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Art Imitates Life, Life Imitates Art: Where will SFF Go Next?

Iron Man Variant Color by Kevin TongGenre has a strong history of leading to invention in the real world. From Star Trek’s influence in a whole myriad of ways, to Iron Man’s suit (Yes, this is really happening!). Science fiction and fantasy also do a great job of incorporating and playing with the tech and science of our day. They make us wonder and dream and say things like, “Whoa, that’d be so cool if we could do that!” or “Where can we take that next? How can we stretch it further?”

That begs the question. What emerging real world technologies might we see in the pages of our books within the next few years? And how might fiction push us to invent in real life? Here are a few inspirations.

Internet of Things

In many ways, this idea is central in countless SFF stories—think of any tale that’s ever featured a singular “master” network that all devices and, occasionally, beings are plugged into. Now, the real world is approaching a similar stage. The “Internet of Things” is the umbrella term for connecting a vast array of devices to the internet. Cars, home security systems, pet tags, school books or retail purchases, all tracked and monitored via online data. A truly programmable world.

3D-4D Printing & Bioprinting

3D printing or additive manufacturing has been around for a while, though it’s only recently becoming more mainstream. The printers allow 3D molded objects to be printed to spec. Check out how NASA is using this technology to fabricate tools in space! I am so excited to see an author take this idea and run with it. Think of all the fun you could have describing how a space colony could be fully outfitted simply from a couple printers.

Van Gogh’s severed earIt gets even more fun when you throw 4D printing and bio-printing into the mix. 4D printing is capable of manufacturing items like 3D printing and then imprinting them with a set of simple instructions. If a programmed external stimuli acts upon the object, it will react in accordance. For a really neat example, watch this video where a 4D printed tube under the influence of water curves into a set of letters. Apparently, this technology has huge potential application in piping and other infrastructure/agricultural venues as well.

I think the coolest and most sci-fi inspired version of the “printing” trend is bioprinting. Basically, the application of 3D printing techniques to prosthetics and other aspects of the human body. The short-lived TV show, Almost Human, showcased this ability in one of its episodes where the bad-guy-of-the-week was printing unsanctioned human bodies. Smithsonian Magazine also did an excellent article on real-world applications already being tried, including printed noses and ears!

Nanobots by batjorgeNanotechnology

We’ve probably all heard or read of this term—the microscopic particles that can act as trackers, in medicines, and more. The general buzz in the science world is that this area will continue to grow at a dramatic rate, and that it has the potential to generate additional amazing finds and capabilities in everything from computing to manufacturing to biology.

Jedi Arm Band

Though mastering Jedi mind tricks might be a few years off yet, a new arm band lets you control games and electronic devices with simple waves or gestures. The band, created by a company called Myo, “measures electrical signals in your arm muscles and detects the gesture you’re going to make before your hand even has a chance to act.” Del Rey tweeted the original article from Business Insider Australia, calling it the, “Gadget that will make you feel like a Jedi.” The cool black rectangle design might make it a favorite everyday accessory for MCs of the future and fantasy fans in the real world.

Smart Shopping Carts

Flying Cart by AfuChanImagine a cart motorized through sensor technology that could follow you through the store, track your shopping list against the items it scans as you add them to the cart, and warn you if any food you’re considering doesn’t match your nutritional preferences. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi market scene, but it’s getting closer to reality too. In the US, Whole Foods experimented with an early model in 2012. Some would even feature screens that calculate prices and nutritional values of everything placed in the cart. Do we sense an epic saga centered around a fantasy grocery chain?!

Flexible Display

One of my stories features a character with a flexible display screen he wears on his wrist. Lots of sci-fi novels, shows and movies use similar concepts, and as of a few months ago, prototypes are headed to the commercial market! Right now, it seems focused mainly on cell phone displays, but it’ll be fun to see where this trend heads in the future…and how it influences ideas on the page.

Neuromorphic Chips

Can you say Skynet? Neuromorphic chips are designed to make computers think more like the human brain, enhancing artificial intelligence to new levels. One early experiment demonstrated a robot’s ability to clean up action figures in a child’s room, learning as it went. Imagine self-powered cars, medical devices smart enough to monitor human vitals on their own…the possibilities are frightening exciting endless.

Space-based Solar Energy

Solar Space Panels by John MacNeillThis one seems like a no-brainer, right? Solar power is already a highly-used form of energy, and placing satellite panels beyond the clouds and cover of Earth’s atmosphere would multiply that potential by a scale that’s difficult to imagine. I think this is such an awesome example of how authors could power a near-future world. Japan has a plan to do it within 25 years. Check out the pros, cons and realities of getting this technology in orbit through this excellent infographic.

I hope this list sparked some inspiration or at least made you think, “Way cool!” I love the spirit of discovery that’s present in science fiction and fantasy, and it’s fascinating to see how that mirrors daily life. Plus, I’m hoping for a food replicator someday. How about you? What’s at the top of your wish list for fictional inventions turned real? And, I’m nowhere near an expert in these areas, so add any jaw-dropping ideas I missed to the comments.

Title image by Julie Dillon.

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