In the spirit of this great feast of geekdom, Comic-Con, here are a few assistive technologies that were utilized on the page and silver screen way ahead of their actual introduction to real life:

  • Speech and Voice Recognition in Star Trek
  • Neural Interface in X-Men and The Matrix
  • Exoskeleton in Iron Man
  • Autonomous Robot in Star Wars
  • Computer Interface in Minority Report
  • Physical Monitoring and Assistance in Batman
  • Personal Mobility in Wall-E

Oscar Wilde wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. One area Wilde’s comments may be disproportionately inverse is the current technological evolution – assistive technologies.

Whether it is prognostication or just very well developed details for the storyline, comics and science fiction in general have invented or showcased assistive technologies well before their time.

Star Trek (Paramount Television) portrayed numerous assistive technologies that are currently in use, but were not even thought possible during its original airing.

The series first ran from 1966-1969 and featured instruments from handheld communication devices to teleportation. A major part of the show utilized voice recognition to access ship communication capabilities and computers. Somehow the artificial intelligence within the USS Enterprise could decipher voice commands from regular conversation flawlessly knowing when to operate and when to stay dormant. Speech recognition was most apparent at the end of each episode when Captain James T. Kirk recorded his daily log recapping the previous and setting up the next adventure in the last frontier.

Today’s computer power in terms of processing and memory afford speech and voice recognition the ability to provide highly quality, accurate speech-to-text. Dragon NaturalSpeaking has come to the forefront of inputting personal speech and offering close to 90% accuracy out of the box. ReadWriteWeb has an interesting infographic developed by Wavelink about the history of speech and voice recognition.

X-Men (Marvel Comics) and The Matrix (Warner Bros. Pictures) exhibit actual physical connections between a human and a computer. Professor Charles Xavier, founder of the X-Men, has his spherical computer where he is able to amplify his telepathic powers. Neo, Keanu Reeves, discovers in The Matrix that his reality has been nothing but a computer program which is ported into his conscious via a plug in the brainstem.

Unlike the devices used or forced upon Professor X and Neo, neural interfaces are no longer science fiction. Companies like BrainGate are developing neurotransmitters that allow an individual’s brain to move a computer mouse and prosthetic limbs. A quadriplegic is able to write an email or grab a cup by moving a mechanical arm using only thoughts.

Iron Man (Marvel Comics) is a great example of how robotic suits can enhance human capabilities. Tony Stark who is a genius and billionaire develops the suit in order to rid the world of less-desirables. He quickly finds that the military is interested in his creation, but chooses to go on his own and ultimately join up with The Avengers.

As with many assistive technologies, devices that are created for military use especially instruments that make a soldier’s life easier are generally found to be very beneficial for those suffering disabilities.

Raytheon, for example, has developed the XOS 2 Exoskeleton which although originally designed for the military has significant opportunities to assist those with physical impairments. In addition, Cyberdyne invented the Robotic Suit HAL. HAL stands for Hybrid Assisted Limb which, according to their website, “is a cyborg-type robot that can expand and improve physical capability.”

Star Wars (Lucasfilm) offers an excellent example of an autonomous robot in action. The beloved C-3PO and his sidekick R2-D2 show how artificial intelligence in robotic form can prove to be life-saving. This tandem could not only interpret voice commands (speech recognition), but also could act upon and communicate with other robots and in C-3PO’s case humans as well.

Honda has created the most lifelike robot currently in production with ASIMO. This remarkable robot comes in various sizes and performs several assistive deeds for those around them. Those with disabilities can greatly benefit from this type of assistance. Independence from caregivers of the human species is greatly desired by most in the disabled community and ASIMO offers a glimpse into what could become the new caregiver.

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