You can find alot written about Star Trek technology on the web, top ten of this and top 20 of that, a lighthearted look at the cool stuff seen in the show that people wish would become reality. Think holodecks and transporters, scientists of course wish for warp drive.
But what about those things you take for granted that had it’s roots in Star Trek? From the simple CD/DVD to your favourite mobile device and of course pioneering medical research.
In this article I’m going to take a look at a few things that really have changed the way in which we live our lives. I’m not suggesting that everything listed was invented by Trek, but some of the things seen in the show may not have been seen by the public before it’s release, that’s because Gene Roddenberry had a keen interest in science and knew about the development of certain products before the average person.
First up, the humble CD.
Way back in the day, the crew of the Enterprise were seen using a hexagonal data storage medium that was flat, slotted into a reading device and gave instant information, written and visual, to the user. Back in the 60’s people were either using vinyl or 8-track tapes to listen to music, and print was the only way to display text.
Around the time Star Trek was in production a German company released the cassette tape, pre-loaded with recorded music that became very popular through the 70’s and its popularity peaked in the late 80’s, until of course the compact disc really took off.
The first CD player was launched in 1982 but it really didn’t start to become popular until the early 90’s. The CD was first developed as a data storage device, intended to replace smaller capacity hard drives on early home computers as the data storage capacity was much higher, but it was music that really propelled the CD into the populus, and eventually surpassed the cassette tape.
Later, CD’s became a popular storage device, as was intended, enabling users to record images, text and movies that could be played on interchangable devices, enabling exchange of data from one person to another, much like the disc Spock would use on Enterprise, where data could be recorded from engineering and then displayed on the bridge.
Looking at the CD now, well, it’s barely used anymore, digital downloads are far more popular and with the capacity of USB drives, much, much larger than any disc the CD is a piece of tech that was first seen by many on Star Trek, but also one that has faded from general use, long before it’s debut in the 23rd century.
Lets up the ante, Mobile devices, more speciffically, the smartphone
Everyone knows the phrase “beam me up Scotty”, a line in fact, never spoken in any episode or movie, but iconic nevertheless. Kirk, leading an away team to some desolate planet (coz shuttle scenes were too expensive to make, the transporter was the cheapest way to go), needed a way to communicate with the Enterprise, and to get back to the ship.
In the early 80’s, the only way to commuincate with someone in the next town would be by the humble landline telephone. Then along came the brick, a huge push button telephone attached to a brief case that was so huge, it hardly looked like anything Kirk would use. Then came along the brief case free mobile, and the iconic flip phone. Now we have something that looked exactly like that which Kirk and co were using, flip up the case, press a couple of buttons and hey, your talking to your long lost family member on the other side of the world.
But as time went on, these things became smaller and smaller, it seemed to be the mission of Nokia to make the worlds smallest phone without looking to improve its function. That’s when Nokia died and Apple came to the fore.
With the introduction of the iPhone, the smartphone was born, and with it, the functionality of a mobile computer. Forget SMS, social networking on the move was the norm, in fact, people rarely use thier phone to just make phone calls.
These devices were almost certainly inspired by Star Trek, future developers were watching the series and thought how cool it would be to have a small communicator that could fit in your pocket. Now the phones have far surpassed the Starfleet issue communicator in fact, with certain apps, the phones are becoming more like tricorders, another trek piece of kit that has become a reality in the medical world (more later).
Moving on from the iPhone, we have the iPad.
Imagine (if you could afford to) you had three or four iPads scattered over your office desk, laptop sat next to them, large LCD TV mounted on the wall, USB memory sticks, and a Lion fish sat in the corner of the room. You could be forgiven calling your office a ready room, as it would look just like Captain Picard’s.
The iPad, especially with an LCARS app installed, is exactly like the PADD used by Starfleet. It can display almost anything you want, movies, pictures, music, documents, all with touch screen technology on a flat panel surface.
If you ask the people that worked on the Next Generation, one of the things they are most proud of when it comes to real world treknology, they would probably say the iPad.
The Next Generation came on air in 1987, the bridge was filled with flat panel, touch screen monitors and the PADD was seen for the first time. The closest we had in the real world to a PADD was a PDA, a small hand held version of the Windows Operating System, that could store as much as 64mb of data, Wow.
Tablets are now everywhere, and thier popularity seems to be increasing. Steve Jobs, Apple founder, was a fan of Star Trek and he made it known that he looked to the
show for inspiration, so no doubt here that the iPad is a direct piece of treknology that’s influence made it into the real world.
Now for proper science, the Transporter.
The notion of a teleportation device is nothing new, and was long the transportation device used in many sci-fi movies long before Star Trek, but it wasn’t until James Kirk and co used the transporter to beam to another world that it really entered into popular culture, and scientists everywhere thought of ways to make this technology a reality.
The word teleportation was coined in 1931 by American writer Charles Fort to describe the strange disappearances and appearances of anomalies, which he suggested may be connected. He joined the Greek prefix tele- (meaning “distant”) to the Latin verb portare (meaning “to carry”). Fort’s first formal use of the word was in the second chapter of his 1931 book, Lo!:
“Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call Teleportation.” Fort added “I shall be accused of having assembled lies, yarns, hoaxes, and superstitions. To some degree I think so myself. To some degree, I do not. I offer the data.”
