The Future Tech of Back to the Future II, Ranked

The shoes? The board? Where do they rank?
The shoes? The board? Where do they rank?
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 2015 scenes in Back to the Future Part II are everything. Even though the “future” has come and gone, the vision of the world Robert Zemeckis and his team created in the 1989 sequel remains as influential and cool today as it was back then.

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In that time, some of the technology the Back to the Future team imagined has actually been invented. Most of it, however, has not. So we went through the film’s famous sequences and made a note of every cool innovation or piece of tech mentioned. Then, we ranked them based on their potential usefulness and general cool factor. If it already exists, understandably, it got docked a bit. But we tried to include everything and we have a feeling you won’t guess what we think the best one is.

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32. Digital hats - The police have hats with digital readouts on them; you can buy similar ones now as gag gifts.

31. Mini fax machines - The fax machine has been more or less obsolete for a decade, so a smaller version of one is pretty silly.

30. Digital card reader - Marty Sr. uses some kind of massive card reader to join Needles’ scheme. It’s unclear what it does but it’s basically a large Square device. It’s tech we have, just bulkier.

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Even in the future, fax machines suck.
Photo: Universal Pictures

29. Street level street lights - On the streets of Hilldale, there are blue lights lining the streets. This probably has more to do with the cinematography than the future of the movie, but they’re on screen, which makes them part of the movie. They don’t really do anything though.

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28. Voice-activated appliances - Thanks to devices like the Amazon Echo, voice-activated tech (like Jennifer turning on the lights) is here and part of our everyday lives already. You can even find Alexa embedded into microwaves. It’s helpful, but also surprisingly annoying. Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa—they’re not quite as seamless as in the movie.

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27. Fresh fruit terrarium- The McFlys have some kind of terrarium in their kitchen ceiling that comes down when they want fresh fruit. I’m not sure that’s something that exists now but it feels like it could?

26. Thumbprint identification - The film has multiple uses of thumbprint ID, for donations, for identification, and for locks on the McFly house. It’s a useful, smart thing that most of us now have on our phone.

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All of the tech in the movie has real companies attached to it.
Photo: Universal Pictures

25. Scene Screen - Because they have an ugly view, the McFlys have something called “scene screen” over their windows, which projects beautiful views on their shades. It’s basically a big screensaver (it’s sort of utilized on some TVs). Low tech, easily manufactured, but still a decent idea.

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24. Telescoping baseball bats - For the psychopath who wants to carry around a baseball bat for some reason, but also save room, there are telescoping baseball bats.

23. Video phone - Marty talks to Needles on a video phone which, of course, we basically all use every day on our computers these days. The difference here is that the phone gives personal information for each person. Which is either creepy, if the tech identifies you automatically, or silly if you input it yourself.

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22. Computer waiters - The Cafe ‘80s has artificial computer waiters that help customers. Now, this would put a human out of the job, but also make sure you get your order right. Theoretically. There are a few restaurants these days that utilize tablets for diners to order on their own, but humans typically still gather the food for you. Though there are a few novelty places out there.

21. Glasses with rear display - While driving, Doc Brown reveals that his cool silver glasses allow him to see backward. These things exist, but aren’t really great, and never look as cool as they do here.

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Doc’s binocs.
Photo: Universal Pictures

20. Super binoculars - Doc Brown uses a pair of mini binoculars that offer a perfect view and personal details on the people he’s looking at. It’s just an improvement on technology we already have—with the addition of invasion of privacy—but it could definitely be useful.

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19. Gas pumping robots - Let’s face it. No one wants to pump their own gas. So if a robot could do it, and also check your oil and top off your fluids at the same time? All the better.

18. Holograms - We see two instances of this. First, obviously, is the 3D Jaws. Which is awesome. Then there’s the projection of the news, talking about the World Series. The news hologram, being flat, kind of knocks this down a bit but to be able to interact with holograms in reality, like the Jaws one, has tons of potential.

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17. Self-lacing shoes - Nike has famously been perfecting this technology over the past few years so we basically have these now, but that doesn’t make them any less excellent. Nike’s version is still kind of clunky and way louder than the ones in the movie, but we’re getting there!

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16. Dust repellant paper - The lady in the antique shop offhandedly mentions this new invention which we don’t quite get, but anything that can get rid of dust is a good thing.

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What are you watching, Jr?
Photo: Universal Pictures
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15. TV and Phone glasses - Both of the McFly kids eat dinner while wearing glasses which, we can only assume, are basically modern smartphones, because they’re phones and they can watch TV on them. Cool idea but is anyone really clamoring for a more cumbersome Google Glass? Nope. At least, the average person isn’t. These types of glasses are actually more useful in enterprise. This is one case where sci-fi may have actually set up smart glasses for failure in the real world.

14. Pepsi Perfect - We don’t know why Pepsi Perfect is perfect but we are very intrigued to find out.

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13. Robot Dog Walker - Tired of waking up in the middle of the night to walk your dog? In the future, there’s a levitating robot that does it. We love it.

12. Smart jacket - A jacket that not only changes its size but dries itself. It suggests the clothes of the future are as smart as our technology.

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11. Litter Bug - Ever finish a drink but can’t find a trash can? Well, these trash cans walk around and find you. (We see one briefly when Marty shows Doc the Sports Almanac.)

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Photo: Universal Pictures
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10. Hydrator - Grandma Lorraine uses the hydrator to turn a dried pizza the size of a hockey puck into a full size one. Honestly, we don’t quite comprehend all the benefits of this besides space-saving, but it’s just really clever. In the real world, however, 3D printed food is a thing. We have 3D printed pizza, cheese, and a whole other assortment of technically “edible” foods. It’s more replicator than hydrator, so maybe we’re a bit more advanced than we thought.

9. Sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator - That’s what Doc Brown calls the little device that puts Jennifer to sleep when they arrive in the future. Any tech that can make you go to sleep instantly and safely sounds amazing. Current sleep tech is…a bit weirder. There are bean-shaped robots you can cuddle, headbands, and even smart beds. It’s debatable whether they help you fall asleep faster though.

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8. Robot news reporters - When Griff crashes into Town Hall, we see a USA Today robot fly down and take his photo, which then ends up in the newspaper. We take that to mean reporters, or at least photographers, are robots in the future, which sounds like a great way to get coverage a human couldn’t. Our current drones, of course, could easily do this.

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7. Ortho-Lev - That’s the name for the thing George McFly is suspended in upside down, after hurting his back “playing golf.” What exactly it is or is doing, we don’t know. It’s just super cool-looking.

6. Upgraded weather service - Weather tracking in the future has gotten so good, it can predict upcoming changes to the second. We don’t know how they do it but damned if that’s not a great advancement. Apple purchased tech, Dark Sky, that aims to do this, however.

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Hoverboards. Of course.
Photo: Universal Pictures

5. Hoverboard - Nope. Not number one. Sure, it’s the most famous piece of future tech created for the movie. And yeah, every person in the world would want one. But ultimately, it’s just a skateboard that floats. It’s amazing but unless you could really skateboard, you’d probably get bored of it. Which is why it only ranks at number five.

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4. Flying cars - The bigger part of hoverboards existing is other things that also fly. Mainly, cars. Flying cars are a game-changer. No traffic, faster travel—we all want them and will probably never have them, but it’s fun to dream about.

3. Mr. Fusion - Buying gas sucks. Sure, you could have an electric or solar powered car but with Mr. Fusion, there’s an added benefit: putting all that garbage filling up the planet to good use! It’s genius! If only it was real.

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2. Lawyer-less justice system - In the future, people are tried and sentenced within hours because lawyers have been abolished. Some people in our world have to wait on those things for months, even years, so streamlining the system could literally change the world.

1. Health rejuvenation - As cool as everything else is on this list, the best piece of technology in Back to the Future Part II isn’t even one you see. Doc Brown mentions to Marty he had his health rejuvenated, which means they not only made him look younger but literally replaced bad organs to add decades to his life. Hoverboards, Mr. Fusion, all of this stuff is cool. But nothing is as precious as time and an extra 30 or 40 years changes everything.

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What’s This?

Rewatching Back to the Future Part II you notice there’s tech that we see or gets mentioned—but we don’t ever find out what it is or does. Therefore, these have not been ranked, but we figured deserved a mention.

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What is Holomax?
What is Holomax?
Photo: Universal Pictures

Bionic Implants - Doc mentions that Griff has Bionic Implants. We don’t know what that means. Maybe it’s how he seems to grow in height?

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Holomax - Jaws 19 is in “Holomax” but what is that exactly? Is that a hologram movie? An IMAX movie? A hologram IMAX movie? How does that work? Or is it just the name brand of the theater? It’s unclear.

Hands-free video games - The kids inside the Cafe ‘80s (including Elijah Wood) joke that video games which require you to use your hands are for babies. That implies there are games that don’t require your hands. So, what do those games look like?

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Lithium Mode - When Marty Sr. gets home, he turns “Lithium Mode” on in his house and blames his kids for it. What could the kids have turned off that he wants turned back on? Air conditioning? Or is it something more?

Master Cook - In the McFly kitchen, there’s a contraption called a Master Cook which looks like...a television? Obviously, it helps with cooking, but how exactly we aren’t sure.

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

the-constable
The Constable

The backstory of how they conceived the Back to the Future... um... future was dependent on a couple things. They felt like they couldn’t predict the future, so most of what they added are jokes. They also didn’t want it to be a grim dystopian view of the future like was common in a lot of 80's sci-fi. I think this is one of the reasons why it was so exciting and iconic, and more movies and fiction should do that now.

And because of that, they actually end up getting a lot of it more right than I think they expected and is typical of sci-fi’s attempts. Our 2015 had ubiquitous information technology, 80's nostalgia, the renovation of the inner city, the dilapidation of the “nice” suburbs (Hilldale is shown in III to be a nice new neighborhood in the 80's after the police in II hold it in contempt while Marty outside the context is excited he’ll live there). I also think the handless video games could have been achieved in their future via either two routes we see in the real world, both of which extremely successful and popular. VR could use gloves with haptic feedback, and fit young Frodo’s dismissal of the old arcade game, and over course the critically beloved and best selling XBOX KINECT, which is of course still attached to every living room TV in the United States.

Some stuff ends up being unintentionally dystopian, either because it was there for a plot reason or a one off joke. The sleep inducing alpha wave generator sounds nice but it’s... basically a roofie device. The lawyer joke is fine, but I’m not sure that I’d want to live in an extension of the current American judicial system that just got to its decision quicker with less deliberation.

Finally, my headcanon is that any tech or device that Doc has that isn’t explicitly shown to be used by civilians in 2015 is actually from further the future. This off-sets they’re not existing now. This includes the sleep device, the rejuvenation, the binoculars, the Mr. Fusion, and whatever else. Others have also speculated the guy Marty doesn’t hit with the car in III nixed the hovertech (and I guess hovertech) in a board meeting, thus changing their future.