Hard-light holograms, talking luggage and intelligent toasters; when it comes to dreaming up technology, the British sitcom Red Dwarf has been as inventive as any serious sci-fi franchise. What might have escaped your notice, though, is that many of the show's wearable tech dreams happens to have been bang on the money.
Dave Lister’s wrist-worn video communicator with the ship’s computer, Holly, was the smartwatch. The Escort Boots, which marched the crew to their prison cells, and the Cat’s dream recorder look like the smartshoes and sleep trackers of the future. To cap it all, the AR Suite from the famous Gunmen of the Apocalypse episode is only a groin attachment and some refinement away from what Oculus Rift is promising today.
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So where did the show come up with this stuff and how did they manage to succeed where so many professional futurologist have failed? Wareable dialled up the show’s co-creator, Rob Grant, to find out.
Predicting the future
“We weren’t really trying to predict the future as much as we were saying that this could happen in a future,” recounts Grant from his office at home. “We’d explore current tech and try and extrapolate where it might go.”
As a long-standing sci-fi fan, Grant had been pressing his childhood friend and co-creator, Doug Naylor, to write a comedy sketch in the genre throughout their years penning radio. But even before the pair had begun, the concept of the show - “a space opera without any aliens” - meant they'd rather written themselves into a corner.
“Why would you do that to yourself,” Grant reflects. “Instead of having alien of the week coming in with of plot of the week, we forced ourselves to internalise the plot a bit more and make it about the characters. And the technology became our aliens, really. A new technological development would produced a plot and that made for plots you hadn't’ seen before.”
Knowing that you need to rely on technology as core to the show may be one thing but making an accurate guess at what that might look like 3 million years in the future is another entirely. As the Salford-born writer points out, in the 1960s, the communicators of the original Star Trek series looked like incredible gadgets of the 23rd Century. Thirty years later and they were more like brick-sized mobile phones.
“When people create a science fiction world,” Grant explained, “we're anchored to our current reality and it’s very difficult to shake it. I particularly made a special effort to break that. So, when we wanted to play a video in Red Dwarf, we didn't have a video, and thank God we didn’t because it soon became obsolete. We used to have video slugs. It didn’t quite guess where it was going which was to disappear physically completely. I wish we’d thought of that.”
Smegging wearable tech
Of all of Grant's wearable tech creations for the show, it's the realisation of VR that's the one he'd most like to see. Far from a concept that the he and Naylor had to dream up, it was a new and exciting field at the time they were writing that somehow lost its way on the journey from the tech demos of 3D computerised space to becoming a fixture of every home across the country.
“It was in its very, very infancy when we were writing about it,” he recalls. “It just seemed to show so much promise. Then all we got was a few polygons flying round the screen and terrible latency and none of the games were any good and it just stopped - probably because the internet came along and everyone got side-tracked, but Oculus now is making really great strides. It can change the world completely.
“The breakthrough will come when someone devises a program that replicates itself and can create a universe once you set it off. Then the algorithms will create places for you to go and people for you to interact with without having it all having to be pre-programmed.
“That will be the kind of game that launches the technology into another generation - well, either a great game like that, or porn. Once they get the haptics right, you'll be able to have virtual sex. It’s going to create lots of strange sorts moral problems because you can literally have sex with anyone or anything.”
Sex robots of the potato men
It certainly puts an interesting spin on the recent hacking of celebrity accounts. It wouldn’t take too many nude images to create a character in 3D space. These issues aren’t a trillion light years away from one of Grant’s current projects - a book called My Sex Robot.
“The advances in robotics I’ve seen from Japan are amazing,” he marvels with a shake of his head. “And of course, the absolute first use of robots will be as sex slaves. There’s no question at all about that and it’ll be very strange.”
The kind of experiences that Grant's after from the future are further removed from such gratification, though - at least as far as he told us. His idea of entertainment is games like GTA that he can't wait to experience in all its 360-degree, haptic feedback, Oculus glory. With the Video Standards Council taking issue with violent titles in the past, however, one can only imagine what they might make of the virtual reality version. It's an argument as old as television that such games could make people more aggressive but it's one that Grant brushes aside.
“I don’t think it bleeds over. Either you’re the kind of person who steals and beats up hoes or you’re not. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy dabbling.”
Where are our virtual worlds?
The other obvious concern with gaming more involved and all-encompassing than ever before is one which Red Dwarf considered in its second season and, later, in greater depth, in the second novel from Grant and Naylor – Better Than Life. The crew find themselves trapped in a virtual worlds of their minds' own creation. Instead of a head-mounted display, these Total Immersion Video Games, as they’re known in the story, are played through devices, that you physically plug into your brain through skull piercing electrodes, which directly stimulate your neurones to imagine an experience of your subconscious' choice. The unreal existence is so powerful that you might not wish to leave nor even realise that you're in a game at all.
“The Total Immersion version of the technology was really more about drugs than the VR which was itself about something else again. That was the subtext of the plot. The addictive nature of the immersive reality was what was interesting.”
Grant doubts whether the reality of a near perfect VR life would ever, in truth, be so compulsive as the one pictured in Red Dwarf, though. His hope is that it could be of more therapeutic use. If someone is severely disabled in some way, then plugging into a world where they're fit and able might be a decent option from time to time.
Advances in biotech is an area that Grant also finds inspirational; from bionic limbs good enough to let people dance to the whole population getting chipped to make likes of wallets, keys and physical ID all artifacts of the past. With his characteristically dark sense of humour, though, he quickly points out what the sinister downsides of getting chipped might mean.
“I think it fundamentally changes things. Without people knowing, the Government could add a little thing to the chip like one of those that automatically cuts out car engines. If they want to arrest you, they press the button. You’re stopped in your tracks and have to wait around for the police to come and pick you up, and they’ll be able to find you using GPS. If there’s a valuable abuse to be added, it will be had.”
When wearables turn bad
It’s not dissimilar to a malevolent biotech idea he toyed with in Red Dwarf in an episode entitled Demons and Angels where the crew encounter both good and bad versions of themselves. It was an implantable designed to attach at the base of the neck of your victim to gain radio control of their actions.
“That was just a science fiction idea that was floating around that we incorporated into that,” said Grant. “It’s very interesting, actually. There are lots of other things that you could do with that technology. If you have a spinal injury, I bet implants like that will eventually be able to sort those problems out completely which would be fantastic.”
When it comes to his own health, though, it's not an area of wearable tech that novelist and scriptwriter finds at all interesting, despite the popularity of fitness bands, sports watches and sleep trackers currently leading the market.
“I worry about my health but I don’t need a watch reminding me to worry,” is his pragmatic response.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, is a field of wearable tech that Grant’s sure is going to be big. It’s a not a format that Red Dwarf ever really explored aside the odd point-of-view shot of a space-crazed mechanoid used to parody the Terminator. All the same, the self-confessed Apple tech fiend is keen to tip his hat to the Big G before our conversation is over.
“Google Glass, I think, well, we’re all going to be wearing that in 20 years. We absolutely are, whatever people say. I think it will mature a bit more and be a really interesting technology. It’s a fascinating tech.
“The sad thing, of course, is the demise of the pub bore - the guy that used to come up with these bullshit facts. Now we just check it out on your smartphone and, soon, something like Google Glass, without having to lift a finger. It’s great.”
Expect to be hearing from Rob Grant some time before you don a set of AR glasses of your own. After a string of four best-selling novels, he’s currently working on a book about a detective who lives and operates in a virtual world, which his clients must enter for consultation. Now where did we leave our Oculus Rift?