Happy 15th Birthday to The Matrix – what is its tech legacy?

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Want to feel old? This week in 1999 saw the release of The Matrix. Yes, that is fifteen years ago. An incredible amount of time for a film that is still the best film ever made (okay, I might be editorialising). Heck, they’ve managed to reboot Spider-Man twice in that short time. So we thought we should ask the question… how has it impacted technology?

The film itself is set in around 1999 and has some curious tech predictions of sorts. Remember the opening scene when Neo has to “follow the white rabbit”? For some reason, Neo used Sony’s now redundant MiniDisc format to store his data. The format never really caught on.

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What about the famous phone? The phone used was the Nokia 8110 – which sadly in real life didn’t have a spring-loaded cover mechanism. Given the popularity of the phone though, Nokia did later produce the 7110 – which in addition to being the first Nokia to support WAP (the first generation of mobile internet… pre-GPRS!) did indeed have a spring to flip the receiver down in the most bad-ass possible way.

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Perhaps the real legacy though is a conceptual one. Just as science fiction can inform science fact (who’d have thought to invent automatic doors without Star Trek?), many of the ideas that The Matrix touched upon are still only just being realised today.

The idea of living inside a giant computer must have sounded pretty space-age in the 90s, when the closest thing to Virtual Reality was Legend of Zelda rip-off Graal online (remember that?). In the intervening years though we’ve had the overblown hype over SecondLife and now we’re starting to see the first tentative attempts at something resembling the “Virtual Reality” of the Matrix in the guise of the Oculus Rift. Whilst the machines aren’t plugging directly into our brains and fooling us just yet, the Rift represents another leap in just how immersive computer technology can be.

In a few years, it is conceivable that we could be wandering around Los Santos or Azeroth interacting with people just as we would in real life.

Outside of the reality of the film (if you’ll take the red pill with me, for a moment) there’s another huge legacy in terms of film making: bullet time. The use of the technique clearly shows the Matrix’s influence on everything from gaming to advertising.

Here’s Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 using the technique to great effect:

Whilst the filmmakers had to build a huge rig to film Keanu Reeves dodging bullets, the march of technology has made it increasingly easy thanks to miniaturisation.

Check out this stunt Qualcomm pulled to promote the mobile Snapdragon processor – they rigged up a tonne of mobile phones and in an afternoon made something that looks almost as great as a multi-million-dollar studio production. (The dog jumping is my favourite bit).

And this is only the beginning – bullet time looks set to revolution sports broadcasting as arrays of cameras and some clever computing means that the entire field can be navigated digitally, analysing play from previously impossible angles.

So not only has the film inspired a generation of sci-fi nerds, but it has given the world a number of intriguing technological gifts too. Let’s just not mention the Matrix Revolutions.

James O’Malley