We were really sad to hear that you can no longer buy magical items on eBay — these amazing toys and miraculous devices are what make us love fantasy stories. We all dream of owning Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, or Harry Dresden's magic duster. The good news? Science is working on creating these things in real life.
Here are 12 amazing magical devices from fantasy stories, and the real-life technology that resembles them.
What it does: Grants invisibility to the wearer.
The closest real life equivalent: Science is tackling invisibility in a number of ways. Some recent experiments have created photothermal deflection, otherwise known as the "mirage" effect. Scientists heated carbon nanotubes using electricity, and the generated heat causes the light to bend around them, effectively hiding them from sight. Another way of creating invisibility is through metamaterials. These metamaterials can bend electromagnetic radiation – such as visible light, radar or microwaves. Metamaterials are a long way off from being turned into a wearable cape, but cloaked airplanes and tanks that have a rigid body might not be that far in the future.
What is does: Not actual invisibility, but camouflage that blends seamlessly into the environment.
The closest real life equivalent: The military, and other researchers, are developing active camouflage — materials that will change to mimic the surrounding environment. In fact, there are a few projects that could make this happen. Tachilab in Japan has developed retroreflective material that you can project onto a surface, and it blends into the environment creating a transparent effect — basically, this is a souped-up green screen. The military is trying to develop light weight OLED "paper" displays that can swath a vehicle or person — and the OLED display would broadcast the image without the need of a projector.
What it does: The test looks like a standard testing booklet, but the contents change as the student takes the test.
The closest real life equivalent: Researchers are working on developing interactive testing mechanisms for tablets, according to a paper in Computers & Education. One project wants to create an " evolution rather than a revolution of prior practices" — meaning testing would keep a familiar shape but still integrate "digital ink" technology. So much like Quentin, a student would sit down to a normal looking test and meet interactivity. Also, there have been recent advancements that make electronic paper closer to its fiber counterpart in thickness and flexibility, like LG's flexible plastic e-paper display unveiled earlier this year.
See: Panagiotis Siozos, , George Palaigeorgiou, George Triantafyllakos, Theofanis Despotakis, "Computer-based testing using "digitalink": Participatory design of a Tablet PC based assessment application for secondary education" Computers & Education Volume 52, Issue 4.
What it does: Plays itself, and snaps a string whenever the King lies.
The closest real life equivalent: The world lost interest in self playing instruments once we had reliable recordings — but a couple companies, most notably Wurlitzer, made a go at an automated harp in the early 1900s. In a modern twist, you can even get a self-playing harp app. Replicating the harp's lie-detector functionality could be more difficult. But the science of truth detection is becoming more sophisticated as brain imaging technology advances. fMRI is being used to study how your brain reacts when you're telling the truth, versus lying. To set a baseline, a subject answers a series of questions honestly and then to knowingly lie. To compensate for individual differences in brains, the computers are given an algorithm that allows it to self-train and recognize a particular individual's brain-patterns. Lab results have been around 90% accurate. This technology has so far not been used in courts in the U.S. due to concerns about real life effectiveness, though it has been used in India. It is easy to imagine as brain function and imaging become better understood and refined truth detection machines will become more of a reality.
What it does: This magic coat can repel bullets and is difficult to damage or stain.
The closest real life equivalent: This already exists and doesn't need magic. Advances in Kevlar and other ballistic technologies make lightweight and fashionable protection available now. Miguel Caballero in Colombia designs bullet proof clothing for black tie affairs and the casual dog walk. Steven Segal has a bulletproof kimono from the designer. Kevlar clothing also tends to be nearly indestructible —much like the enchanted jacket. It is no wonder that the clothing company Klattermusen, which also makes Kevlar clothing, named one of their jackets Mithril. It does have a lot on common with the fantastical light weight metal found in the Lord of the Rings and subsequent fantasy.
What it does: The clock has a hand with each family member on it. The hand points to the location of its designated family member from a list of predefined options: home, school, work, travelling, lost, hospital, prison, and mortal peril.
