5 Ways Star Trek Continues to Influence Real Technology

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When the original Star Trek series debuted in 1966, some people scoffed at the many incredible devices people would supposedly be using in the 23rd century. Portable communicators? Tricorders that can instantly diagnose medical conditions? Ridiculous! What no one at the time could have foreseen is the profound way in which the show would directly influence real technology in the years to come. With the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, now in theaters, here’s a look at some of the ways this popular franchise has impacted our lives, and possible future advances in technology that are still being influenced by the show.

 

5. The Original Star Trek Influenced Phones, Computer Interfaces and More

The communicator from the original Star Trek series directly inspired the first mobile phone.

Star Trek communicator replica (left), which inspired the first flip phone, Motorola’s StarTAC; David B. Spalding

Martin Cooper, credited as the inventor of the cellphone, has stated he got the idea for a truly portable communications device from watching Star Trek. He demonstrated the first working mobile phone in April 1973, seven years after the series’ debut. The first flip phone, introduced by Motorola in 1996, was actually named StarTAC, in honor of its resemblance to the show’s flip-to-open communicators. Smartphones have also taken a cue from the original Trek series; Rob Haitani, one of the product design engineers of the user interface for the Palm OS in the early 1990s, has said the computers on the Enterprise bridge influenced his initial designs. Even Lieutenant Uhura’s earpiece inspired Bluetooth technology. And it’s truly eerie to watch Spock load data into a computer using what appears to be a small compact disc, more than a decade before such a technology existed.

Captain Picard and the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation also used mobile computers that resemble our iPads and other tablets. We may not have phasers and teleporters — at least not yet — but we now carry devices in our pockets with computing power and a wealth of applications undreamed of by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Even the use of food replicators via 3-D printing technology is just over the horizon. The show didn’t directly inspire that technology, but it certainly foresaw it as a reality, a feat in itself.

 

4. Foundation Offering $10 Million for Development of a Working Tricorder

A foundation is offering a $10 million prize to anyone who can build a functioning tricorder.

Five Star Trek series captains gathered for the launch of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize; Qualcomm X Prize

Just imagine how useful this device could be in exploring brave new worlds, or at least the local mall. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize Challenge, launched in 2012, hopes to award a $10 million prize for the development of a device similar to the tricorder used by Dr. McCoy and other members of the original Star Trek series. According to the X Prize website, “The $10 million top prize will be awarded to the team that develops a mobile platform that most accurately diagnoses a set of 15 diseases across 30 consumers in three days.” As Qualcomm Foundation Chair Dr. Paul Jacobs noted in announcing the contest, “Health care today certainly falls far short of the vision portrayed by Star Trek.” Many researchers have been working on such a concept for years, and models using the name “Tricorder” have even reached the market. In 1996, a Canadian company introduced something known as the TR-107 Mark 1, billed as the first working tricorder, able to measure electromagnetic radiation, temperature, and barometric pressure. But how could a company get away with using a licensed term such as tricorder? According to Stephen Whitfield’s 1968 book, The Making of Star Trek, series producer Gene Roddenberry’s contract with Desilu Productions and Paramount allowed for a copyright exemption for companies using terms from the show if they could actually make the device work.

 

3. Star Trek Holodeck Technology Just a Few Years Away?

Researchers believe a working holodeck, as portrayed in Star Trek, could be just a few years away.

A holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation; © Paramount Television/Fair use

A seminal feature of Star Trek lore introduced in The Next Generation and continued in Deep Space Nine series came in the form of holodeck technology. The Star Trek holodeck uses energy fields to create an immersive and interactive environment. Many researchers are working to create such a concept today, using an emerging technology known as heterogeneous system architecture, or HSA, which would enable seamless transitions between various computer programming languages. Such a network would of course require an enormous amount of computing power, but with Moore’s Law doubling processing and memory capability every 18 months or so and the advent of quantum computing, said ability may be here faster than we think.

A possible alternative to surrounding a user with a virtual environment may be simply placing it inside his or her head … it would certainly be more energy efficient, once we figured out how to connect the interface. So what happens if — or when — such technology becomes available? Expect some objections based on social and psychological factors. If you think kids today are “hooked” on video games, imagine giving them access to a holodeck. In fact, “Holodeck addiction” arose as a concern in The Next Generation series. Actor Tim Russ, who played Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager, once wondered how they kept crewmembers from “constantly using the holodeck” in the 23rd century. This potential for addiction to virtual reality has even been proposed as a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox, which poses the question: if there are supposedly so many alien civilizations in the universe, why haven’t we made contact? Perhaps these alien civilizations are so immersed in their virtual world they’re too busy to notice us.

 

2. Star Trek Enterprise Project Hopes to Build a Real Starship

An organization, BuildtheEnterprise.org, says a real Starship Enterprise could be built in 20 years.

Composite image of a Starship Enterprise under construction; © Huntington Ingalls Industries/Fair use

There is an actual website, BuildtheEnterprise.org, outlining how to build a functional Starship Enterprise over the next 20 years. Founded by a systems and electrical engineer known only as Dan, The Build the Enterprise website is both ambitious and attractive, and features incredibly detailed information on the proposed ship’s design, size and cost ($983 billion). There are even possible concepts on how NASA could fund the project. To be sure, this craft would not be capable of reaching the stars, but would instead cruise around our solar system. The original Enterprise design introduced some groundbreaking concepts. It was one of the first spaceships depicted in science fiction designed for deep space travel, instead of simply being missile-shaped. Still, many technologies used in that show, such as using antimatter for propulsion, are far beyond our current abilities. And in the case of faster than light travel, Einstein has shown us that light speed in the universe isn’t just a good idea … it’s the law.

 

1. Star Trek Still Influences Students to Study Science, Engineering

Star Trek continues to influence many youth to pursue a career in the sciences.

Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of many scientists who cite Star Trek as an influence; Marjorie Lipan

Perhaps Star Trek’s greatest gift to the mythology of our age is its inspiration. Here is a picture of a future humanity that has learned to come together and uses science and technology to explore the universe. NASA’s Candy Torres, a systems engineer for first the space shuttle program and later the International Space Station, has talked openly about how the original Star Trek series influenced her ambition to join NASA. Other science celebrities such as Neil deGrasse Tyson have cited Star Trek as a formative influence. With the well-publicized struggles of U.S. students in math and science compared to their international peers, a TV show or movie that might inspire them to study harder certainly can’t hurt.

No one can say what other technologies from the Star Trek franchise may come to pass, but consider this: some SETI scientists believe that an alien civilization may only establish contact with Earth after we develop an “interesting” technology; in the case of the film Star Trek: First Contact and the Enterprise series, that technology was the invention of the warp drive. Welcome to the future!

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.