May the Force be with IT

Past and present: how 30 years of Star Wars imagination changed technology forever
  • Rodney Gedda (Techworld Australia)
  • 18 December, 2008 09:35
Matthew Connell

Matthew Connell

If you saw the first Star Wars film in 1978 you would have been dazzled by the awe inspiring technology the protagonists took for granted. Thirty years later and many of the film's forward-looking ideas – from videoconferencing and mobile communications to robotics and bionics – are being used in our daily lives.

During the next four months Sydney's Powerhouse Museum is playing host to one of the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia combined with real-life examples of how such technology is being applied for business and social advancement.

The museum's computing and mathematics curator Matthew Connell helped develop the exhibition and, while not a self-confessed Star Wars aficionado, is very interested in comparing the science fiction to today's science fact.

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, took a year to set up in Australia and this is the first time it has travelled outside of the US. It was originally developed four years ago at the Museum of Science in Boston in conjunction with Lucasfilm.

Click on the following link to see the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination slideshow

“Unlike some of our staff and curators, I don't have a Storm Trooper outfit,” Connell said. “We had another Star Wars exhibition here some time ago and that was about the making of the film and that sort of thing. This is particularly different from that and while it has some artifacts in common, it is specifically about our shared understanding of this well-known movie and how this futuristic world can be used to stimulate thought about our future and how we might go and how science might get us there.”

The exhibition covers a number of core themes from the Star Wars universe and compares the technology to what humans have engineered or a attempting to develop.

“For me, science fiction presents a vast array of questions,” Connell said. “I probably spoil it for some people, but I can't help but look at this stuff and say 'why are they screaming in space?'. I always love seeing how things are represented in these movies because I like to point my physics brain at it and say 'hang on, is that right?'.”


The exhibition starts with the juxtaposition of the Millennium Falcon, which can travel between galaxies effortlessly, and our own forms of space travel.

“We are not quite there yet,” Connell said. “We can send things out, but people have been thinking about interstellar travel for a long time.”

“These are models made by Industrial Light and Magic and some others are being proposed for how we might travel between the vast, vast, distances of interstellar space. How we will have enough fuel for it, in particular, is one of the big issues.”

Some of the exhibits are based on real scientific concepts, but there is “just a little bit” of engineering to be done for it to become reality.

“There are models of ramjets that harvest the Hydrogen in deep space to power them,” Connell said. But those harvesting shields would need to be several kilometers across. Since a structure like that could not be launched it would have to be built in space and that would take more money than anyone has at the moment.”

Another is dubbed "dataless" and uses nuclear fusion as the fuel. It is a concept that dates back to the 1970s and one originally from the Interplanetary Society.

“This is an anti-matter rocket and this has been in the news a bit lately with the new Large Hadron Collider. There is also talk of being able to harvest anti-matter for fuel. The principles are there but the engineering is a fair way off.”

The physical space ship models were used on the making of the Star Wars movies before it was cheaper to do it with computers. And some aspects of the graphics in the most recent movie were limited by a need to maintain some sort of continuity with the "former, later" films.

Also on display is the young Luke Skywalker's Landspeeder from Episode IV: A New Hope, which Connell believes is a remarkable device because it has unique “repulsorlift” technology.

“When you see the film it is sweeping across the horizon at a constant height. When it stops it sits there, and when somebody gets out it sits there,” he said. “So I'm not sure what type of lift this is. It seems to not only work up and down (like anti-gravity), but also sideways. What sort of technology could that be?

“I also wonder why it sits so close to the ground. It's obviously because of the wheels, but as Luke was looking for R2-D2 he should have gone up to get a better view of the horizon.”

Connell is intrigued but this type of Star Wars phenomenon and wonders what technology would we need to get things to hover like that.

“Wheels allow us to stay stable unilaterally, but if you remove the wheels?”

Opposite the Landspeeder is a powered mini hovercraft where children can experience first-hand how difficult it is to steer a vehicle when there is no direct contact with the ground.

“There has always been talk in science fiction of personal vehicles that move in three dimensions rather than two dimensions,” Connell said. “The Moller Skycar is an attempt to get the vertical thrust. All we want is a cross between a helicopter and a plane. There are two different types of movement.”

Also at the exhibition is the rotorwing – a combination of helicopter and plane. At a certain speed the rotor shuts down for aeroplane-style motion.

“And the SpaceShipOne space plane is what our mates at Virgin Atlantic want to take people into space with. This is a reusable rocket,” Connell said.

“So I think it may well be a while before we have something like the Landspeeder, but it is something we are interested in and people are looking at all the options.”

In terms of futuristic transport technology one of the most interesting methods according to Connell, which has been around for a long time but still being developed, is the Maglev (magnetic levitation, as can be found in the city of Shanghai, China) train system which provides frictionless locomotion.

At the exhibition people can work with Lego magnets that sit on the track. Then you need to create magnetic pulses to give it a little push.

“The Podracer is another certainly implausible vehicle, but it's certainly much loved by Star Wars fans. It uses gas turbine engines which is a mature technology, but it is still floating. Nevertheless it has captured people's imagination, probably because it has a little bit of something they understand with a little but of futuristic possibilities.”

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One of the other issues the exhibition draws from the Star Wars world are the number of different environments the theme plays out in and how the characters are required to adapt to them.

“In some cases it's the locals living in certain places and in some places it's our intrepid heroes who are in a particular place,” Connell said.

