“Black Panther” is officially a box office and cultural phenomenon.
The Afro-futurist blockbuster takes place in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that is generations ahead of the rest of the world technologically, but chooses to hide its innovations in order to protect its people.
Since there were some clear connections between the fantasies of “Black Panther” and actual innovation happening in the real world, we took a closer look at a some of the most exciting technologies featured in “Black Panther,” and tried to figure out how close these technologies are to becoming reality.(Warning: Massive spoilers ahead.)
“Black Panther”: Shuri’s magnet-powered subway
There are several references to futuristic vehicles in the film, but none got more screen time than the high-speed magnetic levitation subway that runs through Wakanda’s famous vibranium mine.
Like most of the tech in Wakanda, the magnetic levitation (or maglev) rail system was designed by Shuri, King T’Challa’s teenage sister and Wakanda’s very own Tony Stark equivalent.
“Black Panther” director Ryan Cooler, a native of Oakland, California, has said in interviews that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (or BART) offered some inspiration for the design of the fictional subway, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by simply comparing the speed, efficiency and innovation of the two rail systems.
Real Life: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop
Shuri’s maglev may be years ahead of any current transit rail systems, but as with most conceivably achievable sci-fi tropes, Elon Musk is working on it.
Just last week, SpaceX got a permit to begin excavations in Washington, DC for building the Hyperloop, a high-speed, vacuum-powered railway that Musk says will someday be able to carry passengers from New York to the capitol in under 30 minutes.
The technology is still in its infancy and the permit to dig does not mean it will be ready to ride anytime soon, but SpaceX has been hosting student prototype competitions at its headquarters in California to speed up the research process, according to the SpaceX website.
With any luck, someone young and innovative like Shuri will win the next competition and lead the charge into the future of high-speed rail.
“Black Panther”: Remote piloting
In the movie, both Shuri and CIA Agent Everett Ross are shown driving a car and flying a plane, respectively, from a remote location.
Using a recurring piece of Wakandan technology, called a Kimoyo bead, they are able to see the view out of each vehicle, as well as touch and manipulate the controls, as if they were really in the driver’s seat.
Real Life: Drones with a first-person view
Many consumer-use drones are outfitted with virtual-reality (VR) headsets that allow the remote pilot to view what the drone camera sees in-flight, also known as first-person view.
This method is most popularly used in drone racing, in which competitors race high-speed quadcopter drones through a series of obstacle courses. The drone pilots wear VR headsets and use the drone’s camera viewfinder to “see what the drone sees” in order to make the fastest, sharpest turns possible.
The Drone Racing League, often featured on ESPN and other sports channels, shared this video of a first person view from one of their recent races:
There are also plenty of toy drone and VR headset packages, which allow the user to get a bird’s-eye view in real-time. Of course, current VR platforms are not nearly as immersive or as impressive as the tech shown in “Black Panther,” in which the pilot/driver was entirely surrounded by a real-time simulation of the environment without the use of a headset, but it’s still pretty cool.
“Black Panther”: Vibranium
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, vibranium is the strongest and most resilient metal on Earth.
So the lore goes, a large meteorite full of vibranium crash-landed in Wakanda, and the material is highly coveted throughout the rest of the world.
The fictional element is used to make weapons, including Captain America’s shield, as well as vehicles and other tech throughout Wakanda. It’s also stitched into Black Panther’s suit, making it bulletproof and giving T’Challa the ability to absorb the energy from blows he sustains and release that energy when it’s useful, but we’ll talk about that later in the list.
Real life: Graphene
Although vibranium has a few properties that are nearly impossible to emulate in real life, most experts agree that graphene is a comparable real-life counterpart. (Yes, there are superhero physics experts.)
Graphene may not look like much, but it holds the title of the strongest material ever tested. In an op-ed for Wired, Physicist and University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios described graphene as “10 times more bulletproof than steel” and practically invisible, due to its unique atomic structure.
The drawback? Graphene is hard to make, and in short supply. We are far from building shields or spears out of the stuff, let alone railways or planes.
“Black Panther”: Kinetic energy storage and distribution
Both T’Challa’s purple Panther Habit and the Golden Jaguar suit feature a well-known comic book superpower that had yet to be explored in the Marvel movie series before “Black Panther”: the ability to store kinetic energy sustained from blows, bullets, or explosions, and expel that energy as needed in combat.
This allows the wearer to “charge up” the suit and later activate the kinetic energy to deliver impossibly forceful subsonic hits, all while taking very little damage.
Of course, this ability is reliant on the presence of vibranium in the suits and is one of the more far-fetched technological concepts discussed in the film.
Real Life: Energy-absorbing material
The very concept of kinetic energy storage is already in conflict with the laws of physics, which makes this one extra hard to replicate in real life.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica explain that a body in space has kinetic energy if – and only if – it is in motion, meaning that kinetic energy cannot be stopped in place or held inside of a vessel for reuse, much less inside of a thin layer of clothing.
However, there are a number of ways that kinetic energy sustained from a blow could be redirected and redistributed by a piece of clothing in order to protect the wearer, similar to the way that a helmets and shin guards protect the brains and legs of athletes. A Google patents search reveals there are a few sportswear manufacturers working on this technology right now.
Most notably, a company called Blue Design Limited has filed multiple patents for thin, soft materials that would theoretically provide similar protection from direct hits by absorbing and dispelling kinetic energy across a wide surface area.
Again, a patent does not mean that you’ll see this tech in sportswear stores any time soon (companies patent things all the time even if they’re never used), but we can keep admiring the ingenious craftsmanship of the suits from “Black Panther” in the meantime.
“Black Panther”: Holograms
Holograms are seen in several contexts throughout the movie.
Shuri’s lab features a few holographic displays like the one pictured, and other characters use livefeed holograms in lieu of phone calls, thanks to a wearable technology inspired by African jewellery.
The holograms in the movie look as clear as FaceTime looks on an iPhone, and move like a newer, sleeker version of the classic Princess Leia hologram from “Stars Wars Episode VI: A New Hope,” the same hologram that famously says, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope.”
Real Life: Early-stage holographics
Perhaps the most public and impressive use of holographic tech was the surprise performance by deceased rapper Tupac Shakur at Coachella in 2012 – but that wasn’t actually a hologram.
The performance was actually a CGI projection bounced off glass, based on a 19th-century method called “Pepper’s Ghost.”
Today, real holograms are much less impressive than those seen in Wakanda or at Coachella. Even the best tech is very comparable in quality and size to the Leia’s message for Obi-Wan.
Microsoft has notably been involved in a few exciting hologram flagship products, including “holoporation,” which allows users to project a full-body likeness into a remote location.
Unfortunately, this tech is years – maybe even decades – away from being sold commercially, let alone being contained in bracelets and other wearables like in the movie.