When Sci-Fi is Truly “Stranger Than Fiction”

Several years ago, an award-winning movie that starred Will Ferrell showcased a technology that, unbeknownst to most Americans, was being used by US troops in Iraq to control neighborhoods....

Several years ago, an award-winning movie that starred Will Ferrell showcased a technology that, unbeknownst to most Americans, was being used by US troops in Iraq to control neighborhoods.

The movie was called Stranger than Fiction and it detailed the life of an IRS agent who heard a narrator’s voice wherever he went … and only he could hear it. The narrator eventually mentions that the character is going to be killed, so he ends up investigating the source of the voice to determine who is seeking to kill him.

From screen to reality

Since the screenwriters intended for the character to seem as if he were temporarily crazy, there was little hint that “here is a sci-fi idea becoming a real product” until the news media started to make a connection. After the Iraq war ended, southern California began to see sensors tied to speaker systems in many neighborhoods.

In addition to directional speakers, the Internet and cell phones are used to network the systems so members can regularly communicate with the people they are targeting in a particular region. Just as in the movie, the network in southern California was not as advanced as that run by CIA officers in Iraq.

The banter in real life has largely been about controlling territory and people that live there. But the equipment that allows users to cover entire city blocks — even inside grocery stores and restaurants — is often sold to car dealers and other businesses as security gear.

Does this technology have any positive uses?

3D sound has been tried on several models of televisions over the past few years. One system, developed at Princeton University, allows a television with a mounted camera and a computerized database of images to recognize the humans in a room and then beam audio precisely to where they are.

In theory, each member of a family of five on a large couch could be listening to a movie in a different language without any of the others hearing what each person was listening to.

Car manufacturer have expressed interested in similar research. They hope to develop car audio systems so that passengers and driver could listen to completely different music or movies while traveling in the same passenger cabin.

Commercial and enforcement uses

Grocery stores have experimented with a directed sound system that would target specific advertisements to various shoppers directly at the checkout stand without bothering anyone else standing just a few feet away. Although the results may not be ideal from the shoppers’ perspective, managers are still looking at ways to make it work.

One frequently heard comment was that, in contrast to highly directed and individual audio programming, favor containers or boxes are a highly positive trend in retail stores.

Police officials have had this technology installed in their squad cars in some cities, as well. They use it to send much clearer messages to the citizens they intend to pull over.

Similarly, it is used in police helicopters throughout southern California to make announcements that can be heard from every angle for at least a mile.

As for Will Ferrell’s character in the movie, he discovered that the technology was real, just as it may soon be in reality.

Anna is a freelance writer and researcher from the Olympia, WA area who loves to obsess about weird topics and then write about them. When she isn't writing, she is outside on her bike and contemplating her eventual trip to graduate school.
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