TRON's Past is Our Present: From Film to Real-World Tech

It's been twenty-eight years since the original TRON showed moviegoers "a world inside the computer where man has never been." Although the film’s visual effects, once so cutting edge that they were said to have been cheating, now look dated, the ideas and computing concepts shared with a mass audience for the first time have fermented in the brains of a generation and can now been seen in the world around us.


TRON: In the computer world of the film, programs such as the information seeking Clu or the actuarial program Rom take on the physical appearance of their real world programmers. Even to the point where they take on their creator’s personality, as seen in the cases of the ruthless Sark or the idealist Tron.

Reality: Over the past 10 years, character customization has become one of the most essential tools for players to actively immerse in their games. Games today can let you customize a hero or a player character to not only look as you do but, as is the case with folks like Mass Effect's Commander Shepard, but also act in a manner consistent with your own judgment and morality.

On-Line Play

TRON: The Master Control Program or MPC was a rudimentary artificial intelligence that used the fragile computer networks of the early eighties to seize control of companies that rivaled ENCOM and was on course to do the same to militaries and governments by the time frame of the movie. Though it is not exactly expressed how this was done in the film, foreign programs were seized and forced into gladiatorial combat with each other until they submitted to the MCP's control or were destroyed.

Reality: Engaging in competitive play from disparate locations via a computer network has become a foundation of the modern gaming experience. Thought no one has yet to conquer the real world through domination of an online game, it is rare for any title to achieve widespread success without a strong online play component. To that point, a representative of Electronic Arts, a company whose goals of world domination rival those of the MCP's recently floated the idea that the single player experience should be phased out all together.

Touch Sensitive Controls

TRON: The signature element of sinister ENCOM Senior executive Ed Dillinger’s darkened office was his wide black desk that hid his work PC under and within a sheet of touch sensitive glass. With a touch of an under-lit button he called up his monitor on the flat surface as well as a flat, touch sensitive keyboard. His desk also had the ability to show full color images, rudimentary video, and, to keep the plot of the movie moving, take voice commands so he could interact verbally with the MCP.

Reality: For over ten years after the movie, touch sensitive displays were a cool idea that never seemed to work up to their promise or potential. Fortunately, advances in both computer hardware and software have made such things as Dillinger’s desk a reality, only better, as a smart phone or a tablet computer is much easier to get around with than a bulky piece of office furniture.

Identity Disks

TRON: Warriors in the MCP's video game coliseum, also known as The Grid, are issued an identity disk, a Frisbee-like device that records and stores data in a format that’s easily portable and is compatible (for good or ill) with all other programs in the computer world. The identity disk when not used for data storage is also a weapon that can ‘derez,’ or kill, when thrown at an enemy, unless their own disk blocks it.

Reality: Small highly portable memory storage devices, known commonly as thumb/stick/key/flash drives allow users to transfer data physically through the real world from system to system via common ports in PCs of all shapes and makes. Unfortunately, so far anyway, they lack any lethal application.


TRON: Flynn's continued attempts to crack the MCP and prove its and ENCOM's malfeasance leads the AI to draw him into the computer world in an attempt to kill him via an experimental digitization beam. The beam, designed to facilitate matter transportation between locations in the real world, breaks Flynn down into data and ports him into the computer world.

Reality: While teleportation has yet to be developed, digital storage and display of information has expanded way past ones and zeros. Everything from cell phone cameras to TSA body scanners can take a representation of you and send it anywhere in be world. Digitization of real objects into a computer system is in violation of the law of conservation of matter, but rapid prototyping machines can now take 3D digital objects and carve out real, physical objects, essentially the ENCOM laser in reverse.

What other current tech can you recognize in old sci-fi films? What other current tech can you recognize in old sci-fi films?

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