We asked a futurologist when Back To The Future 2 will become a reality
Back to the Future Part 2

For years we wondered whether 2015 as seen in Back To The Future 2 would be accurate. Now 2015 is actually here, but we’re still waiting for our hoverboards.

If not now – when?

As part of our special Back To The Future week, we spoke to Tom Cheesewright, applied futurist from Book of the Future, who is an expert in making realistic predictions about innovation and developments yet to come.

He told us when (if ever) our favourite Back to the Future inventions will become a reality.

1. Hoverboards

The hoverboard is one of the iconic pieces of tech that has defined the film (along with the Delorean, of course), and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t want your own after seeing the it. The question is, are they really feasible? Tom says:

“Hoverboards of every description need a field or surface to push against. The example that has caused all the recent fuss uses magnetic fields reacting against a copper-plated surface. Until your local council decides to cover all the pavements in copper it ain’t going to be much use outside of a specially-constructed skate park. However, they may be able to boost the power of the magnets and find alternative surface materials – maybe a paving slab with a high metal content.

“Given that we’re in a time of austerity, I can’t see this being a spending priority. So until physicists get a grip on gravity, or work out some other field to push against, you won’t be seeing hoverboards on the high street.”

Verdict: 2060

2. VR Headsets for everyone

Back to the Future Headsets

In one scene we see the future McFly’s sitting at the dinner table. However, the teens aren’t anti-socailly glued to their iPhones – they’re wearing bulky headsets. We know that Google Glass and Oculus are on the horizon, but when will this technology really be adopted by the mainstream? Tom says:

“One company reported recently that we pull our phones from our pockets 1500 times per week. The natural extension of this trend is to put the phone screen permanently in front of your eyes, albeit in a way that doesn’t leave you walking into lamp posts. Now that we’re all so used to having the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, I think it’s only a matter of time before expect to see a pattern of digital information overlaid on our physical worlds.

“What won’t work is clunky headsets that make you look like a Star Trek extra. Instead sleek, stylish glasses or even contact lenses will give us much more discreet access.

“I think the technology will be ahead of social acceptance on this. Let’s say 2020 before we all stop being creeped out by this.”

Verdict: 2020

3. ‘Smart’ clothes

We are already hearing about the development of smart fabrics that will respond to temperature, wetness and bacteria, but in Back to the Future 2 futuristic clothes include Marty’s self tying shoes and his self-drying jacket. Could we see technology like this in real life anytime soon? Tom says:

“The big question is why do you want this? Is it really so hard to tie your shoes, or buy a jacket that fits? Given that 3D printing and its sister technologies mean that many of our garments will be made-to-measure before too long, why do we need to make the clothes more complex and expensive? Don’t like laces? Buy slip-ons.

“If you really want self-tying shoes then I can see that some form of electrically-activated meta-material might shrink or grow with the application of current, giving you the motion you need to tighten or release shoes. But this being at a price-point and availability that it makes sense for the mainstream is probably fifteen years away at least.”

Verdict: 2030

4. Holograms

Performances incorporating holograms of musicians past and present such as Tupac and Mariah Carey have gone viral in the past, but when will we see holographic images on a more regular basis, like in the movie? Tom says:

“You’ve either got to bounce the light off something, or trick your eyes into believing that you have. The giant holograms that showed a resurrected Tupac playing on stage use a special film coating on clear glass that gives the impression of three dimensions when the image is projected onto it. But that wouldn’t explain the giant shark in BTTF2. You could perhaps track people’s eyes and use directed light beams to give them a personalised stereoscopic experience but this would be tricky.

“Much easier to achieve the same effect by tapping into people’s smart glasses or contacts. This could be the price we pay for a digital overlay on our world: crap adverts invading our space.

“20 years for anything approaching giant, realistic 3D holograms in physical space. The same effect through smart glasses? Nearly there now.”

Verdict: 2035

5. Flying cars

Back To The Future made the Delorean an iconic 80’s car. Although we realise that time travel is outside the realms of possibility, what are our chances of us all having our own flying cars one day? Tom says:

“The big problem with flying cars is people. It’s bad enough navigating the numpties on the road today. Imagine what it would be like in mid-air? Would you trust most people with a car that could crash through your roof?

“Flying cars may be an option one day but only if they’re largely flown by machines. We just couldn’t be trusted.

“The reality is that we just don’t need them: keeping a machine in the air takes more fuel than one sitting on the ground, so they’re not exactly environmentally friendly. Given this and the risks involved, there would have to be a really strong motivation – like congestion – to bother putting cars in the sky. Global population is likely to max-out at 9 billion and self-driving cars will actually reduce congestion, so there’s really no argument for flying cars.

“Technically possible? Now, if you don’t mind driving a very weird-looking car. Widely used? Never. At least not on this planet.”

Verdict: Never

6. Life extension

In one scene Doc Brown claims to have had a full blood transfusion, hair repair and replacement of spleen and colon with a resulting life-extension of around 40 years. This makes all the nips and tucks we hear about celebrities having seem rather minor in comparison. We asked Tom if we could beat death:

“Ageing is the ultimate medical challenge. Can we defeat death? Sure we can.

“Without wanting to diminish the wonder of the human experience, we’re basically just machines. Machines that we understand better and better every day. We still have a long way but at some point our understanding will be good enough to double, triple, quadruple and ultimately make near-infinite our lifespans. Just look at what we’ve done already! Average lifespans have increased dramatically in the last few centuries.

“There will be ethical challenges along the way, and we may have to decide how long we want to live – as well as working out where we’re going to put everyone. Elon Musk’s mission to Mars may not look so daft when everyone is living to a thousand.

“But I think that is some way off: every time we think we have cracked the secrets of life, we seem to find just a greater set of questions. I don’t think we’ll see dramatic increases in life before the end of this century – sadly too late for me. Though we may be able to do a digital backup of the brain some time before that.”

Verdict: 2100

7. Instant pizza

It’s universally acknowledged that pizza is the food of kings, but when could we will we be able to prepare a hot pizza instantly? Tom says:

“This depends on what percentage of the pizza is ever water, and what condition it would be in when you returned it to its original size. My suspicion is ‘not enough’ and ‘soggy’

“Think about pasta: that maybe doubles in size when you rehydrate it, so maybe you could shrink the pizza by half. But I don’t really fancy a pizza the texture of wet pasta.

“Again it’s a question of whether it’s worth it. Unless you’re having to ship food into space, it’s probably not worth the effort – or the loss of edibility – to shrink them down that small. Especially since food is likely to travel shorter distances rather than long in the future. We’re all going to have to grow a lot more of our own.”

Verdict: Never.

Tom Cheesewright is an applied futurist at Book of the Future, helping people and organisations to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of tomorrow.