Blade Runner and technology's past future

How has the science, engineering and technology in cinema classic 'Blade Runner' progressed over the 30 years since the film's first release?

2012 sees the 30th anniversary of the release of Ridley Scott's movie 'Blade Runner', now esteemed not only as a sci-fi film classic but also as one of the best movies ever made. Set in the Los Angeles of 2019, it is the story of jaded bounty-hunter Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), who is tasked with 'retiring' four dangerous renegade androids ' or 'replicants' ' in pusuit of a way to override the four-year lifespan hardwired into their artificial metabolisms. Taking inspiration from the film noir genre of the 1940s, 'Blade Runner' is a ripping futuristic yarn with outstanding production design values; but it is also a film in which science, engineering, and technology are integral elements of the plot and action of the cinematic narrative with a plausibility lacking from other attempts to predict the technology of tomorrow within the sci-fi context. 'Blade Runner' was a problematic production, and Scott has twice re-visited the movie for re-release - most recently in 2007's Final Cut version, which used digital processing to remedy some of the original's cinematic short- comings. So, three decades on, what progress has 'Blade Runner's SET made compared to real-life equivalents? And what is it that makes 'Blade Runner's 1982 take on the shape of tech to come so much more credible than the tricorders of 'Star Trek' or Dr Who's sappy sonic screwdriver?

Roadable aircraft 

Cars that fly are clear for take-off

A Spinner from Blade Runner 'Blade Runner's flying cars ' called Spinners ' have vertical take-off, hover, and cruise functionality comparable to Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft like the Harrier Jump Jet. Spinners can also be driven as a road vehicle. The craft was the brainchild of futurist designer Syd Mead, who categorised the craft as an 'aerodyne', 'a vehicle which directs air downward to create lift'. 'Blade Runner' press releases stated that the Spinner had three engines: internal combustion, jet, and anti-gravity.

This year has seen the flying car take-off with the launch of the Terrafugia Transition Roadable Aircraft and the Carplane Bimodal Convergence Vehicle from German firm Niedersachsen-Aviation, which debuted at Hannover Messe 2011 last April. These classes of flying car (or road-plane) are aimed at the Light Sports Aircraft enthusiast with a requirement to fly regularly, but who is disinclined toward the hangar costs associated with aircraft ownership. Both the Transition and the Carplane use foldable wing systems, and both have been made feasible by new FFA regulations regarding the Light Sport Aircraft category of approved aircraft and the emerging European Light Aircraft (ELA) standard. As important for flying cars' prospects in the US are the granting of exemptions by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, so that the vehicles can be tested against the same rules that apply for standard road vehicles. The first Transition is scheduled to be delivered to its customer next year, its makers say; however, Carplanes won't be in the air before 2015, its makers say.

Cyber-chums can help recovery 

Robotic companions

JF Sebastian 'Blade Runner's genetic designer character JF Sebastian (pictured right) makes his own robotic friends ' surreal animatronic characters who greet him when he gets home. It is implicit in the film that one of the purposes of the more advanced replicants like Pris (centre) is to provide company for humans stuck in isolated parts of 2019's Off-world colonies. The concept of companion robots has gained much interest, both because of advances in robotics' abilities to provide a simulacrum of human-like response, but also because of the role that companionship is thought to play in arresting degenerative health conditions. One example is the CompanionAble project - Integrated Cognitive Assistive & Domotic Companion Robotic Systems for Ability and Security - at the University of Reading. Hiroshi Ishiguro of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, at Japan's Osaka University, has developed the 'actroid' ' HI-1 - his humanoid doppleganger capable of visible behaviour.

'Is this to be an empathy test?' 

Lie detection and interrogation IT

The Voight-Kampff test Blade Runners use a fictious technology called the Voight-Kampff test. This uses a machine sometimes described as a lie detector, but its purpose is as an interrogation tool to provoke an emotional response in subjects that will indicate if they are non-human replicants. The polygraph-like apparatus measures 'blush-response': heart rate, contractions of the iris muscle, and detects tell-tale airborne particles that the subject's body emits. Reactions are caused by asking a series of emotionally-provocative questions designed to stir an empathetic response. The concept has similarities with the (Alan) Turing Test - a test of a machine's capability to exhibit 'intelligent' behaviours - published in 1950.

