Minority Report at 10: a look at technology from today to 2054

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, based on the Philip K. Dick short story, opened in North American theaters 10 years ago today. It was preceded by the director's A.I. a year earlier, which was famously a pet project of Stanley Kubrick's for decades prior, and was followed up by Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds a couple of years later. Together, they formed an unofficial trilogy of sorts that represented a turn to darker science fiction for a director noted for his more optimistic excursions into the genre. Of the three, Minority Report was the best-received out of the gate, both as a film and as a detailed vision of the near-future unlike any since Blade Runner.

That reputation has largely held up in the decade since (while A.I.'s has grown quite a bit), during which time it's also become a sort of technological touchstone. For all its bleakness, the future of Minority Report was one that we could recognize, and one that we were reaching towards -- at least when it came to the technology. Human-computer interaction would be more natural than ever, advertising would be everywhere and more personalized, and smart cars would deliver us to our smart homes. Today, it's almost as common for a new technology to be described as Minority Report-like as it is to be described as Star Trek-like. That was hardly just the result of good luck.

Well before filming got underway, Spielberg gathered together a team of experts from a variety of fields for a three-day think tank. That included people like virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, Whole Earth Catalog and WELL founder Stewart Brand, writer Douglas Coupland, and a number of other scientists and researchers. They were tasked not only with making sure the filmmakers got things straight, but with dreaming up and thinking through much of the technology that fills the film's universe.

The stand-out piece of technology from the movie is undoubtedly the gesture interface that's used to interact with the "Precrime" system central to the film (more on that later). In an interview with Salon shortly after the film's release, another one of those aforementioned advisers, John Underkoffler, said that Spielberg had one direction for this particular bit of tech. He wanted someone using the interface to look like a person conducting an orchestra (a notion that would be echoed by the film's score when we see the technology being used). Underkoffler took that idea and ran with it, drawing on work done by himself and others at MIT for further inspiration.

John Underkoffler demonstrates his g-speak interface at TED.

He's also been working to bring the technology closer to reality in the years since the film's release with his company, Oblong Industries, but he's hardly alone in developing human-computer interfaces that have drawn comparisons to the movie. The biggest of those, by far, is Microsoft's Kinect. Released less than two years ago, it may not have quite redefined video games, but it has arguably been one of the biggest boons to human-computer interaction research in decades.

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Much like the often-relevant William Gibson line, the street found its own use for it, with hackers and DIYers taking the technology far beyond the applications Microsoft had in mind -- a spirit that the company itself would ultimately embrace. It didn't come with the transparent display of the film version, but it did certainly make people much more of a "conductor" than a "user," and we're still really just beginning to see what's possible with gesture interfaces. Only a few months ago, Leap Motion brought the Minority Report references to the fore once again with its new system that promises to one-up Kinect, and do so for just $70.

To be sure, Minority Report wasn't the first movie to portray gesture interfaces as the future of human-computer interaction, but most prior examples were deeply entrenched in the traditional mindset of virtual reality and cyberspace common in the 1990s -- think Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic. The interface of Minority Report was, in many ways, just as futuristic, but also more accessible -- something that we could see as an extension of existing technology rather than a shift to something completely different.

But that's just the technology that has earned the most headlines in recent years. Central to the film (and Philip K. Dick's original story) is the idea of Precrime -- the ability to foresee a crime and prevent it from happening. In the movie, that's possible thanks to three Precogs: people who are simply gifted with the ability to see the future and linked to an elaborate Precrime system. While that may be the most fantastical element of the film, the notion of predicting crimes before they happen isn't completely divorced from reality. As revealed last year, the US Department of Homeland Security is working on a system called FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology) that relies on an array of sensors and advanced algorithms to detect physiological and behavioral cues that are said to indicate malintent.

Indeed, such a system wouldn't be out of place in the world of Minority Report, where iris scanners are everywhere and used not just for security, but to identify individuals in public places and deliver advertisements or messages tailored specifically for them. Privacy is apparently very much a thing of the past by the year 2054, which is yet another possibility that's less remote today than it was even 10 years ago.

Many of the film's other technologies are also clearly evolutions of existing tech. Newspapers have been replaced by foldable, paper-thin displays and small robots that mimic insects and other animals (spiders, in the case of the movie) are used by law enforcement agencies to explore hard-to-reach spaces and track down suspects. Smart homes are able to greet their occupants and adjust the interior accordingly, and, of course, cars are able to drive themselves. That last bit goes quite a bit further than today's experiments with self-driving cars, though.

One of the advisers for the film's transportation elements was automotive designer Harald Belker, who's built quite a career creating vehicles for movies (as well as real life). In Minority Report, the driverless cars are linked to a Maglev system, which Belker described as "individual transportation within a mass transport system." That allows the cars to travel not just on traditional roads and highways, but also vertically -- even delivering a person directly to the outside of their apartment.

Minority Report at 10 a look at technology from today to 2054

Such a system does have some obvious limitations when it comes to reaching areas not served by the Maglev, but the filmmakers thought of that too, and developed so-called off-grid cars exemplified by a red Lexus sports coupe in the movie. While not dwelled on much in the film itself, it was explained by Toyota / Lexus at the time to be an all-electric vehicle replete with plenty of bells and whistles. Features included a heads-up display with night vision, a DNA-based entry and ignition system, body panels that changed color on the driver's command and an "auto valet" feature that let the car drop off its owner then park itself for recharging. If anything, it may be one of the more conservative predictions made for 2054.

The movie does prominently feature one nod to more traditional sci-fi, though: jet packs. While they haven't replaced cars as the way most people get around, they are apparently the transportation mode of choice for Precrime agents, along with a large flying vehicle that's decidedly more tank-like than the spinners of Blade Runner. These, too, are at least grounded somewhat in reality, and may well finally exist in 40 or 50 years, but they almost manage to seem a bit old-fashioned compared to most of movie's newer ideas.

Of course, it remains to be seen how well the rest of film's technology will hold up when we actually roll around to 2054, but great science fiction movies don't always have the best track record in pinpointing dates for their prognostications. The space travel and artificial intelligence of 2001 didn't exactly measure up to Stanley Kubrick's and Arthur C. Clarke's vision, and it doesn't look like we're going to have life-like replicants to contend with when we reach 2019 in just a few short years. But, like the best science fiction, Minority Report didn't shy away from tackling big ideas, and it had as much to say about our present condition as it did about the future.