Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, with the first episode being aired in 1966. Even after four decades, the movies and the television series have never ceased to amaze fans. Star Trek is lot more than just an entertaining franchise. It has led to the invention and development of several technologies. Here’s a look at some of the much-coveted gadgets of Star Trek that have become reality.
The Star Trek universe is an amazing place filled with unimaginable people, stories and technologies. Although fiction, fans of Star Trek, referred to as ‘trekkies’, want to believe in a world and universe just as true as the Star Trek universe. The complete series has been an inspiration for many high-end gadgets that we are using today. Seems unlikely that science-fiction can alter reality, but Star Trek has set an example too high to be achieved by anyone.
The unreal world portrayed in this series is gradually becoming reality. And it is affecting our lifestyle, in a positive way. Many innovations and inventions have been made to recreate the gadgets and technologies predicted by Star Trek makers a few decades ago.
Let us see a list of a few things that have been achieved, and some day will reach the echelons of technological advancements similar to the Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.
With so many different life forms from various planets of the United Federation, the Starfleet crew would have come across the language barrier umpteen times. However, the Universal Translator solved all that. It first appeared in Star Trek: Enterprise (Season 1) Episode 2: Fight or Flight. Developed by Ensign Hoshi Sato, an exolinguist, the UT became an overnight sensation when the episode was aired in October 2001. The Universal Translator worked on a matrix software that took some time to understand a conversation. It could, after listening to a few phrases of a new language, process and understand the complete language and translate it to Federation Standard (Standard English).
The prospect of discerning any language without having to learn it was quite ingenious. And this thought led to the invention of the Voxtec Phraselator P2. A mobile hand-held device, the Phraselator was originally created solely for the US Military. However, now it serves many humanitarian causes in several countries. It is used by the Peace Corps and also Doctors Without Borders to understand and communicate in the native languages of several under-developed countries. Of course, the fictional UT that Hoshi created was capable of translating every language, while the Phraselator can only translate a few languages that are embedded into its circuit. Still, reality trumps Sci-Fi any day!
In several episodes, you could see Spock and other crew members using small plastic cards as data storage devices. He, and many other characters in the series, would put these cards into sockets of the console to either view information or store data. These were called Isolinear Chips, and were used for several functions on board a starship, like initiating a warp drive and storing memory in PADD’s. They were a major component of nano-tech processors and assisted in access of memory up to 2.15 kiloquads. As the isolinear chips were sensitive to hostile environment, they were strengthened with a layer of protection. These modified chips were generally used in tricorders and Starfleet PADDs.
Way back in the ’80s and ’90s, these plastic cards came as floppy disks to the parallel universe (the one in which you and I live). But these were bigger in size compared to the Star Trek isolinear chips, and could not store data in large amounts. However, the newer versions, USB flash drives, are smaller in size and have a whopping data storage capacity of up to 2 terabytes. The memory cards that we use in cell phones and tablets are smaller still, and yet have a high capacity, more closely resembling isolinear chips.
Dilithium has been the reason for a number of conflicts in the Star Trek universe. Its capability to contain the reaction of matter and antimatter made it the most desired element. This fictional chemical element was found on very few planets, leading to several battles to extract it. Though dilithium crystals could be replicated, these replicated crystals did not produce enough power. The plasma generated from the annihilation reaction, known as electro-plasma, was a source of power, used by starships to travel at speeds faster than light during warp drives.
The lithium batteries we see today were first introduced in the consumer market in 1971, just a couple of years after the Star Trek episode which explained in detail the working of Dilithium. Although experimentation to harness the power of lithium in a battery had started in 1912, successful prototypes were only created in latter half of the 20th century. Lithium batteries can be said to be one of the first Star Trek technologies that became real. Of course, these batteries cannot be used to create a warp drive, but they are surely a source of power and are used in pacemakers and many other medical implantable devices.
Being the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Enterprise, Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy can be seen giving shots of some or the other vaccine to the crew members. The hypospray used by Bones had great thought behind it. With such a vast crew, vaccinating or medicating everyone while fumbling with syringes and needles would be virtually impossible (if anything was impossible on Star Trek!). The hypospray was generally used on the skin in the neck area and delivered the medicine intravenously. And what more, it could also be applied on a patient through clothing.
Keeping the same thought in their genius brains, MIT engineers have developed a jet injector, that like the hypospray, uses pressure instead of needles to inject medication. Thus, the same jet injector can be used on various people without any scope of infection. And for those who detest needles, this is a godsend! There have been various attempts at making a hypospray, but the one made by MIT can be considered to be the exact copy of the Star Trek hypospray. MIT’s jet injector is even programmable! The injection pulse can be changed according to the intensity of the pulse, dosage, and application area. It has a magnetic piston, which is very powerful and painless. Also it does not even leave a mark. MIT’s hypospray can be used for liquid and powdered medication.
Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge’s VISOR is the most discussed gadget in the medical world. Geordi was blind since birth and relied on his VISOR for sight. A device that could help the blind see would not only be a huge breakthrough in medical science, but would also mean great assistance to humanitarian causes. VISOR stood for ‘Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement’ and could scan the electromagnetic spectrum to provide an image to the user via the neural implants. Geordi could see ultraviolet and infrared images through VISOR, which is not possible with the normal human eye. In later episodes, Geordi is seen using ocular implants rather than VISOR, as the earlier gadget gave him throbbing headaches.
SSD and JORDY
In February 2013, Israeli scientists confirmed that they have indeed developed a Visor-like device that can help those who have congenital blindness. Developed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Sensory Substitution Device essentially works by hacking into the visual cortex of the user. It uses cameras to gather data in visual format and converts it into sound by using a series of complex algorithms. With time, the user can identify several objects and eventually enjoy reading a good book. NASA has also developed Joint Optical Reflective Display, in general known as JORDY (a variation of Geordi). Although JORDY cannot be used by people who are completely visually impaired, it has proved to of great help for those who have very lowered vision.
Another of Doctor McCoy’s marvelous gadgets was the biobed in the sickbay. All he needed to do was make the patient lie on the bed, and a screen showed every possible problem in the patient’s body. Primarily designed to perform surgical procedures, the biobed was fitted with sensor clusters, which, together with the tricorder, gave a detailed analysis of the patient’s health. In case of any crises, these biobeds could be modified to keep a seriously injured patient in statis, and then revive the patient later when there was time enough to treat them.
Scientists and doctors at University of Leicester have created a similar kind of bed, though there is no news whether the bed can detect Mendakan Pox, Levodian Flu or Gorch. However, according to the University of Leicester, the bed can diagnose the onset of various ailments that include diabetes and cancer, non-invasively. The diagnostic bed uses space technology, like the imaging systems used for exploring Mars. The prime focus of these scientists was to reduce the time and inconvenience caused due to innumerable tests, that are generally performed to diagnose any ailment. Now it would just be interesting to know if the real bed makes similar noises made by Dr. McCoy’s sickbay bed.
One of the most amazing tools that every crew member of the Starfleet had was the tricorder. If I lived in that fictional Universe, I would probably end up enlisting for Starfleet only to closely see (and possibly use) a tricorder. It was an ultimate gadget that could potentially scan everything, from foreign particles to a person’s body. It could collect and even analyze the data. It was the perfect machine. It first appeared in Star Trek: The Original Series (Season 1) Episode: 6 The Naked Time, and opened vast avenues for development in various technologies.
A similar scanning technology is widely used by retina scanner security devices and biometric scanners. However, these modern machines can scan one kind of thing only. Many claims of replicating the tricorder have been made, however, hardly any are worthy of mention. Certain applications have been developed that can be downloaded into PCs, tabs and phones to scan a few things. Philips is also developing a food tricorder that will be able to analyze the contents of food that you are eating. A recent device by Scandu, known as SCOUT, is like a medical tricorder and is capable of measuring body vitals on touch. So Dr. Bones, we will catch up to you soon.
The earliest phaser weapon was the mounted phaser bank onboard the USS Kelvin, shown in Star Trek: TNG – A Matter of Time. Later, the crew got their own phaser guns and as per command they had to ‘set phasers to stun’. These phaser guns could shoot in streams and also in small bolts of energy. The phaser guns were a directed-energy weapon, which could be programmed to shoot nadion particle beams at different intensities, either to stun or completely destroy anything. By widening the dispersal area, the phaser gun could cut through walls, the hull of enemy ships, and even huge rocks.
Since then, various military researchers are working to create this technology to strengthen their arsenal. The most recent, and probably the nearest, development in this case has been the US Military’s Multimode Directed Energy Armament System. It is made to defend almost anything ranging from a stationary explosive to an incoming rocket. The technology uses an ultra short pulse that can shoot with an effect of taser to a lightning bolt. It combines three directed-energy technologies– laser, microwave, and electricity. The microwave energy can be used to deactivate the electronics of a missile, while the laser can be used to disintegrate incoming explosives. We now need a starship. Beware Klingon, here we come.
A small but pertinent part of standard issue gear given to the Starfleet crew, the Communicator Badge swept the world by storm when it first appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 4) Episode 2: Family. Known as the Combadge, it was worn by Starfleet personnel to the left side of their chest and was used for internal communication. To start a conversation, the combadge was activated by single tap. Tapping it twice would deactivate it. Other organizations in the United Federation of planets also used a different kind of Combadge. These badges were used for onboard communication only if any other way to communicate was improbable.
