World Series. They have to beat the New York Mets in order to do it. Miami was eliminated from post-season contention around the third week of the season, though, so at least half this prediction is wrong.
Remote Hovering News Cameras
In 2015, Griff and his pals have their window-smashing antics caught on film by hovering news cameras. As well as helicopters getting aerial footage of getaway drivers for cheap TV, we do have the technology for remote controlled flying cameras. What Back To The Future Part II missed was the way news reporting has been changed by the internet and mobile phones. What’s the point of chasing ambulances (or sending your camera drone) when someone who’s already on the scene will snap a picture, upload it to twitter and see it go viral within 3 minutes?
(And really, what’s the point of training as a journalist when you can just create “news” stories by trawling through Rihanna’s Instagram?)
The Hill Valley edition of USA Today gives us a smorgasbord of news predictions, mostly poking fun at stereotypes; Swiss terrorists are apparently a real threat, and the latest scientific U-turn is that cholesterol is now good for us.
New technology brings its own hazards, such as “thumb bandits” and litter falling from hovercars – but they didn’t see hacking coming, did they? Kelp prices have increased – which could be true, considering that it’s now known as a healthy superfood – but in Back To The Future Part II world it’s because of pollution in the Pacific. We haven’t yet seen a real-life female US President, but if we do get one in 2016 let’s hope the headlines are less patronising than “President says she’s tired”.
While Griff has some “short circuits in his bionic implants”, a pitcher has been suspended for “bionic arm use” – the next logical step after steroids? In other sports predictions, we have the achievement of the three-minute mile, as well as the “Slamball” playoffs. This anti-gravity magnetic field game was created by Robert Zemeckis, but the planned scenes were never shot. However, the next best thing – a real-life game involving trampolines – was created in the mid-1990s and first televised in 2002, making Back To The Future Part II‘s prediction a slam-dunk.
To avoid sticking Christopher Lloyd with his circa 1985 wrinkles, there was a gag about him undergoing cosmetic surgery at a “rejuvenation clinic” where he added decades to his life with a change of blood and a spleen and colon replacement.
We don’t randomly replace organs yet (although we can make some of them with 3-D printers, so it’s not a total loss) but it turns out, getting your blood refreshed is a thing. Not only do we have the “vampire facial” in which blood is taken out, whizzed up and then re-injected to plump up your skin, but recent scientific experiments have brought us even closer to the Doc’s routine: it turns out that injecting older mice with the blood of young mice effectively does give them a new lease of life. Next step, humans!
It’s also worth noting that Marty Jr’s TV consumption includes a commercial for inflatable breasts charmingly known as the “headlight tit”. Just like the inflatable bra boom of 2009 (yes, really) it’s advertised as ideal for “last minute adjustments”. As shown in the alternative 1985, cosmetic surgery was once the preserve of the super-rich and / or vulgar, while in 2015 it’s freely advertised for anyone to try. Yep, Back To The Future Part II got it right again.
Marty’s card scanner is not unlike the kind sometimes used in internet banking, but his real business takes place via fax. With machines on every street corner and pretty much every room in the house, residents of Hill Valley have a connection to anywhere in the world at the touch of a button. Right idea, just a slight error in choice of gadget. After all, who sends faxes anymore? (Yeah, I know: lawyers… aka the Amish of the corporate world.)
Marty also videochats with his colleagues; this technology actually did exist much earlier than the 1980s but remained stubbornly unpopular. The convenience of normal phone calls, after all, is that you can roam around the house (if it’s cordless), silently scroll through the internet if it’s boring, and take the call wrapped in a towel if you’ve just popped out of the bath. It wasn’t really until Skype offered the service free that people got excited about face-to-face phone calls.
Texting and emails are nowhere to be seen, even though “electric mail” was known in business circles as early as the 1970s. Possibly the writers were deliberately avoiding the issue of how far computers and the internet might have come in 30 years – just as well, because if they’d got it right they’d have blown our minds.
Sadly, we really have become a generation who concentrate on technology while we’re at the dinner table with our grandparents. Marty’s teenage kids receive telephone calls on glasses which look spookily similar to Google Glass, and double as mini-TVs as well as phones. In real life, Icuiti launched video eyewear in 2005, creating a virtual cinema screen you could wear on your face.
The Back To The Future Part II glasses are actually far less impressive than our 2014 reality. (A shared landline? Pah.) Back in 1989, if we’d seen the characters successfully googling any piece of information in 30 seconds flat, we’d have scoffed at the outlandish nature of the film’s vision. Google Glass is creepily futuristic and will always remain so; features include the ability to take a photograph with nothing more than a wink (perfect for the pervs among us) and provide navigation, translation, and voice-activated commands (including text dictation).
No doubt there will soon be a “Roxanne” app which will feed us witty lines so we’ll be able to pass ourselves off as functioning members of society without using our brains at all! Yay! On the plus side, at least all those “found footage” movies will become more believable when we all wear glasses recording our every movement.
We all know it’s inevitable. It’s so obvious, it can only be a matter of time before we’re using thumb prints in place of keys and passwords. Oh wait, we’ve already started. The iPhone 5S has “touch ID” and IBM introduced finger print security to laptops back in 2004. (The slightly scary and possibly apocalyptic next step would be if every human was implanted with a microchip which would act as an identifier as well as a bank card.)
