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The (Real) Villains of the Piece

23/02/2016 11:01 GMT | Updated 22/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Sinister back stories, intimidating outfits and, of course, innovative and intriguing weapons - it's no wonder that popular fascination with supervillains is at an all-time high. No longer just confined to the pages of comic books - now the likes of The Joker, Loki and the Green Goblin appear in video games, Hollywood blockbusters, hit TV shows - and yes, ok - bath soap.

But is there any reality in these portrayals? How much can science, technology and engineering teach us about supervillains' powers? What are the possibilities of a supervillain element appearing in a city near you?

Doctor Octopus: mind-powered tentacles

Dr Otto Gunther Octavius, better known as Doctor Octopus, is one of the more famous supervillains in Marvel's canon and the perfect foil for Spiderman. A villain in the classic mad scientist vein, his four nine-foot long mechanical tentacles are the stuff of nightmares. Mechanic they might be, but the horror doesn't stop there - he controls them, even in the most intricate of tasks - with the power of his mind.

Just how fantastic are Doctor Octopus's tentacles?

Enter Festo, a German engineering form that has used high-stress cables and air to devise robotic tentacles modelled on the hypnotic, wavelike movements of jellyfish. These undulating tentacles are easily a match for Doctor Octopus's.

But what about the mind control? No longer the realms of science fiction, here we can turn to electroencephalogram, or EEG technology, which has been used by the medical professions for many years. By attaching small sensors to an individual's head, an EEG senses the tiny electrical signals transmitted by the brain.

2005 brought great improvements to the existing technology; rather than being bound up in a cumbersome piece of headgear, it can now be incorporated into small, discreet headbands. A few adaptations and the signals it picks up from the brain can be 'translated' into computational instructions - controlling, for example, the movement of a robotic tentacle. We're actually working with NeuroSky's EEG at the University of Central Lancashire right now, attempting to develop a 3D printed version of Doctor Octopus's famous appendages.

Mystique: shapeshifting and mimicry

Most commonly associated with the X Men, Mystique is, rather fittingly, one of the more mysterious supervillains out there. Capable of precisely mimicking the voice and appearance of anybody she sees, Mystique is the ultimate shapeshifter.

But science is catching up.

In 2011, IBM announced that they were working on a new technology dubbed 'claytronics' or synthetic reality. The fundamental aim to create a material that, on demand, could form any shape required. In theory, you could purchase a single screwdriver made of this material, and manipulate as required to form any other tool needed.

This might sound outlandish, but the researchers are working to build individual nanometre-scale robots (one nanometre being a billionth of a metre) that can interact with each other to form the desired shape. The theory is that these tiny computers will work together to create 3D shapes on demand - in essence creating 'programmable matter'.

The research is ongoing but 2015 was a significant year for catom development. It's been suggested that within the next decade, shapeshifting matter will be a reality. It might not be quite as exciting as being able to disguise yourself as the person sitting opposite you on the bus, but it holds intriguing possibilities for the worlds of telecommunication, human-computer interfaces, and entertainment, among others.

And if these possibilities have whet your appetite, try learning more about flux pinning and quantum tunnelling, which might soon make the Silver Surfer's means of transport a reality!

Supervillains' more dastardly escapades are probably best left to the pages of comic books, but there's no doubt that by taking inspiration from some of their unique abilities, we can create truly world-changing technologies.

Matthew Dickinson, senior lecturer in computer aided engineering at the University of Central Lancashire