In this special feature, we assess the prospects of 10 of the coolest gadgets that in 30 years' time may change our lives as much – or maybe more – than cellphones, iPods and the internet.

1. Super-vision (pictured)
The briefcase-sized Prism 200 from UK firm Cambridge Consultants can detect people through brick walls by firing off pulses of ultra-wideband radar and listening for returning echoes.

These pulses can pass through building materials over 40 centimetres thick, and spot activity over a range of up to 15 metres.

The device could be used to track people in hostage situations. However, it can only detect people when they move.

2. Invisibility
Few dreams have flipped from science fiction to fact as quickly as "invisibility cloaks".

The first functional cloak, in 2006, worked only for microwaves. But by last year a group at the University of California, Berkeley, constructed a material that is able to bend – rather than reflect – visible light backwards. A cloak of the material could steer light around an object to make it truly invisible.

3. Hands-free healing
Much of our medicine still involves inflicting a fair amount of damage to the body – for example from surgery – en route to healing it. But new forms of ultrasound, already used to look into the body, could change that.

Lawrence Crum at the University of Washington in Seattle has shown that high-intensity ultrasound can cauterise bleeding arteries. His company, Ultrasound Technology, has developed a hand-held device that allows surgeons to cut through blood-rich organs deep inside the body and cauterise the cut at the same time, all without breaking any skin.

4. Scaling walls
Engineers chasing the dream of scampering up walls like Spider-Man have turned to geckos for inspiration.

A robot built by US research firm SRI International has feet coated with material with a structure of grippy microscopic hairs similar to that of the real gecko.

5. You power
Portable gadgets have a big Achilles' heel – their batteries. But progress is being made towards having such devices harness the energy of their owners.

This clear material generates current when bent or squeezed, thanks to the zinc-oxide nanowires grown onto it. Medical implants would also benefit from a reduced reliance on batteries. This heart-powered pacemaker is just one example of the potential of tapping the body for power.

6. Jet packs
A rocket belt like the one was featured in the James Bond movie Thunderball in 1965, but this and later models all suffer from the same problem: they can't carry enough fuel to fly for more than around 30 seconds.

Alternative designs use ducted fans, like this Springtail from Trek Aerospace, or turbojets instead of rockets. These should be able to stay in the air for longer.

7. My other car is a spaceship
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will be will be carried to an altitude of 15 kilometres by a purpose-built launch plane before detaching and firing its rocket to take its eight-passenger crew to 100 kilometres above Earth at the edge of space.

8. Breathe underwater
Scuba divers have long envied fishes' ability to extract oxygen from water. In 2002, a diver spent 30 minutes in a swimming pool doing the same, thanks to an artificial gill built by Fuji Systems of Japan. It used silicon membranes that allowed oxygen, but not water, to pass into the device.

Sadly the amount of oxygen it produces is barely enough to sustain a human. Unfortunately seawater just doesn't contain a lot of the precious gas we need to survive.

9. You speak, it translates
This translation software, IraqComm, used by US troops in Iraq, is perhaps the closest we have to that today.

Speak into the microphone in Arabic and the software turns the phrases into written Arabic, before translating it into English. After the person has finished talking, a computer voice speaks the translation.

10. Smell-O-Vision
Our sense of smell has a strong hold on our emotions, so it is unsurprising that the movie industry has long sought to make it part of the silver screen experience.

Smell-O-Vision began in crude form in the 1950s and has recurred periodically ever since – most recently, in various scenes in select screenings of the film The New World. But preventing scents from mixing into an unintended cocktail, or lingering longer than a scene poses considerable challenges.

Japanese firm Sony may have the answer. A recent patent application described the idea of using ultrasound signals to directly stimulate selective parts of the brain to induce scents in a viewer or game player's mind. Unfortunately, to date, there has been no whiff of Sony producing the hardware required.
newscientist.com
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