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Image: Exoskeleton
Raytheon
A Raytheon engineer readies the company's robot-like Exoskeleton for testing in this 2008 photo. When the exoskeleton is "worn," a user can easily carry a man on his back or lift 200 pounds several hundred times without tiring, according to Raytheon.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/16/2010 8:55:28 AM ET 2010-04-16T12:55:28

In the new movie "Kick-Ass," the main character says, "You don’t need a power to become a superhero."

But even the movie’s masked avengers — Hit Girl, Big Daddy and Kick-Ass — would agree, a few supernatural tricks up your Spandex sleeve can definitely help.

How far are we from attaining those long-sought-after superpowers? In some cases, they’re practically here.

Two weeks ago, scientists from the University of South Carolina, Switzerland and China announced the development of a boron carbide T-shirt that they believe can stop a bullet. Up until now, thick plates of boron carbide have been used to create body armor and to protect tanks. This new lightweight, flexible material “opens up unprecedented opportunities,” including “tougher body armors” and even “lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircrafts.”

Batmobile, anyone?

"We’ve known how to make very strong materials for a long time and boron carbide is very, very strong — it has the same kind of structural strength as a diamond," says Dr. James Kakalios, physics professor at the University of Minnesota and author of "The Physics of Superheroes."

"They’ve managed to get boron to diffuse into the fibers and bond to the carbon (of a T-shirt). So now you have boron carbide down at the molecular level. And the thing remains flexible. It combines structural strength with elasticity and flexibility."

Could this new material be used, say, for a “super suit”?

"That’s exactly right," says Kakalios.  

Move over, Iron Man
Super strength is also not far afield, although not in the sense that an average Joe could lift the entire continent of South America like Captain Marvel.

"In some sense, we have super strength now by using our superpower of super intelligence," says Kakalios. "We can lift giant boulders using steam shovels. The key idea is to shrink these mechanical advantages down to the level where it can be operated by a single person in what would look like a suit of armor."

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These suits of armor — or robotic exoskeletons — are in existence now, designed for the military to increase the strength, endurance and agility of soldiers in combat.

Likened to the helmeted suit created by genius engineer Tony Stark in the comic “Iron Man," the 150-pound exoskeletons are made of sensors, actuators and controllers and increase a person’s strength and endurance by as much as 20 times.

Cybernetic helmets — devices that allow us to move objects with our mind — are also in the works, says Kakalios.

"In ‘Iron Man,’ we never see Tony Stark press buttons or give voice-activated commands; his suit just responds," he says. "When you think, you generate weak electromagnetic waves and scientists at MIT, the University of Minnesota and many other institutions are working on devices that can detect these electromagnetic waves and use them to send information to some sort of motorized device. They’re making tremendous advances in this."

Up, up and away
Ah, but what of the ultimate superpower — flying?

Image: Martin Jetpack
Martin Jetpack
The Martin Jetpack lifts a test pilot into the air.
"A week ago during dinner, we were all having the conversation about which superpower is better," says Julie Barclay, a 46-year-old mother of five from Vancouver, Wash.

"One of my sons wanted to be a shape shifter and another wanted to have the power to make anything he wanted appear. But when it came down to it, we all decided that flying would probably be the best. I would love to have the power of flight. My life would be so expedited if I could move from point A to point B without stoplights."

Thanks to jetpacks, human flight is possible, although Kakalios says it’s still hampered by an age-old bugaboo.

No, not "The Tick" — the power supply.

"We have jetpacks today, but the problem is it takes a lot of energy to lift you up and fly you someplace," he says. "A long flight would take hundreds and hundreds of gallons of gasoline.

"So the technology exists but we need a (better) power supply. You could have a nuclear power supply on your back, but few people would feel comfortable with that, aside from the Ghostbusters."

Short flight via jetpack is an option now, though.

"You could take a jetpack to work," he says, "provided you worked on the next block."

Still out of super reach
Granted, there are many powers that remain elusive: Walking through walls, turning yourself into a human torch, size manipulation (sorry “Ultraman” fans!), time travel.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t still dream about them.

"I’d like to have the power to teleport places," says Cosme Navarro, a 10-year-old from Danbury, Conn. "I wouldn’t have to worry about being late to school or worry if I forgot something at my house. I’d be able to go anywhere plus if ever there was a bomb threat, I could just grab my family and teleport them away."

Navarro’s mother, Donna Giachetti, says her superpower of choice has always been invisibility.

"I really do believe invisibility is the way to go," says the 48-year-old editorial director at an education publishing house. "You could go to a Rolling Stones concert and go up to the front row; you could get on an airplane and fly for free. Plus I like to observe people. It would give me a chance to see what people are doing when they don’t know anyone’s watching."

Unless they were wearing "invisibility detection goggles," available for just $14.99 at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.

Sadly, Kakalios says teleportation and invisibility are still the stuff of science fiction (ditto for the gag goggles).

Physicists are "talking about teleportation and doing experiments, but they’re talking about the transmission of information," he says. "It’s not the teleportation of matter. We’re not sending anything even as big as an electron."

As for invisibility, he says there has been "surprising progress," primarily with regard to the development of "metamaterials" — materials that create an optical illusion of invisibility via negative index of refraction. But "no one is promising an invisibility cloak."

In other words, we’ll have to keep those Wonder Woman-style invisible airplane fantasies parked in the hangar a while longer.

Coolest new power
Of course, many people would rather be super smart than super see-through.

Louis Collins, a 69-year-old Seattle bookseller, says his ultimate superpower would be the ability to instantly connect to a vast network of information.

A University of Washington researcher holds a contact lens with imprinted electronic circuit and lights. Such lenses could be used to surf the Web.

"I’d like to look at a book and somehow know what its price is on the Internet," he says. "It would be like having some kind of scanner in your brain so you could go into a bookstore or an antique store or garage sale and know what something was worth."

Emilie Kopp, an engineer at National Instruments, says that sort of superpower is actually in the works. It’s called "augmented reality."

"Augmented reality takes what you see in everyday life and overlays it with digital information, like in the movie, ‘Minority Report,’ " she says.

"If you’re looking at a building, it could show you the height of the building and tell you all the companies that have offices there and point you to where you could get information about purchasing their products online. One day, people may be wearing goggles where they can see all this information without searching for it on the Web."

Goggles a bit too cumbersome — or too “Spider-Man” villain-y Doc Ock-like — for your taste?

No worries. Researchers at the University of Washington have created a prototype for a solar-powered augmented contact lens embedded with semitransparent LEDs. The augmented lens will utilize sensors and wireless technology, allowing users to eventually view text, images and other pertinent information (such as the distance between you and a ray-gun wielding evil villain).

Best of all, they won’t get in the way of your superhero mask.

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." She can be reached via her Web site, dianemapes.net.

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