When the episode was first aired in 1990, the idea of such a small communication device was fascinating. And it definitely acted as an inspiration for Vocera Communication who have created similar badges. These badges are to replace the (ancient) pagers used by healthcare and hospitality professionals. The Vocera B3000 Communication badge can be used in any organization that has a wireless LAN network. To start a conversation, the user simply has to say the name of the person he/she wants to talk to. This badge works on simple voice-activated commands. The only drawback I can think of is that it does not inculcate the Starfleet insignia design, much to the disappointment of all trekkies.
Seen in Star-Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, wrist-worn communicators revolutionized the concept of communication. Though it failed to make a presence further in the series, it did provide innovation for top IT products manufacturers.
The best of the wrist phones in our real universe will release this year, and is known as the Neptune Pine Smartwatch. This wrist watch cum smartphone does a lot more than simply telling you the time. It can notify you when you receive mail, shoot videos, send and receive text messages; and make and receive calls. Other manufacturers like LG, Samsung, and Sony have also introduced their own versions of a watch phone, but these gadgets have very limited options. So my fellow trekkies, do I really need to tell you why you should get one?
Flip Cover Communicator
Flip communicators were used by the crew while on mission. It had a transceiver antenna on the top and user controls, microphone, and a speaker on the bottom. It was considered to be a secure line to communicate any message to the crew on board, by the crew on mission. Most of the communicators had the same flip cover design. These communicators were equipped with reverse tracking sensor that could help the on board crew to track anyone missing in action.
The inventor of the first hand-held mobile phone, Dr. Martin Cooper, has stated that the Star Trek flip cover communicator acted as an inspiration for him. Although the mobile phone design that he created was rather bulky, but it did serve the purpose. It started a craze for such phones, that every IT manufacturer was looking forward to introduce their own designs in the market. Recently, according to a survey, it has been proved that people prefer flip-cover designs because of the sheer feel of the technology. The Motorola RAZR, Nokia Communicator series, and BlackBerry flip phones are few examples from our real universe that correspond to the flip cover communicator of the Star Trek Universe.
The Personal Access Display Device, generally known as PADD, a hand-held portable computer interface, is seen being used in the Star Trek Universe to see the LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System). PADD was used by various space-faring organizations to perform certain functions like logging manifests, accessing library computers, and entering personal data. It had a large touch screen with a minimalistic control panel, and came in different shapes and sizes, depending on the species of the manufacturer. These PADDs could stream data via wireless networks. It could record movies and songs and also offered a clear audio playback.
As shown in Star Trek: ENT’s various episodes, the PADD proved to be a virtual reality predecessor to the modern Samsung Galaxy Note, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, iPad and BlackBerry PlayBook. These modern gadgets are result of the precise technology showed in Star Trek. However, the translucent PADD used by Dr. Lewis Zimmerman stationed on Jupiter Station in 2376 AD is something extra-ordinary, and something that I am definitely looking forward to.
In the Star Trek universe, urgent communication relied on the use of an earpiece. Throughout the series, variations in earpiece designs have been noticed. By using these earpieces, the crew on board could communicate to each other anytime the need arose. It was worn on the left or right ear and activated by tapping. The earpiece headset had a small mouth piece attached to carry on clear voice conversation.
Does it remind you of something? The Bluetooth headset that we use nowadays can be said to be an exact copy of the one used by Captain Kirk. Although the technology is commendable, at the grocery store bill desk, when the person behind you in the waiting line suddenly starts talking to himself, it becomes a bit annoying. It would be better if the Bluetooth headset is simply used Star Trek way, only while threatening Nero.
Scotty, the ingenious engineer in the Star Trek universe, introduced the transparent Aluminum Armor in original Star Trek movies’ fourth installment. It was to transport the two humpback whales back to the Earth in their actual time. This armor could withhold any kind of attack and even sustain the warp drive pressure and speed.
Although it sounds particularly improbable, there exists something called ALON (aluminum oxynitride), which when crystallized, becomes transparent. And to top it all, it is far stronger than the bulletproof glass used currently by the US Air Force. Soon enough, we will make Scotty proud.
The difference between the technology used in Star Trek TOS and ENT was the use of smooth and touch based control panels, also known as electronic clipboards in the latter series. With absolutely no buttons or keys, the control panel could be accessed easily with a simple touch.
Almost a quarter century ago, touch screens were a weak technology, like a whisper. No one could have predicted that the touch screen would be available to the real universe within two decades. All our phones, tablets, laptops, and even television sets now come equipped with a touch-sensitive screen. Kudos to Michael Okuda, the designer of the control panels for Enterprise A.
The world in ’70s and ’80s was thrilled by every episode and movie of the Star Trek franchise. The above mentioned gadgets, can be safely assumed to have been initially developed by the great minds behind Star Trek. These gadgets are not just another advancement in technology, but a great step ahead for humanity as well. Although a fiction story, Star Trek has been a ray of hope that will help us humans uncover and embrace the secrets that lie in this infinite universe. Till then, “Long Live and Prosper”.