The requirement in 2011 for a technology that will prove whether or not humans under interrogation are telling the truth has enfranchised some technologies originally developed for different applications. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of MRI scan used to measure the hemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain/spinal cord, is one of the newest forms of neuroimaging. Studies suggest that it could also be used as a method of lie detection. While a polygraph detects changes in peripheral nervous system activity, fMRI has potential to catch the lie 'at source'. However, the neurobiological systems that relate to lying are still not well understood. At least two companies - No Lie MRI Inc and Cephos Corporation - plan to develop fMRI for commercial use.

Digital signage 

Getting the big-screen message

Scene from Blade Runner The large-scale animated LED and video advertising that adorns the sides of the skyscrapers in 'Blade Runner's 'exterior' sequences is one of the most striking visual elements created by its special effects unit. They were partly created by installing CRT screens into the scaled-down model buildings used to create the striking cityscape flythroughs. In the real world, the ability to scale-up screens for public display in 1982 was very limited by the constraints of CRT technology. Although progress was made using various low-resolution media during the 1980s and 1990s to create large animated displays for advertising and promotions, it has only been recently that plasma display advances have made the development of digital signage capable of displaying full-mode video streams possible.

Europe's largest pair of digital advertising platforms, A4 flyover in Hammersmith, London, UK Flanking the A4 flyover in Hammersmith, London are Europe's largest pair of digital advertising platforms (pictured left) - double-sided LED screens, costing £1m. Advertisements are beamed live to the displays over a 3G mobile network operated by Stream Communications. The content is then distributed by Scala over Stream Communication's M2M mobile network, where it displays on the Ocean Outdoor twin tower screens.




'If only you could see what I've seen through your eyes...' 

Science lifts the lid on bionic eyes

Rogue replicants Roy and Leon In one of 'Blade Runner's most chilling sequences, rogue replicants Roy and Leon (right) visit Hannibal Chew, doomed proprietor of walk-in bionic eye emporium Eye World. The technology of artificial eyesight that could 'see' as well as, if not better than, nature's originals was not one of the film's more original concepts - but its real-life counterparts have been making some significant advances in recent years, and there are now several projects focused on this area. Perhaps the most publicised recent project involved one-eyed Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence who teamed-up with inventor Professor Steve Mann to produce the 'sousveillance' prosthetic sight device, earning him the media sobriquet 'Eyeborg Man'.

'Your floor number, please' 

Biometric voice id

Deckard uses voice-authentification called 'voice print identification' Deckard activates the elevator in his apartment block using a speaker-recognition voice-authentication system called 'voice print identification'. Although the technology of biometric voice ID has developed theoretically, as a secure entry technology, the system still appears more often in movies than in reality. However, a variety of theoretical voice-authentication sciences have emerged over the last 30 years. In terms of basic user-device voice interaction Apple iOS application Siri (from the solutions company of the same name) takes the concept of user-device voice interaction as a primary interface a step closer to mass adoption. Siri uses a natural language user interface to respond to queries, proffer recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a Web-based services set. Siri had said that its software would be available for BlackBerry and Android, but development efforts for non-Apple products were cancelled after it bought the company in April 2010; however, in November 2011 Siri's security was reportedly hacked for use on Android devices. The Siri system embodies research funded by DARPA via SRI International's Artificial Intelligence Centre through the Personalized Assistant that Learns Program and Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes Program CALO, and includes work by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Rochester, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

'Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there' 

Multi-dimensional digital imaging

Deckard using Esper In one of 'Blade Runner's most memorable sequences, Deckard inserts what appears to be an ordinary still photograph into a branded device called an Esper. This scans the image and displays it on a CRT screen for automated analysis that in some way anticipates Windows-style graphical user interfaces that have ruled the way PC productivity tools are used since the 1980s. 'Blade Runner's original 1982 production notes describe the appliance as 'a high-density computer with a very powerful three-dimensional resolution capacity and cryogenic cooling system [which can] analyse and enlarge photos, enabling investigators to search a room without [actually] being there'. The Esper has a voice-command driven user interface. Deckard issues spoken instructions as it analyses the image in what appears to be 3D (but is a kind of enhanced 2D achieved through analogue cinematic special effects), enabling Deckard to explore the interior depicted in the photo, looking around corners to reveal details not visible on the original snapshot.The technology is fictional, but does point the way to developments in 3D and holographic image capture that have emerged over the last 30 years. It also presages the fact that some of what we now regard as a three-dimensional image viewing experience - such as 360 degree surveillance images and Google's Street View - is in fact based on two-dimensional images that have been digitally reprocessed and manipulated to present an image with what appears to possess extra spatial attributes.