The closest real life equivalent: A team of students at Munich University have gone ahead and made this a reality. They bought a clock, modified the gears and added a microcontroller. The family members are "tracked" via a mobile phone app. The user can enter their location manually or use their GPS for tracking. The students have provided a how-to so you can create your own. (No clue how you track whether someone is in "mortal peril," though.)
What it does: The map shows the location of everyone in Hogwarts in real time.
The closest real life equivalent: Anyone with a cell phone can be tracked. In fact Google is counting on this data to generate its traffic reports. Most cell phone services are now offering a premium service, At&T Family Map and Verison Family Locator, to track your family and display them on a nifty map. It isn't hard imaging a hack that would allow someone to do this for any cell phone user.
What it does: The set of rings allows telepathic communication between wearers.
The closest real life equivalent: Subvocal recognition allows for silent communication that seems telepathic since all it requires is the thought of a word. Subvocalization occurs when you read a word or talk to yourself . Nerve impulses are sent to your vocal chords, throat and tongue as if you were going to speak. Electrodes placed at the throat can detect these impulses and translate them into language. This tech is being designed currently by NASA.
What it does: It is a carpet that flies.
The closest real life equivalent: You can't fly around serenading princesses yet — but a student at Princeton has developed a sheet of conductive plastic that flies by using ripples of electrical currents to drive thin pockets of air along its underside. The researchers compare it more to a hovercraft at this stage, because it needs to stay close to the ground. But in theory, the more the electric current is amplified under the sheet of plastic, the higher and faster it could go. This design is interesting because it contains no moving parts, a bonus for exploration of hostile environments. At this time the design cannot support its own battery, but it might be able to in a lower gravity planet, making it a possible off-world exploration platform.
What it does: Creates a force field that repels physical attacks.
The closet real life equivalent: Electromagnetic force fields are the latest thing in tank armor design and come in a variety of research flavors at this time. One type being developed is Spaced Electromagnetic Armour (SEA). Two metal plates are connected to opposite terminals of a capacitor storage system. When incoming fire is detected, the plates are energized and a strong electromagnetic field fills the gap. When the round strikes, it is distorted by the electromagnetic field, and its effectiveness is reduced. The tech isn't in active use yet but a survey of the literature shows this is a hot topic. See: "Armour Evolves to Match Changing Threat" by Doug Richardson, Armada International 35. 5 (Oct/Nov 2011): 8-10,12. Image via The RPF.
What it does: It is a car that flies.
The closest real life equivalent: The military is actively pursuing the creation of a flying truck known as the Textron transformer. At AUSA 2011 (Association of the United States Army) Textron Systems displayed a model of the "Transformer" which is described by officials as the "Air Hummer". It looks like a hummer with a helicopter rotor and wings. It is designed for vertical take-off, and then transitions to forward flight around 150 ft, when lift is generated by the wings. This was created under the Darpa program and is in the first of three stage of development.
What it does: The sword and orb and can only be touched, and wielded, by the King of Riva.
The closest real life equivalent You aren't very likely to be killed by a sword these days — but you might be shot by a stolen hand gun. Companies are working on technology to create guns that will only fire when used by the owner. One tech being researched and marketed is the integration of RFID chips into firearms production. A gun owner would have a chip implanted in his hand, or wear a ring or bracelet depending on the design. The gun would have a scanner on it that would only operate when activated by the appropriate chip. This isn't a new idea. Earlier models relying on biometrics, like fingerprints proved unreliable. Still companies keep working on it and some states even have passed some smart gun legislation.
What it does: The horn produces a terrible, agonizing noise, and was used to halt a possible fight between the supporters of Victarion and Asha Greyjoy. (It also has another vital dragon-related function, which we haven't seen yet.)
The closest real life equivalent: Sonic weapons are being used now to disperse crowds and deter pirates on the open water. The LRAD sound cannon is used transmit voice command and inflict non-lethal pain via sound. Military versions are used on ships to deter pirates and communicate across up to 5.5 miles away. Police versions are designed to communicate up to 2000 meters away, inflict headaches at 300m, cause severe pain at 100m and can permanently deafen someone at 15m. These have recently shown up at Occupy Wall Street movements, even used in Oakland to disperse the crowd, and the 2012 Olympics as a security measure. LRADs are also used to keep wildlife off of airstrips.