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future of tech

Technology Throwback Thursday: Laser guns and supersonic tubes

May 27, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

In March I mentioned four technologies science fiction promised some time ago, but that we are only just starting to see practical versions of now. Here we go with three more near-future technologies.


Invisibility within sight?

Harry Potter has an invisibility cloak, Klingons have a cloaking device on their ship and Frodo has quite the precious ring. But what do we have?

Camouflage and stealth tactics have existed as long as humans have hunted for their meals. The desire for invisibility has many applications in stealth, espionage, warfare and crime. In military applications, uniforms and painting schemes have been used to allow people and vehicles to blend into the environment.  

But true invisibility has proven a little more elusive.

That being said, several technologies have begun to make invisibility a practical advancement. 

Graduate students at the University of Rochester have developed a lens system that effectively bends light around solid objects. While right now the system is limited by the size and mobility of the lenses, the effect within those constraints is near perfection.

A more promising technology is a literal cloak. The concept is that a camera behind the cloak would capture the image behind the object and project the image to the front of the cloak. Current tests look very impressive, although these systems are not mobile and are hampered by natural shadows.

laser ray gun

No match for a good blaster at your side

Piew-piew-piew! Every kid who has watched a sci-fi film has pretended to have a laser blaster at some point and learned to make the appropriate sound. Nearly every spaceship battle onscreen is between ships with laser guns. And the people on those ships carry their handheld phasers or laser rifles. In fact, the history of ray-guns dates nearly back to the discovery of X-rays with the first known reference in 1916. But why don’t we have usable laser guns yet?

Now to be fair, laser guns have existed since the 1930s in the form of laser tag and light guns. But these applications do not cause physical damage like their science fiction counterparts.

On the other hand, the U.S. military does have a few toys that approximate laser warfare.

The Active Denial System concentrates energy in order to heat the surface of targets, like the skin of protesters. While this non-lethal system was introduced by the Pentagon in 2001, it has rarely been shipped out to active war zones. 

The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) is a self-defense weapon that uses concentrated energy to cripple or destroy targets. The first system was installed on the U S S Ponce in the summer of 2014. Thankfully, the Navy released this cool video to show how the LaWS works … and yes, it looks like it is controlled with a PlayStation remote.

As for handheld blasters, there are scattered reports of the military testing handheld ray guns, but I was unable to confirm any of those articles at the time of this publication.

tube travel

Tube travel

Ever since pneumatic tubes were invented in the 19th century, there have been dreams of ultra-fast tube transportation. The Jetsons famously showed off tubular travel as a quick, efficient and futuristic form of transportation. In fact, as early as 1910, rocket pioneer Robert Goddard described a vac-train that should be able to approach 1,000 miles per hour.

A century later, no tubes. But that seems likely to change soon.

Several companies have been pushing tube concepts for the last few years using combinations of forced air, magnetic levitation and solar power. The most recent frenzy started in 2013, when entrepreneur and tech pioneer Elon Musk released a concept for tube travel known as Hyperloop. This system would span long distances up to 900 miles and rush passengers along at speeds up to 760 miles per hour. This would mean a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take only 30 minutes.

In May 2015 one of those companies working on this concept, Hyperloop Transport Technologies, finalized a deal with landowners to build the first test track in California. Musk has also promised to build a public test track in Texas for anyone working on the concept.

While it is promising to see these tests and pilot programs starting up, it is unlikely that commercial tube travel will be running in the next decade. 

Any technologies from science fiction you wish were real? Have you heard about some remarkable new tech out there? Let me know by leaving a comment below. In the meantime, make sure to read the first article about science fiction technology reality and this article about the history of IT.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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