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Hollywood's gadget factories: engineers, they're not. But sometimes screenwriters spur advances in technology. (circuits).

A miniature camera disguised as a lipstick generates a building's 3-D blueprint. An electronic card lets a computer user infiltrate a network, masquerading as someone else. A wireless device copies all the data from a nearby computer.

No, these aren't exhibits from the International Spy Museum. Although some of the technology exists, they are Hollywood inventions, designed for the spy-themed television series Alias. The show, in its second season, has drawn heavily on a cloak-and-dagger staple: the high-tech spy gadget, a la James Bond and his flying cars and safecracking cigarette cases.

These days, such notions as wireless communications, video on a thin silver disc, and powerful palm-size computers are rather commonplace. But the fusion of science fact and Hollywood fiction has not lost its appeal.

Indeed, life is imitating art more and more. Timex, for example, sells an Internet Messenger watch that can receive e-mail, news alerts, and pages right on the wrist, Dick Tracy fashion. "It's not that these are new concepts," says Phil Brzezinski, the director of advanced products at Timex. "It's that, wow, we can finally do something."

Keeping ahead of technological reality is no small challenge for Hollywood. Steven Spielberg convened a panel of futurists in 1999 to help his production team envision Washington in 2054 for Minority Report. The result was a frighteningly plausible world where magnetic cars jam vertical highways, robot spiders hunt down criminals, and those annoying Web pop-up ads have evolved into giant-size custom commercials that identify you by scanning your retinas and then follow you around the mall.

To achieve maximum freshness, film producers often borrow designs of products under actual development. Product placement can also influence on-screen technology. Cell-phone maker Nokia, for instance, developed two conceptual video-enabled mobile phones for Minority Report that incorporated elements of pending products, though the concept phones are not yet for sale.

In the case of Alias, the popular television series about a young CIA double agent (played by Jennifer Garner), creating the latest gadgetry requires a little assist from real-life spies. Chase Brandon, the CIA's liaison to Hollywood productions concerning the intelligence agency, briefed the show's staff on the CIA's protocols, procedures, and certain declassified technology. "Once they had a foundation of what our equipment and our capability--technologically speaking--looks like, that gave them, as writers, a reinforced license to go about creating their own stuff," Brandon says. "You want to have it be a made-up version of something that's based on reality."

1 Rosie the robot maid on The Jetsons (below) seemed a fantasy In the 1960s. Today, Honda's Asimo (right) navigates stairs and recognizes voice commands. Honda employs one as a receptionist.

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2 Dick Tracy talked Into his spy watch (left). Today, a Timex watch (right) Is Internet ready.

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3 Star Trek envisioned computers (above) much like today's handhelds (below).

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Author:Biersdorfer, J.D.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
Words:474
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