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When the first episode of Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking sci-fi odyssey “Star Trek” aired way back in 1966, it wowed audiences with its optimistic vision of humanity’s future in the cosmos. Not only did the crew of the Starship Enterprise boldly go where none had gone before, but it did so with the help of some of the coolest technology (and catchphrases) television audiences had ever seen.
This year marks the series’ 50th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, Geek Expos’ Nerd Year’s Eve is hosting Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original “Star Trek.” What better way to ring in the year of the “Star Trek: Discovery” premiere than with a member of the cast that started it all?
“Star Trek’s” original series is famous for predicting some of the technologies we now use today. But just how close have the last 50 years of growth brought today’s tech to the gadgetry of the show’s imagined 23rd century? We decided to find out, and what we learned along the way is, to quote Mr. Spock, “fascinating.”
Whenever Kirk and his crew ventured beyond the gleaming decks of the Enterprise, they knew danger could lurk around any corner (especially for Red Shirts). Fortunately, in a pinch, Kirk could always dial in a beam-up from Scotty or some vital intel from Spock via his handy-dandy communicator.
You can probably already guess the modern parallel to this piece of Trek tech. Today, practically everyone has a smartphone and we use them to keep track of everything from Tinder matches to text messages. The main difference between us and Kirk? We don’t talk into our communicators. The average American spends 300% more time texting than talking on the phone. Somehow I don’t think “Beam me up, Scotty” translates as well into emojis.
What about the badge/insignia communicators that appeared in the show’s later iterations, you ask? Communications company Vocera’s B3000 communication badge might not be quite as compact or stylish as a Starfleet Insignia, but its hands-free voice recognition technology makes it arguably even more advanced.
In a universe where mankind is dedicated to the exploration and preservation of life in the cosmos, universal translators gave Starfleet the ability to comprehend the language of any other life form instantaneously.
Today, thanks to globalization, we’re interacting with other cultures more today than ever before and the ability to overcome language barriers has never been in higher demand. Since the William Shatner-endorsed universal language Esperanto never caught on, the task of making international communication easier has fallen to our technology. Enter “ili,” a wearable translator by Japanese company Logbar. Though it currently only supports English, Japanese and Chinese, its instant translation capabilities make it a worthy match to its Trekkie counterpart.
Perpetually threatened by a galaxy full of mysterious diseases, infections and injuries, no Starfleet doctor was ever without their Tricorder. The nifty handheld device gave every doc, from McCoy to Phlox, the convenient ability to diagnose ANY disease with a quick scan.
Now, we have LOCAD-PTS. Developed by NASA for use on board the International Space Station, the Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System is capable of scanning surfaces and identifying the presence of unwanted pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. It might not be the universal-diagnosis solution that the Tricorder is, but between MRI machines and other noninvasive disease-recognition devices in development at Harvard Medical School, we’ve pretty much got all the bases covered.
“Set phasers to stun” was the common command Kirk gave to an Enterprise crew facing imminent danger, forever immortalizing Starfleet’s fictional weapon of choice.
You can draw obvious parallels from the phaser to the tasers employed for law enforcement and personal protection today, but the more apt comparison is much more cutting edge. For the last five years, the Israeli military has made use of non-lethal Thunder generators capable of funneling high-velocity shockwaves to topple and deafen targets up to 100 feet away. In the US, the Army’s Active Denial System (ADS) fires a beam of millimeter-wave radiation that inflicts a burning sensation upon targets at a range of up to 1,000 meters.
While neither of these weapons match the phaser’s portability (both must be vehicle-mounted and powered by a dedicated power supply), companies like Applied Energetics are conducting research to make handheld energy weapons a reality within our lifetime.
In a famous scene from “The Next Generation,” Picard curtly requests “tea, Earl Grey, hot” from his food replicator, which then dutifully dispenses the drink to his exact specifications.
The advent of 3D printing has enabled the average consumer to print and assemble an endless number of useful products from the comfort of their own home, and companies are already adapting them to deliver tasty, made-to-order edibles practically on command.
Foodini is the one of the premier innovators in the field of 3D food printing. Foodini users “food capsules” loaded with pre-prepared ingredients which can then be used to print a wide variety of foods. For now, you might be better off just ordering that hamburger off of GrubHub, but it’s a start!
With the fantastical ability to simulate for users any location, object, place in time, and person—living or dead—the Holodeck served as the setting for many adventures aboard the Enterprise and Voyager.
Futurists and scientists have already predicted that through the power of VR something very similar to Star Trek’s Holodeck could be available to consumers by as early as 2024, albeit without the touch capabilities of the original. Additionally, as VR allows us to render digital environments that are increasingly more realistic so, too, will it require us to develop AI that can keep pace, behaving as naturally as we do. We might not be too far from our own Minuet.
Now a common staple of sci-fi tech, tractor beams used to control the movements of objects in space have been a part of “Star Trek” from the very beginning.
Recently, one of the first major breakthroughs in tractor beam technology came from the same people who made the Tricorder a reality, NASA. Through a process known as optical tweezing, scientists have been able to use laser beams to suspend microscopic particles. The technology isn’t advanced enough to tow a spacecraft just yet, but it has found applications in medicine as a tool for extracting bacteria and studying the characteristics of DNA.
It’s no coincidence at all that so much of today’s technology finds parallels in the gadgets of “Star Trek.” The show defined science fiction for an entire generation of viewers — viewers who would grow up to be engineers, inventors and NASA scientists. While warp drives and teleportation might still be well out of reach, there’s no doubt that “Star Trek’s” vision of our future has and will continue to have a lasting impact on our technological imagination.
While “Star Trek” looks to the future, there’s still fun to be had in revisiting the past. You can do exactly that at Nerd Year’s Eve, where you’ll meet Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in person!
Have a marvelous 2017, Trekkies! And, as always…