However, recent developments indicate that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree and it’s actually the veins in our fingers which are the key to security. “Finger vein ID” cash machines are the latest craze in Poland, Russia, Japan and China. Best news yet: it doesn’t work if your finger is no longer attached. In your face, thumb bandits!
With pin numbers, passwords and personal computers, we now do our shopping, banking, and communication on the move; when Marty’s asked to “thumb a hundred bucks” into an electronic reader which is somewhere between an ipad and a chip and pin machine, it looks like a not-too-distant premise. (And you know what else the film got right? Aggressive chuggers!)
Disappointingly, the 3-D shark advertising Jaws 19 at the local “Holomax”, has not yet become reality. However, advertising does intrude upon every part of our lives, from pop-ups on Facebook to stalkerish loyalty cards. The 3-D boom is also back in town; the 1950s trend had a resurgence in the 1980s but didn’t really regain popularity until relatively recently – right on Back To The Future Part II schedule.
Although Jaws actually stopped at four films, another accurate prediction was the 21st century propensity for sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and entertainingly bad shark films.
While we don’t generally make use of the scenery channel or use our giant flat screens to display works of art, we could: Netflix offers a roaring fire, sunsets and an aquarium among their range of ambient “films”. We also have the technology to watch multiple channels at once, but how often would anyone want to do this? We prefer our TV watching (and tab-toggling multi-tasking) on computers. (This also makes Marty’s sarcastic “watching a little TV for a change?” to his teenage son sound somewhat dated.)
Another successful prediction from Back To The Future is flatpanel, widescreen TVs, even if the McFly’s scenery window is closer to an old-school roll-up projection screen. We can also buy voice-activated telephones and smart TVs – handy if you’ve lost the remote, not so much if you accidentally call the person you’re talking about.
What about music? The little girl who donates Marty’s hoverboard appears to be wearing a hat with a built-in CD player; futuristic technology for anyone whose only experience of portable music was a single cassette walkman or a gigantic boombox (carried on the shoulder for true 1980s swag). We’ve once again surpassed expectations: who’d have believed that CDs (featured on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in 1981) would one day be replaced by teeny tiny gadgets which could contain almost unlimited tunes and fit in your pocket?
Viewers often guffaw at how wrong Back To The Future Part II got it with those boxes of laserdiscs (the large, analog predecessors of CDs and DVDs). But hang on, weren’t they all piled up like trash in a scuzzy alleyway? Rather cleverly, the movie predicted that the freshest fad in the 1980s would be obsolete in 30 years time, without specifying what would replace it.
While DVDs are slowly being ousted by Blu-ray, many of us now wonder if it’s worth investing in physical collections of movies or music when streaming equals instant access. Digital storage saves so much space – why take heavy books on holiday when you can grab an E-reader? (The movie didn’t get as far as imagining electronic reading matter, guessing instead that we’d be enjoying “dust-repellent paper”.) However, it seems unlikely that the old-fashioned ways will completely die out while vinyl collections make such great status symbols.
Everything Else In The Home
Crispin Glover famously fell out with producers over unequal pay and was replaced in the sequels to Back To The Future: George McFly is now seen lurking just out of focus, or, er, upside-down. Yep, elderly George has put his back out and arrives for dinner suspended from a hoverbelt. We may not have the ability to float just yet, but inversion therapy has been in and out of fashion for decades (millennia if we count yoga) and you too can stretch out upside-down in a harness at your local gym. In other medical progress, the “Sleep inducing alpha rhythm generator” conveniently disposes of Jennifer for a while, but thankfully the closest we can get to this is a bottle of tequila and a couple of Nytol.
As well as the talking clothes, 2015’s houses welcome their owners home with a personalised greeting (pointedly self-esteem boosting for Marty as the “lord of the manor”). Of course, we actually prefer to keep human contact to a minimum and will happily do all our business interactions online rather than wasting time on automated telephone options ; I suspect household goods which talk would get tedious really fast.
By night, Hilldale’s houses and kerbs have neon fluorescent strip lights: why can’t we have aesthetically pleasing illuminations like this instead of mundane lamp posts? Other street fun includes a robotic rubbish bin which appears when Doc wants to throw away the Almanac; surprisingly, it turns out that the very same kind of bin has been invented. Other home conveniences include a retractable hanging garden of fruit, which adds some lush greenery to the kitchen but would perhaps cause some complications in the way of refrigerated ceiling space.
Unfortunately we haven’t caught up with Back To The Future Part II‘s progress for pets, so we have no hovering leads for lazy dog owners. Nor do we have suspended animation kennels to leave furry loved ones in blissful ignorance that we’ve been away, although pets everywhere must be crossing their paws that this will be happening soon.
Of course, minus any hand-busting car accidents, Marty’s music might have changed the world; in the alternative 1985 Biff’s influence created a culture of guns, gambling, and libraries being boarded up. (Was this a vision of our future? Maybe we should take another leaf out of Back To The Future Part II‘s book and abolish lawyers to get a speedier justice system.) The Back To The Future movies have taught us that anything’s possible – the poster advertising surfing in Vietnam must have seemed crazy to Americans in 1989 considering their all-too-recent conflicts, but like some of those unlikely inventions, it’s now a reality. Truth really is stranger (and more awesome) than fiction.