“Here we are looking at Hoth. The planet of Hoth is very cold and a lot of the film was shot on a glacier in Norway. The Tonton is like a big hairy kangaroo.”

The exhibition juxtaposes Hoth with Antarctica which has about 1000 people stationed there at any one time and on display is the particular clothing people would wear when visiting Antarctica.

“We also have a character from Tatooine which was filmed in Tunisia,” Connell said. “The Tusken Raiders (sand people) costumes are based on real-life Bedouins. The landscapes were also inspired by what was available for a film shoot.”

Visitors can also participate in the three interactive stations used to build virtual communities. There is a moisture farm from Tatooine, a space port and a Jawa camp. It's like a Star Wars version of Sim City.

“Bespin is an example of Star Wars characters living in some of the big cities in the film and we look at some of the issues in today's cities like transport and having a completely controlled environment,” Connell said.


A number of the Star Wars weapons are on display, including Luke Skywalker's light saber and training robot.

“I don't think they have made a real one yet!” Connell said. “The weapons are a combination of futuristic and retro looking devices. There's no doubt they are weapons and we also have a collection of light sabers that were used. I was always confused about the light saber thing, as well. I always thought you didn't have to waste your force to work out who was good and who was evil – you could tell by the colour of the light saber. Red was the colour of the bad guys.”

Connell is not sure what the other gun-like weapons were firing. Most were firing energy beams or units rather than projectiles and yet they look like something earlier than the weapons we use today. Then again, a lot of science fiction draws on the past.”

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Of course, Star Wars would not be Star Wars without robots, and the exhibition has no shortage of them, including hands on ways to build and control them.

“We have a robot theatre found in a Jawa Sandcrawler,” Connell said. “They go around fixing all types of junk, which in the movie included R2-D2 and C-3PO.”

The exhibition also features a discussion between C-3PO and Dr Synthia Breazeal from MIT in a small theatre. Dr Breazeal is one of the “roboticists” at the media lab at MIT. She has developed a few robots and has a special interest in how robots relate to humans.

“C-3PO and R2-D2 are actually extremely advanced in their ability to understand humans and respond to human needs,” Connell said. “Most robots today don't understand humans, but there is a huge amount of research into that. How does R2-D2 get around so well when he's on wheels? That's what I want to know.”

Visitors can build their own R2-D2 replica by assembling the correct parts and programming it to do a certain task.

“Robotics is about mobility, control and perception,” according to Connell. “Robots, if they are going to interact with humans, need to be able to perceive our world. But if they are going to talk to us they are going to have spectacular perception and Dr Brezeal is working on Kismet which can interpret our facial expressions.”

On display is a Darth Vader costume that was used in the Star Wars movies along with a Stormtrooper outfit.

“We have a Stormtrooper costume and a lot of people must have their own Stormtrooper outfits because we have a team of volunteers who signed up to be part of this exhibition. We have a had a number of Stormtroopers marching through the exhibition and there are a few Darth Vaders around and the odd bounty hunter.”


Another area where Star Wars science fiction is increasingly finding its way into present day reality is in the field of bionics. The exhibition has a number of items from the film and medical industry on display.

“If you look at Luke Skywalker he had a bionic hand and Darth Vader was mostly machine,” Connell said. “And it's like Darth got the rough deal there because Luke's bionic hand looked like a normal hand whereas Darth had to go for the bad mask – but everything else seemed to work well.”

Connell said the progress of medical prosthesis is “just astounding” and in every area we are building a future that was offered in Star Wars in medical prosthesis.

On display are the medical droids standing over Darth Vader putting him back together in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

“I am particularly fond of the interrogator droid,” Connell said. “I love special effects where to design was achieved by scanning the room to see what could be found. In the interrogator droid you can see a set of birthing forceps, a clamp from the laboratory and a huge syringe. I don't know how it's going to get to anybody from that position, but nevertheless that's the movie for you.”

The exhibition also has a large selection of real-world prosthetic devices which are "becoming quite extraordinary".

“We have the capacity now for the signal to go through the processing devices within the prosthesis and into the brain so it can twitch the nerves,” Connell said. “Basically, the muscle in the nerves under the skin can take stimulus from the end of the prosthetic limb then drive it back again. So this is able to act like a knee. I believe there is a pilot who is flying again with one of these after losing his leg.”

Examples of biohybridization include the Boston Digital Arm and growing skin so it fits to metal. There is an example of artificial, but biological, skin grown for a skin graft and bionic implants which are planted into muscle and used to stimulate the muscles to keep them alive and working.

“The brain gauge can be put into the brain and signals can be used from the brain directly to make things happen in the world so the idea is just by thinking, or learning to think, we can drive things,” Connell said.

“I'm very interested in human-computer interaction. At one end of the spectrum we actually build artificial humans like C-3PO who can talk to us and the other end is where we connect our wires to the computer's wire and they disappear to us.”

Also on display is the artificial retina which “will be a revolution” once perfected, and the Australian-developed Cochlear device which allows people to hear better.

The robot pattern recognition and facial expression exhibition and walking device are also interactive.

“You have to make the robot walk by adjusting the dials and getting suspended robot legs to walk like a human requires intense concentration,” Connell said. “It gives you an idea of how complex it is to get robots to walk. It's incredible to think how complicated our human technology is to be able to walk.”

“There a lots of these interactives designed to make people think about the technology.”

Star Wars Where Science Meets Imagination will be on at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney until late April, 2009.