Ready Player Brum – from Sci-Fi to Sci-Fact
Driverless technology and the media which inspired it. 2025AD author and occasional Blockbuster ‘background artist’ Raven Brookes, gives an ‘extra’ perspective.
Science Fiction is, some would say, exactly that: fiction. Pure escapism, where your wildest dreams – or at least the wildest dreams of the authors, artists and directors – can be safely explored. It’s also a place of inspiration back in the real world, especially where vehicles are considered.
It was in this wild, limitless space that the concept of driverless vehicles, with no limits to technology or supporting infrastructure, was first played with. But it wouldn’t be long before the real world started catching up, as I was quick to discover when I – quite literally - immersed myself in a director’s vision of our technological future.
Take it away, Spielberg: onset for Ready Player One
Picture this: it's the summer of 2016, nearly three years ago. The streets of Birmingham, UK, are lined with flaming dustbins and burned-out cars. People wander from place to place, with VR (virtual reality) masks strapped to their heads. They each spend most of their time in a global virtual world in a bid to escape the harsh realities of the dystopia they are living in. I am one of those people.
But here's the catch: they’re doing so for the benefit of the cameras. I am one of those people, an extra for Spielberg’s soon to be Sci-Fi hit: Ready Player One.
Based on the bestseller by Ernest Cline, the film explores, among other things, technology and innovation. Cars, and transport in general, are integral to the plot. In fact, the scenes I appeared in all featured cars in some way, with epic car chases forming the film’s finale being ‘set’ and ‘reset’ dozens of times. Tedious, but necessary for a perfectionist like Mr Spielberg. And, as anyone who has seen the final cut will tell you, it was worth the effort.
Self-drive Sci-Fi: where it started
Self-driving cars in films are nothing new. They feature heavily in Sci-Fi classics such as I, Robot (2004), Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990), The Fifth Element (1997) and even as far back as Knight Rider (1982), featuring K.I.T.T. – an artificially intelligent 1982 Pontiac Trans-AM. You could even argue that Herbie the ‘Love Bug’, the Volkswagen Beetle from the 60s, was a self-driving car.
Ready Player One, despite being set several decades in the future, contains a strong blend of technological and cultural influences from across the last few decades, with throwback references to the popular Sci-Fi films. This includes, for example, a virtual DeLorean DMC-12 which includes K.I.T.T. technology, essentially giving it driverless capabilities.
When those films hit the big screen, the concept of a car using AI to drive itself was considered not only improbable, but impossible. And yet, by the time Ready Player One was released in March 2018, driverless technology was not only a real and tangible thing – it was actively being considered, and tested, as the future of transport. Much in the same way that virtual reality is now a fact of everyday life, driverless cars are quickly following suit.
Soon, there may be no real need for that thrilling car chase, or their complicated set restarts. Everything will be driverless, in both the real world and out of it.
Stranger than fiction: fictional tech in the real world
Driverless cars are just the latest in a long list of examples of Sci-Fi becoming Sci-Fact as technology and infrastructure advance beyond the realms of the imagination. Let’s face it, it’s happened before – several times.
Arguably, the earliest use of basic video phone technology appears in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). In 2011, Nike launched the limited-edition MAG trainer with self-adjusting laces, based on Marty McFly’s high tops in Back to the Future (1989).
Fast forward to this century, and to Minority Report (2002), which featured a form of ‘Heads up Display’. A similar style of touch display technology is currently being prototyped by the Taiwanese company ITRI. The same film also uses ‘gesture tech’, or ‘smart gloves’ much like current VR technology does today. Minority Report also featured the driverless Lexus 2054, which was designed by Lexus at the request of Spielberg, the director.
There are countless further examples of Sci-Fi becoming Sci-Fact to choose from, but my personal favourite has to be the development of the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) by the US military, based on Tony Stark’s titular Iron Man (2008) suit. TALOS features a battery-powered exoskeleton that reduces bodily impact and ‘in helmet’ comms.
Of course, this cycle of fiction influencing fact, and vice versa, will not stop there. Especially not where vehicles are concerned. The upcoming children’s film, Spies in Disguise, features an animated driverless car which was designed as a concept car by Audi. The fully-electric and fully-autonomous Audi RSQ e-tron will be ‘driven’ by the spy Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith.
This is the second time Audi has designed a concept car for the exclusive use of one of Smith’s films, with I, Robot featuring the ‘original’ RSQ. While both incarnations of the RSQ models will never become a physical reality, the technology is an aspiration of Audi’s, with the brand pledging to spend 14 billion Euros on making fully-driverless Audis a reality by 2023, and maybe sooner.
Audi aren’t running the driverless race alone. Tesla, BMW, Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover are each investing significant amounts in bringing autonomous driving to the streets of our cities. Fiction is rapidly becoming fact, and there will soon be a time that a completely ‘manual’ car will be confined to the movies of the past.
Speak up and join the debate!
I want to know about the Sci-Fi technology you are desperate to use in real life? From teleportation devices to Babel Fish to holodecks – what are you hoping to see first?