The Arnolfini Portrait 'Blade Runner's Esper machine sequence also points the way to the future of storage media: the photographic print can be considered as a form of thin-format memory card, which is stored the image under examination in a digital format, with the snapshot image itself serving just as a guide as to what data the 'memory card' contains. The sequence also references the cutting-edge image technology of the 15th Century by containing a visual homage to Jan van Eyck's famous 1434 painting The Arnolfini Portrait (left), which uses a convex mirror on the wall at the back of the bedroom to convey both a symbollic point (its flawlessness relfective of immaculate conception - replicants are not biologically conceived), an 'immaculate depiction of non-Euclidean geometry' (Janna Levin), and an awesome painterly demonstration of how reflective surfaces can 'store' much more information than the human eye perceives at a single glance.

'Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell...' 

Building beyond architectural imagination

The Tyrell Corporation Pyramid The Tyrell Corporation Pyramid dominates the Los Angeles skyline in 'Blade Runner's opening shot, and is a striking and credible forecast at what the 'mega structures' of the 21st Century might look like. Designed by Tom Cranham of effects contractor EEG, the Tyrell Pyramid model was built 1/720 scale - 1ft = 750ft - comprising an estimated 700 stories high. The Tyrell Pyramid looks entirely contemporaneous when pictured next to some of the world's largest buildings, such as Central Park in Jakarta, the Berjaya Times Square Kuala Lumpur, and The Palazzo hotel Las Vegas. Construction on Los Angeles' real-life tallest building, the US Bank Tower - the 10th tallest in the US at 310.3m-high - began five years after 'Blade Runner' was released.

'Are you for real?' animoid crackers 

Robo-pets and AI creatures

Zhora One of the deadliest replicants Deckard has to 'retire' is Zhora, who he encounters working in a sleazy nightclub performing an stage act called 'Miss Salom' and the snake'. 'Is this a real snake?' he asks her. 'Of course it's not real. Do you think I'd be working in a place like this if I could afford a real snake?'

The concept of artificial creatures is a central theme of Philip K Dick's 1968 novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?', on which 'Blade Runner' is based.

Researchers are increasingly looking at ways to build scientifc applications into form factors that emulate the advantages of natural forms. Robots are to be released into the sea off north Spain to detect pollution, for example. The carp-shaped devices emulate the movement of real fish and are equipped with chemical sensors to detect pollutants, such as hazardous leaks. The robo-carps are able to navigate independently without human intervention. Information back to shore via Wi-Fi links. Rory Doyle, senior research scientist at engineering company BMT Group, which developed the robot fish with researchers at Essex University, insists that the fishy form-factor was not a gimmick: there are good reasons for making a fish-shaped robot, rather than a conventional mini-submarine.

'In using robotic fish we are building on a design created by hundreds of millions of years' worth of evolution, which is incredibly energy efficient,' he says. 'This efficiency is something we need to ensure that our pollution detection sensors can navigate in the underwater environment for hours on end.' The robot fish will be 1.5m in length ' roughly the size of an adult seal.

'All you gotta do is shoot straight' 

Smart guns

Deckard�s �Blaster� sidearm Deckard's 'Blaster' sidearm was an invented prop constructed from different parts of two real-life weapons: a Steyr Mannlicher .222 Model SL rifle and a Charter Arms .44 Special Police Bulldog pistol. The result was a futuristic-looking weapon that looked like it had exceptional firepower packed into a single-grip handgun, with some sort of assisted aiming mechanism. Now the Smart Gun or 'Personalised Gun' is a concept weapon that aims to reduce misuse by children/felons through the use of RFID chips or other proximity devices, fingerprint recognition, or magnetic rings. In 1999, Mossberg Shotguns developed a smart battery-powered shotgun that used RFID: the ring used to identify the owner has a passive tag that relies on proximity to the gun for power. This year Italian gunsmith Chiappa caused a stir by announcing that from 2012 it would be building RFID chips into its product line as standard for tracking and inventory management.

Further information

Download a PDF of the Bladerunner layout

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