Bond Gadgets: Never Say They'll Never Work

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was born 100 years ago today. But while his hero's Cold War concerns may have dated, some of Bond's gadgets have not.

Some movies and stories used existing technologies such as jetpacks (Dr No), autogyros (You Only Live Twice) and GPS-capable phones (Casino Royale). But many of Bond's toys were way ahead of their time – and only now are we beginning to catch up.

Fake fingerprints (Diamonds Are Forever)

In what has become known as the "Gummi Bear Attack", Japanese cryptographer Tsutomu Matsumoto showed in 2002 that a person's fingerprints could indeed be copied and used to create fake ones with relative ease, as suggested in Diamonds Are Forever.

Using gelatine as found in chewy sweets like gummi bears, he showed that a latent print could be lifted from a glass and used to fool 80 per cent of fingerprint scanners tested.

Phone-controlled car (Tomorrow Never Dies)

In 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond becomes his own backseat driver, steering his car using a touchpad on a phone showing the view out of the front window on its display.

Mobile phones with accelerometers can be used to control toy cars using free software dubbed ShakerRacer. The user holds the phone like a steering wheel and tilts it in the direction they want the car to drive (see video). It's an approach that looks easier to use than that of Bond's gadget-master, Q, who had 007 sliding his finger over a touch pad.

Military robots controlled using the Nintendo Wii-mote were recently demonstrated by US researchers, an idea worthy of Q. They say it makes controlling a robot used to investigate unexploded bombs or mines easier, and plan to use Apple's iPhone to display video from Wii-controlled robots.

Micro-aqualung (Thunderball and Die Another Day)

One of the few Bond gadgets to make a repeat appearance, the cigar-sized mini-aqualung provided enough air for four action-packed minutes. But compressing that much air into such a small space has so far defeated engineers. The smallest emergency air supplies last about a minute, and are the size of a fist.

An alternative is to build artificial gills that let a diver "breathe" underwater indefinitely by extracting oxygen from water. But size has been a problem. Gills demonstrated on TV by Japanese firm Fuji in the 1980s could supply a diver for 30 minutes, but were the size of a coffin.

Techniques like using artificial blood to carry extracted oxygen inside an artificial gill modelled more closely on that of a fish have promised more portable sizes since. But their designs have struggled to leave the drawing board or lab bench. In fact, artificial gills will probably make their first dives aboard autonomous robot submarines, supplying oxygen to fuel cells on long oceanographic or military missions.

Invisible car (Die Another Day)

We are told that Bond's car vanishes in Die Another Day thanks to cameras recording light from one side of the vehicle and projectors recreating it on the other.

That's a roundabout way to achieve something that a remarkable new class of materials can do in real life, without electronics or computers. Metamaterials can be designed to smoothly steer light around an object, making it appear as if it weren't there.

Although the best invisibility cloaks so far have been mainly two-dimensional, they have been made to hide objects from visible light, and recent work hints that 3D invisibility cloaks are on the way.

Voice changer (Diamonds Are Forever)

Bond uses a gadget with a cassette tape inside to change his voice, sounding on the phone to the movie's villain like one of his fellow bad guys.

It's a trick you can now employ yourself using free or cheap software, which typically has presets to make you sound male, female, like a teenager or even like a small infant. With some experimentation you can tune your voice to sound like a specific person.

Far from being used purely for pranks, some are pitched at female gamers wishing to sound like men to avoid drawing attention to themselves in male-dominated online games.

Ski jacket emergency-pod (The World Is Not Enough)

In case of avalanche pull cord. Bond's ingenious ski-jacket encases him in a protective air-filled sphere, reminiscent of those used in the extreme sport zorbing.

While a gadget like that has yet to be realised, skiers and snowboarders can buy something similar. A backpack releases two air-filled bags that are designed to increase a person's buoyancy in a fast-moving stream of snow.

Snooper robot (A View To A Kill)

Chihuahua-sized wheeled robot Snooper was supposed to be a discreet eavesdropper but looked less than inconspicuous.

Real spying robots are largely for flying surveillance. Among the most cutting edge examples are morphing craft in the image of birds, planned lightweight flying spies made from paper and even reprogrammed "cyborg" insects controlled electronically (with video).

Non-experts can now buy surveillance robots of their own. Nuvo, Spykee and Sentinel are all ground-based robots that act as roving security cameras. The user can monitor their home when they are away, and speak through the robot to anyone there.