Looking at sci-fi tech as prior art

Samsung's latest salvo against Apple and its attempts at barring the company from selling its line of Galaxy phones and tablets in the U.S. involved a bold trick last week: saying Apple's iPad design patent should be tossed on the grounds that others have gotten there first.

The proof for that claim? Science fiction, of course.

Samsung cited Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" wherein two of the astronauts watch video on two separate tablet devices while eating a meal (pictured). In its brief, Samsung says that because those tablets share design similarities with the tablet depicted in a granted Apple design patent, the patent should therefore be tossed from Apple's effort.

That very idea opens up a wealth of other gadgets to scrutiny of "what came first?" Without further ado: a handful of gadgets that could be targeted for trailing their fictional media counterparts.

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Photo by: Warner Bros. / Caption by:

Wrist phones

Comic book character Dick Tracy sported a wrist-mounted communicator, a device that was the stuff of dreams in its 1946 comic debut, letting people talk to one another right through their wrists. In the 1990 film, the technology was little more than a walkie-talkie, but in the comic book series, the device would later go on to include a built-in digital screen.

Fast forward to 2009 and you get LG's formal debut of its Watch Phone at the Consumer Electronics Show. The device featured a touch screen, a built-in camera, and speakers. Oh yeah, and it made phone calls. Given its high price tag and similarity to an accessory that was on its way out technologically, the phone didn't become the next big thing, but it was the realization of a sci-fi dream.

See also: The now-defunct SPOT Watch, a one-way communication device that could grab news feeds and deliver them to watches, but not quite grab the "consumers buying it" part.

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Photo by: Touchstone Pictures / Caption by:

Driverless cars

Stepping into a car that could drive you anywhere while you sit there and read a newspaper or take a nap? Sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and--in fact--it has been in numerous sci-fi works. In movie form it's been seen more recently in 1993's "Demolition Man" and 2004's "I, Robot."

Now we have Google testing out its own driverless car systems the company hopes will cut down on accidents and improve efficiency. That testing follows the path of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency challenges, which pit driverless cars against one another to get from point A to point B. And before that, the idea was pitched by General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair using radio signals to tell cars where to go.

Seen here is Will Smith's Audi of the future, from "I, Robot" switching from autopilot to manual override mode.

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Photo by: 20th Century Fox / Caption by:

Wireless headsets

Long before it could be considered rude to wear a Bluetooth headset while having a face-to-face conversation with another human being, there was the earpiece worn by fictional Enterprise communications officer Uhura on the original "Star Trek" TV series.

While appearing to be nothing more than a computer heat sink jutting out of the ear of actress Nichelle Nichols, the idea ended up being very practical over the past decade. Hands-free headsets have also become the law for drivers in some states, including California. Electronics companies like Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, and others hold design patents depicting ear-mounted wireless receivers.

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Robotic maid

Before iRobot's Roomba, there was Rosie. The iconic, robotic housekeeper from the 1960s cartoon TV show "The Jetsons" was not a vacuum. Nonetheless, she'd tidy up the house, leaving her human owners free to do other things.

That idea was distilled into the Roomba, by Massachusetts-based iRobot in 2002. The $199.95 device automatically vacuumed floors for owners. The company later expanded the personal robot line to include a model to wash floors, as well as skim pools and gutters. All told, iRobot now says it's sold more than 6 million home robots, with the Roomba being the most popular model.

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The flip communicator

Ideas within the "Star Trek" series paved the way for numerous tech ideas, but one of the most notable is that of the handheld communicator.

Making its first appearance in a pilot episode of the original "Star Trek" series, the iconic flip communicator served as a way to make quick, walkie-talkie-style calls to others on the planet's surface, and to orbiting ships. More importantly, the flip-out style paved the way for clamshell phones, a design that would become predominant in flip phones, particularly Motorola's RAZR.

The concept came full circle with this 2009 replica that plugged into your computer through USB to let you use the communicator as a microphone for talking on Skype, Google Talk, and other VoIP services.

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Holographic projection

The famous scene where Princess Leia in holographic form begs Obi-Wan Kenobi to help deliver R2-D2 to her home planet of Alderaan was the stuff of cinema magic in 1977's "Star Wars." George Lucas and the Industrial Light & Magic team revisited the trick numerous times in the original trilogy.

Australian phone company Telstra made use of similarly minded technology in 2008 to beam its chief technology officer into a meeting some 460 miles away, in part to show off the strength of its networking technologies.

Skip to election night for the U.S. presidency later that year and you have CNN making use of a complex camera system to bring guests into its studio virtually. That included CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin, as well as Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame. The technology itself, which CNN had claimed was a hologram, made use of some 35 high-definition cameras set up in a ring to present a 3D image.

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Photo by: Lucasfilm / Caption by:

Slide to unlock

Out of all the things on the list, this is the one that isn't a design patent. The "slide to unlock" patent, which Apple was granted in early February of last year, covers unlocking the device by using a gesture on the touch-sensitive display. Apple introduced the feature in its own devices with the first iPhone, and later brought it over to the iPod Touch and iPad.

In Apple's legal fracas with Samsung, a Dutch judge last week said Apple's European counterpart of that same patent was obvious, a move that means the court does not believe Samsung is infringing on it with its own devices.

Where's the sci-fi hook, you ask? The 1987 film "Predator," where the film's alien antagonist slides its digit across the face of its wrist-mounted electronics device to activate it. A Buzz out Loud listener put together an example of the two ideas side by side in video form last year.

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Gesture computing

Controlling what's happening on screen with your appendages in 2002's "Minority Report" looked like pure sci-fi. Yet late last year Microsoft released the Kinect, a $150 add-on gadget for the company's XBox 360 console that tracked hand and body movements to what was happening on screen.

The similarity in this case was that not only was Microsoft using these body movements inside the games, but with the Xbox's entire menu system as well, letting gamers change settings and maneuver around the interface with just their hands.

Microsoft introduced a software development kit to enable Kinect to work with its Windows operating system earlier this year.

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Photo by: 20th Century Fox / Caption by:

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams described the namesake of the famous 1979 British sci-fi book "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" "like a small, thin, flexible lap computer." Earlier, it was mentioned as "a sort of electronic book" that "tells you everything you need to know about anything."

Parallels can be made to Amazon's Kindle, which debuted in 2007 with a lifetime of free, built-in 3G wireless networking and access to a dictionary and Wikipedia. Later versions tacked on international 3G as part of the deal, letting travelers access that data on the go.

Amazon filed for a design patent on its second-generation Kindle reader in 2009, later having it issued near the end of 2010.

In its appearance in the 2005 film adaptation of Adams' book, the device appears more like the ill-fated Microsoft Courier, along with the upcoming Sony S2 Android-based tablet.

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AI computers

Bringing everything back to "2001: A Space Odyssey," we have HAL 9000, the iconic artificial intelligence robot that makes up one of the main characters in the sci-fi film. That character was represented in the film as an all-seeing red light from within a wall-mounted control panel that sports a creepily soothing voice.

Nowadays we have IBM's Watson, the namesake of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, which competed in an episode of "Jeopardy" earlier this year. Tied to a room of hardware below the stage, Watson answered questions against two human opponents on the popular game show and ended up winning.

And before Watson there was its predecessor, also made by IBM, dubbed Deep Blue, an AI that was programmed to annihilate humans--at chess that is. In 1997 the machine won against world champion Garry Kasparov, who had beaten the machine just the year before. After Kasparov accused IBM of cheating, Deep Blue was retired.

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