Star Trek’s incredible impact on modern consumer electronics For over 50 years now Star Trek has defined major technological innovations in the world. The phone/tablet/PC you’re reading this on has only been possible because of its inception in Star Trek universe. The franchise has in fact provided many contributions to what we now know as modern consumer electronics. Be it a concept from the series and films or designs of devices and gadgets, many products in our day-to-day usage have a Star Trek connection.
Looking at Star Trek as just another science fiction series is a massive mistake. The show has gone out to introduce various different concepts in technology which have today become a reality or are a work in progress. Even though the franchise began with episodic series in 1966, the creative freedom could easily be spotted with the then-futuristic gadgets that would awe generation of fans for decades. One of the major reasons why everyone loved Star Trek is that it almost always revolved around human’s true desire to explore unknowns within scientific realms to progress forward as a species. The characters co-existed with other beings, tackled hurdles together and in general promoted a hopeful future.
While some technologies from the franchise have not been able to transcend from reel into our real lives, there are many which have. 1/10 Communicator/Phones Right from the first pilot of Star Trek: The Original Series throughout the series there have been instances where we saw characters flip out these communicators from their pockets and speak to another character far away. There have been other forms of the communicators as well namely the communications badge and wrist communicators. The communicators worked on subspace frequencies which eliminated the need of relaying signals through satellites and allowed for a more distant communication. The communicator’s top part used to flip open which had a built-in antenna for communications.
Little did we know that 50 years later, Starfleet communicators that gave way to the first flip phone would almost seem obsolete. Today, we have smartphones that can be operated using touch input. People use these smartphones for more than just communicating with others in far away place. They create pictures and videos off of these “communicators”. And there are too many of them these days.
Did you know, the first flip phone, StarTAC was made by Motorola and 60 million people actually bought the phone. 2/10 Universal translator/Skype and Google Translator The concept of universal translators was a marvel for people back then. Devices which could translate languages unknown to you in real-time was something that had never been thought of. Even today after decades of research, there are a few services which are able to translate in real-time but are not readily available.
Courtesy of machine learning, technology companies such as Microsoft and Google have developed translators that work in real-time but are not perfect like we saw on Star Trek. Microsoft’s Skype Translator currently works in eight languages while for Google’s translator a user has to select two languages, first being the unknown language and the second being the translated one. There are a few more of these instant translators but it's a long road till we have a precise translator reminiscent of the ones we see on Star Trek. Turning an unknown language into a readable text though has been achieved. 3/10 Tricorder/NASA LOCAD and Scanadu Scout Deriving its name from the word Tri-function Recorder, a tricorder is a device that performs three functions- sense, compute and record. There have been many appearances of the tricorder in Star Trek universe as a general purpose device used to sense the surrounding environment, examine the living and record data. It was a device wielded by both Spock and McCoy, the latter having a medical tricorder. It is used by medical personnel to determine and diagnose diseases in a person.
In real life though, little progress has been made to create a single device that could function in multiple ways. NASA's LOCAD-PTS (Lab-On-a-Chip Application Development Portable Test System) functions strikingly similar to its fictional counterpart. The space agency uses it aboard the ISS to monitor microbial activities and detects microorganisms. A breakthrough came in the year 2013 wherein under Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize contest to build a device capable of diagnosing patients “better than or equal to a panel of board-certified physicians”, 10 teams competed for a prize of seven million dollars to develop a tricorder. At the end, no team really won the prize and major finances went to the research and development of such devices for market.
What came out of this competition was the Scanadu Scout, a simplistic device outfitted with sensors and recorders to diagnose health problems. In their own words, it was “a medical grade Tricorder using your smartphone and Bluetooth LE to emulate Emergency Room in your pocket”. As of 2016, after receiving a total of 49.7 million dollars for its tricorder, SCANADU revealed that clinical trials with over 4,000 people were in progress and that they're seeking FDA approvals. 4/10 Video conference/Telepresence Remember those moments when Starfleet orders used to come through the big giant screen on the bridge or when someone used to hail the Enterprise. Video conferencing was an idea instituted by Star Trek as an advanced communications feat which would be the next big thing after the communicators.
While we have to agree that video conferencing came in quite early through Skype, it wasn't until popular platforms such as Hangouts, Facebook and WhatsApp integrated the functionality which has received a widespread acceptance. People can now see and interact with their distant relatives and friend due to video conference.
The next generation of the video conference, Telepresence is also a work in progress. It requires some key aspects revolving around the features of a room and ambient lighting which would make it seem as if the person is really present with everyone in the room. 5/10 Geordi's Visor/Bionic eye First seen on Star Trek: TNG with Geordi, the VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) allowed him to see through the electromagnetic spectrum. Geordi was blind and only after going through a surgery that implanted the VISOR, was he able to see.
A similar technology developed by Stanford University scientists in 2005, saw them use blind rats to implant the sensors after which the rats were able to pass a vision recognition test. Who knows in some more years, someone might advance this technology, bringing back sight to thousands of blind people across the globe. 6/10 Hypospray/Jet injector Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy was fond of giving flu shots to everyone. What was fascinating though was how he administered the shot. In the Star Trek universe, it's a needle-free society. Injecting medication into a body is done through Hypospray which is a process that involves air pressure to send liquid through the skin.
In the real world, the commercial name for Hypospray goes by jet injector. This is a widely available system of inoculation but it wasn't until 2012 when researchers at MIT engineered a device capable of delivering high-pressure medicine jet through the skin which could also be programmed as per the required dosage depths. 7/10 Earpiece/Wireless headset Mainly used by the communications, science and navigation officers, the earpiece has had a design overhaul every now and then. It's functionality remaining the same- to communicate. It also doubled up as a communicator.
Its 2017 and we have a dearth of wireless/Bluetooth headsets available commercially. They come in various shapes and sizes but perform the same function. They get paired to a smartphone through which one can initiate a call or listen to music. It's one of the more popular smartphone accessory available today. 8/10 Food replicator/3D printer Though we still cannot produce food out of thin air (no Tea, Earl Grey, hot) printing things is now possible using a 3D printer. In fact, these 3D printers have, in recent times, printed body parts which go on to save lives and provide hope to people who have suffered way too much.
Along with this, NASA has announced a grant for developing a food replicator using 3D printers. 9/10 PADD/Touchscreen tablets Long before the advent of the Apple iPad, Star Trek brought PADD (Personal Access Display Devices) to Star Trek: TNG and things never remained the same. PADD is essentially a handheld computer system powered by LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) operating system interface. It has a large touchscreen display and is used for many actions such as viewing schematics and videos, wireless networking, audio playback, log and manifest recording among others.
Apple’s iPad along with many other tablet devices are often touted to be the modern representation of PADD with more emphasis on entertainment and the internet. 10/10 Transparent aluminium/Aluminum oxynitride First introduced in the 1986 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Scott bartered the chemical composition of transparent aluminium for sheets of plexiglass to build a tank to house two humpback whales. The transparent aluminium looks like a glass but possesses the strength of aluminium.
Transparent aluminium also known as Aluminum oxynitride or ALON is a real material today. It's a material that could withstand even bullets but comes quite expensive which is why it's not in mass production.