Fort suggested that teleportation might explain various allegedly paranormal phenomena, although it is difficult to say whether Fort took his own “theory” seriously or instead used it to point out what he saw as the inadequacy of mainstream science to account for strange phenomena.
A scientist in Copenhagen managed to find a way to teleport groups of billions of atoms from place to another using light, quantum mechanics and magnetism to create entanglement. The leading scientist, a Professor Eugene Polzik and his team, moved the object by almost 18 inches:
“Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps — that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback.”
Although scientists are in agreement that moving a human from one place to another in an instant will likely be impossible, it would also be ethically and morally debatable; essentially killing a person and then re-assembling them somewhere else.
This technology however, might make it possible to transmit and process data at near light speeds.
It’s a device first imagined on the original Star Trek series decades ago. And now, a real life company is working on a real life medical Tricorder in a laboratory at NASA. When the crew of the Starship Enterprise landed in San Francisco, they brought some pretty advanced medical devices with them. Perhaps the most famous is the Tricorder. The device that grabbed a patient’s vital signs in an instant, lives on in an old movie prop that Scanadu CEO Walter de Brouwer keeps in his lab at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.
“Just suppose that this would be in the hands of a consumer,” Brouwer said. “You know like you would have the power not only to know what’s going on with you, but also to help others.”
That prop was the inspiration for the Scanadu Scout. Like the Star Trek version, it comes in two pieces. The scanner was originally made to look just like the those in the movies, but now it’s a little easier to hold. And the computer device? Well, you already have that. It’s your smartphone. Biomedical engineer Brandon Woolsey shows how the Scout reads your heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen, and soon blood pressure, just by holding it between your fingers and your forehead.
“And every time I do this demo in front of a camera, my heart rate goes up,” Woolsey said. “The idea is to make it easy enough that people will do it often and start to learn about their own health. They can even tell their doctor, my heart rate is indeed low, but it’s always been low you know, look at the data from over the three months, it’s always been like that,” Brouwer said.
The idea of this little device has apparently made enough people’s hearts pound that it’s just set a new record for the most heavily funded Indiegogo campaign ever.
“When we clicked the button for Indiegogo, it came from all over the place!” Brouwer exclaimed.
At $200 a pop, more than 8,000 people in a hundred countries have ordered this early version of the Scout. They’ll be among the testers who help Scanadu win FDA approval.
From the small amount of Star Trek technology mentioned above, we can see that the series has had a profound influence on our scientists and a profound effect on our lives. Most of the tech mentioned came from the mind of one man, Gene Roddenberry. Gene had a unique vision of the future, where spectactular tecnology used in the 23rd and 24th century were advanced enough to generate an exciting new universe, but not so out of this world that real world scientists would look at it and think “this is impossible”, in fact, what scientists thought was “this stuff is so cool, but wouldn’t it be great if we could have this stuff now, not just for our own use, but for everyone to use”
Gene was a futurist, just like his fellow contempories Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Hawking, and had a very creative mind, one that saw that the future of humanity was one we could all look forward too. We may not have got there yet, be we are well on the way, and Star Trek continues to influence scientists, politicians, and you and me, and one day, we may achieve the dream of Gene Roddenberry.
Speaking exclusively to startrekblog, Doug Drexler has this to say on the whole subject:
“The health of Star Trek is indicated by how far thinking it’s tech is. You can measure it’s heart by it’s ability to extrapolate far reaching technologies. Although Trek regularly utilized technology in it’s story telling, the high-impact technology came in definite waves that could be directly linked to the presence of Gene Roddenberry. The two Star Trek series that yielded it’s highest ratio of revolutionary stuff that the real world had to have, was the original Star Trek and The Next Generation… both Roddenberry driven shows.
While all of the various series were driven by human relationships and what it meant to be human, it was Gene Roddenberry’s singular fascination with the technological extensions of humanity that made Star Trek unlike any other science fiction television show. What’s the attraction? Pretty simple. People love their kids, and technology is our offspring. We can’t help but be fascinated by it. To be human is expressed by our ability to create. Understanding what it is to be human is the basis of Star Trek. Ideas, art, and technology are it’s mainspring, because true Star Trek is about promise.
Wireless hand sized communication devices, tricorders/sensing devices, artificial intelligence with personality, computers as an everyday presence that are capable of interacting on a verbal level, hospital beds that monitor patients, holodecks… all the stuff that stuck… came from the Roddenberry driven era of Star Trek.
It was Gene’s ability to recognize cutting edge, emerging, and sometimes far off technologies and their potential impact on the human condition that made Trek unique. Since Gene Roddenberry, there has been no one to take that place. Not that there aren’t people who have worked on the show over the years that are capable of similar foresight, but they have yet to be in a position of authority on Star Trek.
When Gene died, wisely or unwisely, the wheel was lashed. Now, although hundreds of years have passed between different eras of Star Trek, the basic complexion of it’s technology has not changed. This is contrary to what we experience in real life, and I feel certain that if Gene lived on, we would have seen him stretch Trek tech more to better illustrate potential human growth”.