While they often seem like far-away technology dreamed up by the creative mind, the futuristic devices thought up by science fiction writers for movies and film are often based on fact. Be they muscle serums or hypersleep chambers, the products wielded by protagonists are often conceived of by connecting dots that already exist. Consider Jules Verne's underwater vessel in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (a precursor to the submarine) or the Replicator conceived of Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek (ever seen a 3D printer?); both seemed far-off but were actually logical conclusions.
Have movies and TV predicted the future of sleep-inducing devices? Are we that far off from prisons that sedate cellmates in suspended animation or space travelers who slip into sleep pods before setting off into lightspeed travel? To find out, we talked to Ben Bronsther — a sleep-tech specialist creator of Chrona, a product that transforms any standard bed pillow into a sophisticated Smartpillow — to learn more about which Sci-Fi sleep technologies are around the corner, and which ones are destined to stay in our dreams.
1. Hypersleep Pods
As Seen In: Aliens, The Fifth Element, Prometheus, Interstellar
What It Is: Depending on the film, a hypersleep pod is basically a cryogenic coffin in which you lie for an extended period of time – usually the time it takes to travel to another planet or galaxy. It’s not cryosleep, but it’s close: During your journey, you’re somehow put to sleep in order to reduce the mental and physical fatigue that such a long journey would cause.
Our Expert Says: People can be put into “hypersleep” per se, but not in anyway that is akin to the cryogenic sleep chambers we have see in movies like the Fifth Element and Alien. That being said, doctors have been inducing what is known as therapeutic torpor in critical care trauma patients for years. Being in a state of torpor is like being in stasis, where human metabolic and physiological activity is drastically slowed down. Now, one can’t be in a state of torpor for one thousand years and simply sleep their way into the future; in fact typically patients stay in this state for no more than a few days in order to give the body time to recover.
How Likely Is It? Roughly ten or 15 years. NASA and the Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Enterprises are both exploring ways to utilize this technology on potential future manned missions to mars but it's still a ways off. In theory, scientists can reduce a crewmember’s body temperature by 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit via some sort of nasally inhaled coolant. This process, however, would likely cause extreme psychological issues, as well as muscle atrophy. Despite the drawbacks, scientists are indeed moving closer to making “hypersleep” a reality.
2. Sleep-Inducing Alpha Rhythm Generator
As Seen in: Back To The Future II
What It Is: In order to protect Marty McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer, from learning too much about her own future when they travel forward in time, Doc introduces a device that puts her to sleep for the duration of their stay. It looks like a TV remote with two antennas that each have bright lights affixed to the ends, and knocks Jennifer out in a matter of seconds.
Our Expert Says: “The sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator is a favorite of mine because while current tech does not resemble that which you see in Back to The Future, this is rapidly becoming a reality. The idea here is that you shine a certain light, or series of flashes, into someone’s eyes in order to send a signal to the brain that triggers a brainwave pattern synonymous with the early stages of sleep. In reality this technology is called Brainwave Entrainment, and while it is not as drastic and instantaneous as we see in the movies, it is certainly real and backed by a number of scientific papers.”
How Likely Is It? We’re already there; well, sort of. Such heady, audio-trickery as binaural beats falls under the category of Brainwave entrainment. As does white noise or anything that triggers neural response from vibration or audio cues. Bronsther’s Chrona Smartpillow, for example, uses periodic sound pulses to promote deep sleep through the night and help sleepers wake up in the morning. Unlike Doc’s device, however, which was used to wipe memory, these methods are used to enhance it.
3. Morpheus Machine
As Seen On: Dr. Who
What It Is: Similar in design to a hypersleep pod, the purpose of a Morpheus Machine is to compress one month’s worth of sleep into about five minutes. Doing so allows everyone to work around the clock, because “time is money.”
Our Expert Says: “The same technology used in the alpha-rhythm generator has been shown to promote ‘sleep efficiency’ – basically, allowing people to sleep better and more effectively without spending more time in bed.”
How Likely Is It? In the sense of a Dr. Who-ian universe, compressing a full month’s worth of sleep into five minutes is a bit far off. In addition to the psychological toll such a lengthy sleep would have on the subject, the muscle atrophy and deterioration probably wouldn’t make for great manual labor productivity in the future.
4. PASIV Suitcase
As Seen In: Inception
What It Is: Short for Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous Device, it's essentially a suitcase full of brain altering technology and sedatives that sends everyone plugged into it to sleep for a set amount of time. In order to hijack dreams as a crew, the team of extractor’s in Christopher Nolan’s reality-bender use it to enter a shared dream state. Its portability helps them hijack dreams from various areas.
Our Expert Says: The PASIV is more or less a lucid dream-enhancer, and devices of this kind are already on the market. While the current sleep masks and supplements lack the precision of Nolan’s device, they still essentially work to the same effect.
How Likely Is It? Entering into a shared dream space is likely to remain science fiction. Lucid dreaming, of course, is a reality. The Remee lucid dreaming mask, for instance, tracks your sleep patterns and identifies your REM cycles (during which lucid dreaming is most likely to occur), then periodically emits light patterns via embedded LEDs. The light patterns “bleed into your dreams”, making it easier to become aware and take control. It’s not exactly dream extraction, but it’s still pretty damn cool.
5. The Halo
As Seen In: Minority Report
What It Is: Similar in effect to the PASIV, the Halo is a way to induce someone – in this case, a prisoner – into a state of lucid suspended animation. In the future of Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report, criminals are made to wear the halo, forced to serve out their sentences in a state between sleep and wakefulness.
Our Expert Says: While it’s similar to lucid dreaming, the Halo forces people into a sleep-like state from which they can’t escape and is, thankfully, a hell that doesn’t exist.
How Likely Is It? Suspended animation could certainly exist in the foreseeable future, but it’s actuality is unknown. It’s a matter of morality as much as it is science that tech of this nature hasn’t, as we see it, been created yet.
As Seen On: Star Trek
What It Is: A device that uses significant air pressure to shoot liquid vaccine or sleeping serum deep enough into human skin. It’s a hypodermic needle without the needle.
Our Expert Says: “It’s relevant here because studies have shown that using a jet injector for sedatives such as midazolam provides a more rapid onset of sedation than traditional injections.”
How Likely Is It? t already exists! Bronsther confirms its efficacy, and explains its current use for preoperative anesthesia. Eventually, it’s likely that more consumer applications will be developed, including treatment for those suffering from severe insomnia.
7. Glow Rod
As Seen In: Demolition Man
What It Is: Your basic police baton, modified with a series of silver discs on the business end that, when touched to a person’s head, shocks or stuns them into a state of unconsciousness. No, it doesn't induce "sleep" per se, but it's still cool.
Our Expert Says: “Electroshock weapons such as the Glow Rod don’t instantly put you to sleep for a short period of time. Rather, they incapacitate you either by physically disrupting your muscle functions and your ability to move, or causing you enough pain that you’re forced into submission.”
How Likely Is It? The Glow Rod is available in some form today, for better or worse. Bronsther cites the device’s closest real world counterpart, the stun gun, explaining how they discharge tesla-like electric arcs that incapacitate the victim almost instantly. It’s not as rad, but it certainly has the same ability.