Holograms, Lightsabers, and Droids: How close is science to Star Wars?

Holograms, Lightsabers, and Droids: How close is science to Star Wars?

I first watched Star Wars when I was too young to appreciate it, let alone understand most of what was happening. Much like reading comics as a kid, the pictures enthralled me more than the words themselves. And that’s a big part of why Star Wars matters to me, and to thousands others.

The entire Star Wars series demonstrated a world of technological advances that was limited only by imagination. Things like interstellar travel with hyperdrive and hyperspace, depicted so wonderfully by director George Lucas, are indelible memories from my childhood. It wasn’t the science that fascinated me, it was the possibility.

Unfortunately, age brings with it questions of practicality and reality, beating the child’s endless imagination and belief into submission. With the release of the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, I wondered how close scientists of Earth have come to three icons of electronics wizardry I saw as a boy.

Holograms
It started with the hologram. There I was, watching this film on a TV, while Luke Skywalker’s “TV” was a 3D holographic message from Princess Leia. Imagine watching films like that. R2-D2 beaming that hologram is one of the coolest images from the Star Wars movies, and it references almost every time there’s a scientific breakthrough in holographic technology.

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Science has come a long way in making holograms a reality. It gained prominence with Michael Jackson’s show-stealing hologram at the 2014 Billboard Awards, and was popularised in India when Prime Minister Narendra Modi implemented the technology to make speeches in rallies. Want to know how a hologram really works? Here’s a quick explanation:

Creating holograms in the way Star Wars imagined it is largely dependent on a specialised projector and screens, and that’s pretty expensive. You also need a special method to capture the image from all angles, which largely depends on the lighting.

That’s why, currently, this is restricted to high-budget, mass-market shows. But that can change in the near future. Amazon wants holograms in your house to transform your living room into a shop, while Japanese scientists are making holograms you can touch. Some inventors are even trying to put holographic projectors in your phone. Realistically, don’t expect to see any of this in your house as affordable consumer technology before 2020 though.

But there’s one super-cool, cheap, and DIY way you can make your own hologram with your smartphone. American Hacker has the video with full instructions, but all you’ll really need is an old plastic CD case, a knife, and a measuring tape. Check it out.

Lightsabers
The most epic fight scenes in Star Wars involved lightsabers, the preferred weapon of the Jedis. And it was so cool! The blue light of Obi Wan-Kenobi’s saber signified his good intentions, while Darth Vader’s lightsaber glowed red with all his evil fury. These swords of pure light in the hands of the world’s deadliest warriors were the culmination of the race in weaponry—pure light vanquishes everything.

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Young Mihir was fascinated by this ultimate weapon. Adult Mihir had his dreams quashed by physics. Learning how light works is the end of the lightsaber dream.

1. Light cannot be harnessed the way it’s shown in the Star Wars movies. It’s physically impossible to bottle it and have an on-and-off switch inside a little sword handle.
2. Light isn’t finite
3. Light does not have mass. When you wave your sword of pure light, it can’t clash against another sword of pure light.

End of discussion. Even in the Star Wars universe, George Lucas has to use the magical mystical “Force” to explain how lightsabers can exist because there is no stretch of existing science that makes it feasible. Discovery made a short video to explain why lightsabers can never be reality, if you’re interested in learning more.
I hate physics.

Droids
Ask any little boy who his favourite character in Star Wars is, and you’ll get one of three answers: the robots C-3PO or R2-D2, or Chewbacca the wookie. C-3PO and R2-D2 have different functions—one’s a translator, the other’s a mechanic for starships. But the basic idea is of a robotic aide with a bit of human-like interaction. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a robot that’s part butler, part buddy?

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Scientists have made considerable progress in building humanoid robots. Perhaps the most famous is Honda’s ASIMO, which can understand and simulate several human actions. And then there’s ATLAS, made by robotics leader Boston Dynamics, which can move efficiently through rough terrain outdoors.

That’s the mechanical part of it, but there’s also the artificial intelligence (AI) involved in dealing with humans. AI is largely about responses based on user’s questions, scientists haven’t figured out how to make computers that think for themselves. What you get right now are advanced versions of what Siri in your iPhone is like—a smart computer that understands natural human language and responds in similar terms. Looking in the near future, Baxter and Sawyer are good examples of what AI-equipped robots in the field would be like.

As far as a functional robot like C-3PO or R2-D2 goes, that technology is a long way away, whether in robotic functions, artificial intelligence, or just the battery required to power them. You hate charging your phone twice a day, can you imagine how many times a complicated machine like a robot would need to be plugged in?

What’s your favorite Star Wars tech?
Holograms, lightsabers and droids might be iconic, but they were only some of the cool stuff we saw in Star Wars. The Landspeeder didn’t make much of an impact on me as a child, but I really wanted Boba Fett’s jetpack. What’s your most memorable gadget from the Star Wars movies? Let us know in the comments section.

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