Five more sci-fi gadgets that may soon be real

This week, I pick up where I left off on the list of ten science-fictiony gadgets New Scientist magazine thinks may soon become real, with number six: “you power.”

This is not, alas, a method of giving you yourself more energy, but rather of using your energy to power gadgets.

Last year, a researcher in Atlanta wove a fabric that generates current when bent or squeezed, while a team at Stanford University has developed a heartbeat-powered generator. Placed inside the heart, it uses each beat to move a tiny magnet through a wire coil, generating current that could be used to power, say, a pacemaker. If the idea of anything implanted inside your heart alarms you, though, you might prefer the University of Texas’s implantable fuel cell that uses glucose from the blood for fuel.

Number seven on the New Scientist list is the jet pack. The existing 40-year-old rocket belt looks cool, but can only fly for 30 seconds at time. New Zealand’s Martin Aircraft Company has come up with a different approach: their device uses two gasoline-powered turbojet engines to spin two vertically mounted rotors. It can fly for half and hour, giving it a 50-kilometre range–and you can order one now for only $100,000!

What I want most, though, isn’t a jet pack: I don’t just want to fly, I want to fly into space.

And I could, soon! Well, I could if I were in a more profitable line of work than freelance writing, anyway. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is expected to start ferrying $200,000-a-ticket passengers up past the 100-kilometre-high threshold of space next year, and other companies are also exploring the rich-tourists-to-space niche market.

But to make spaceflight affordable for everyone–maybe even freelance writers!–you need a better way to get into space. Engineer Leik Myrabo thinks he could power a thousand launches for the cost of one conventional space launch by using a microwave laser on the ground to push a spacecraft into the sky: the laser generates an explosive plasma when it strikes the underside of the craft.

Perhaps you’d rather swim like a fish than fly like a bird–gliding along underwater without bulky tanks, and staying under as long as you’d like. What you would need is some sort of artificial gill, and in 2002 a diver sat submerged in a swimming pool for half an hour breathing oxygen extracted from the water by just such a device.

Unfortunately, we need a lot of oxygen. An artificial gill that could extract enough oxygen for a diver to operate effectively (as opposed to just survive) underwater would be bulky, and you’d still have to have an emergency tank of oxygen along in case the machine failed… not very fish-like.

Underwater robots, however, could use artificial gills to get oxygen for fuel cells. The gills could also scrub carbon dioxide from, and add oxygen to, the atmosphere of a submarine or underwater habitat.

Ninth on the New Scientist list is the universal translator of Star Trek fame: a computer that can translate spoken language. U.S. soldiers in Iraq are using the IraqComm, developed by SRI International in California, a laptop computer that translates spoken Arabic to written Arabic, then the Arabic to English, and then speaks the English in a computerized voice. It works well because it focuses on around 50,000 words soldiers are likely to need, but it points the way to software that could handle broader subject matter.

The list wraps up with, of all things, smell-o-vision, and while this might be worthwhile for the Food Network, it seems like a less-than-enticing idea for, say, a documentary about dung beetles.

One imagines a device attached to the TV that would have to be recharged regularly with fresh scents, but that might not be necessary: Sony, a few years ago, applied for a patent for a method of using ultrasound signals to directly stimulate the scent-sensing areas of the human brain.

Personally, I’ve been wishing for years newspapers would include scratch-and-sniff patches: eau du locker-room for after-game sports interviews, smoke for stories about fires, and as for stories about politics…

Well, maybe some odors are best left to the imagination.

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