Generations of children were raised to worship the awesome abilities of Peter Parker, Clark Kent and the rest. But, faster than a speeding bullet, the old fantasies are being realized and even surpassed. Superpowers no longer rely on being exposed to radiation or infection, they are made to order by visionary scientists and precocious hackers using light waves, chemicals and rocket packs. Here’s a taste of the accessible wonders coming our way.
As seen in: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, most of them really.
They might not allow you to hurl a car or crush a building with your fist, but a new range of exoskeletons will give your muscles more potency. Carbon fiber designs from Lockheed Martin and Daewoo can lift over 20 kilos without straining the wearer, and remain light enough to climb a ladder in. The next generation of skeletons will carry five times the weight, and if you want to avoid a full suit, bionic limbs such as the Titan Arm also pack a punch.
As seen in: Captain Marvel, Superman
The most romantic superpower is among the most elusive. Jetpacks have been evolving from the 1960s but have only become viable in recent years, driven by the daredevil antics of Yves Rossy, who has crossed oceans and mountains with self-invented machinery. The Australian Martin Jetpack will bring that thrill to the public, going on general sale in 2016, with a craft capable of traveling at 74 km/hour at altitudes of 1,000 meters.
As seen in: Space Ghost, Iron Man
Good news for the stealthy and secretive - ‘cloaks’ that render objects invisible are advancing rapidly. The technology works by shielding objects from light waves, but currently needs to operate from a fixed point. Several leading research institutions are working on maintaining invisibility on the move. One creative project uses silk as the cloak, so the wearer can be undetected in smooth comfort.
As seen in: Superman, Wonder Woman
Another innovation that could lead to privacy concerns, but full of exciting possibilities. A US start-up has produced augmented reality glasses that allow motorists to see through car doors, and add or remove layers of vision. MIT have developed a system that uses Wi-fi signals to build up images of objects behind walls, while Dutch researchers are using light waves to see inside the body.
As seen in: Aquaman
A few grains of crystal could be all we need to stay underwater for days. The discovery of a new mineral with astonishing powers to absorb oxygen from water and retain it over long periods could have profound implications for divers and undersea exploration. Another approach would see us achieve the same effect through a suit that feeds oxygenated liquid to its wearer. Either way, the oceans could become a lot busier.
As seen in: Daredevil
Experimental biohackers have pioneered the use of implants that allow them to sense magnetic fields, and thus orient themselves without need of sight or sound. The system, which mimics the radar fields experienced by bats, could be transformative for the blind and deaf. Professional scientists are learning to use the technique for mapping rooms without visual aids.
As seen in: Professor X
Communication through brain waves is becoming increasingly refined through an explosion of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, from amateur enthusiasts to high-powered research labs. Dr. Miguel Nicolelis’ lab has been able to pass messages between two connected subjects in different countries, as well as to move objects with mind power alone. The ’Biostamp’ promises to make brain activity readable anytime, anywhere.
As seen in: Beast, Nightcrawler
Californian group ‘Science for the Masses’ injected the eyes of volunteer Gabriel Licina with Chlorin e6, a chemical found in deep-sea fish. During trials, he was able to see accurately for 50 meters in total darkness. If that seems too scary, a variety of bionic contact lenses will deliver zoom function, enhance your vision, and connect your eyes to the Internet without needles.
As seen in: Firestorm, Lizard
A hero needs to be able to take punishment and keep on going, and the military magicians at Darpa want soldiers that can shrug off injuries. The group’s Electrical Prescriptions system would use a miniature implant to monitor internal organs, as well as stimulating and treating them to maintain perfect function. This could also be applied to the brain for physical injury, as well as mental conditions such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As seen in: Blade, The Flash
Also from the Darpa lab, a lightweight jet pack that keeps the user earthbound but helps them run faster and longer without tiring. Initial tests have resulted in dramatically quicker lap times for soldiers, extra speed that could prove critical for battlefield missions. Future editions of the kit will up the pace further.
As seen in: Batman
Batman’s stylish costume was about more than impressing potential love interests. Bruce Wayne’s Kevlar could stop a bullet, but he would appreciate new lightweight armor made from a gel that hardens on impact, providing greater protection and allowing free movement. Colombian firm Miguel Caballero produces a range of bullet proof clothing that combines aesthetic quality and style, while one enthusiast has designed a new version of the classic design.
Climbing the walls
As seen in: Spiderman
Inspired by the Gecko, Darpa’s Z-Man programme allows people to climb vertical glass using Van der Waal’s force to keep them attached. Stanford University are developing a similar system that can work on additional surfaces and carry larger weights.