One day, a former bomber pilot brought up on pulp fantasies dreamt up a story. He would go on to write it as a not-so-successful TV show called Star Trek.
The first show of a three year run was aired in 1966. Gene Roddenberry based the series on contemporary social issues. The futurist was looking at the present, but he would affect the future more than he realized.
The 1960s wasn’t a bad time to write a space-age opera. The first space-themed video game had been invented. And yes, it fired photon torpedoes. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were making bold predictions about life in the next century.
“Men will no longer commute; they will communicate…. They will travel only for pleasure.”
It is possible Gene Roddenberry was absorbing all this as he started writing Star Trek. The distance from science-fiction to science-fact is paved with many a failure, but the successes make us dream about the possibility of an Utopian world. Can these eight Star Trek technologies hope to create it? How close are we…or how distant?
Set phasers to excited.
The device with the second most distinctive sound in the Star Trek universe. The Tricorder was like an iPhone on steroids – a multifunctional scanning device with sensors for specialized functions. McCoy could use it to diagnose ailments, Scotty used it in engineering, and Spock carried it around on missions to detect life forms.
The technological leap to build a real-life tricorder isn’t huge. While searching for alien life forms still needs huge parabolic dishes, medical scanning technology is closer to home. The X Prize Foundation’s Tricorder Prize could just give us an indispensable tool. The aim is to diagnose 15 diseases and offer basic health information with home tests. The tricorder needs to be compact and not weigh more than five pounds and should be a ” portable, non-invasive laboratory replacement”.
We just have to wait till 2016 to see the winner among the ten finalists. VITALITI is gunning for the top prize of $7 million. And then there is Apple’s much-vaunted ResearchKit and HealthKit which can do the Star Trek thing on your phone. It’s coming.
The hypospray was a medicine injection device that could be used without puncturing the skin. Starfleet medical teams used it routinely to treat and subdue patients. Some say the hypospray was inspired by Jet Injectors which have been used since the 1960s for mass smallpox vaccinations.
If big needles induce a faint spell, heave a sigh of relief – modern-day “hyposprays” have been created. Scientists at MIT developed a “hypospray” in 2012 that uses magnets and electrical currents to fire drugs into the body without puncturing the skin. It can also take in blood samples for testing.
Other needle free devices like the Biojector® 2000 are FDA approved and coming into the mainstream. While it can revolutionize pain management, these devices still need trained personnel to give the doses. There are half-a-dozen recognized phobias around sharp objects like needles (like, aichmophobia) and in many cases it calls for psychosocial treatment. So, widespread use of hypospray is welcome. Acceptability isn’t a problem, though accessibility will take some more time.
Time to get yourself a shot for the Melvaran mud fleas.
Phasers weren’t the only weapons used in the Star Trek universe. But the original phaser is perhaps the most popular. In the Star Trek world, lasers were considered “primitive”, while the PHoton mASER (Phaser) became the sexy weapon in the 23rd Century.
A handheld laser gun is on the wish list of militaries worldwide. Special ops wants them on their aircrafts. There’s an operational one on U.S.S Ponce — see video above. U.K will start work on its own laser prototype projects this year.
The U.S. calls them Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs). A non-lethal variant called the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response (PHASR) rifle was developed a decade back. The 1995 UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons was an obstacle, but the PHASR reportedly avoided the ban because the blinding effect is “temporary”.
Star Trek’s handheld vaporizing lasers are still far away. However, little things like the Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP) and projects like the Multimode Directed Energy Armament System developed by the U.S. military continue to keep us interested.
Holodecks came with the Constitution Class starships. It was used for recreation and simulated training exercises. Holodecks replicated any real environment at the molecular level using energy to matter conversion.
Remember, Prospero’s Island in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Scientists claim that we will be able to convert energy to matter soon. For now – think about Virtual Reality. Think how close we are to realizing it with Valve and Oculus Rift. The next step will be to do away with the headset and just create our own virtual room where we stand.
If one company needs to get there first, it’s Disney. Venture Beat goes into their “cave technology” that is a close approximation to Star Trek’s Holodeck. Microsoft is also looking at entertainment with Illumiroom and its exciting offshoot called RoomAlive.
Virtual reality is going to be a game changer very soon, but projected illusions are the closest we can get right now. Only the small matter of energy to matter conversion could stop us from having the true holodeck experience. But even that “physical feeling” of virtual objects is getting some attention as New Scientist reports from the edge of haptic hologram research.
The fictional universal translator used brainwaves as the source for translation. Computers on the ships had translators built into their systems.
There are apps called “Universal Translator” in the app stores of Google and Apple. But they are nowhere close to understanding Romulan. Most of the apps piggyback on Google Translate, the most powerful automatic translator we have today. But speech recognition is getting some cutting edge attention.
Microsoft recently demoed a universal translator that offers near-real time translation. At the cutting edge of speech recognition, the Skype Translator is based on the Microsoft Translator project and uses a technology called Deep Neural Networks. For now, Skype Translator can help with 40+ languages.
Here’s Brad explaining how Microsoft Translator works. Have you tried it?
The field is hot. Even crowdfunded products like Sigmo are showing off their promise. If you start to think what the army and emergency services can do with it, take a look at VoxTec. It is an advanced mobile translation system used by the U.S. Army and got a good mention in MIT’s Technology Review.
Interesting fact – Google Translate and Bing both understand Klingon. But for more earthly purposes, you can always use Google Translate to improve your travel experience.
Transparent Aluminum Armor
According to Star Trek folklore, Scotty prattled away the process to a 20th Century engineer. In reality, transparent aluminum (aluminum oxynitride – ALON) predates Star Trek but the advancements are coming now. The material is as expensive as artificial sapphire, so its use is selective.
Metallic aluminum still cannot be made transparent, but an equally strong aluminum ceramic has been created. Current applications range from semi-conductors to bullet-proof windows and armor claddings. Maybe Apple will pick it up for a wearable watch or Airbus might decide to make a transparent plane out of the composites.
Trust writers to come up with apt acronyms. The Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement device detected electromagnetic impulses and transmitted these to a brain implant. Geordi La Forge wore VISORS throughout the show, because he was born blind.
There’s Google Glass of course. But my vote will go to the Argus II. This visual prosthetic is approved by the FDA and helps to restore some vision to the visually impaired. The retinal implant uses an external camera fixed on eye-glasses which transmits signals to a video processing unit. The synthesized signals are sent to the retinal implant that stimulates the retina’s undamaged cells. Patients distinguish these light patterns as partial vision.
Damn! It couldn’t make Romulan ale. But the Replicator was fair game for anything less vintage. Replicators could also dispose of leftovers and dishes – that’s one use which could have solved our waste problem.
We don’t raise eyebrows when talking about 3D printing anymore. It’s changing the way we design prototypes. But is there a 3D printer in the horizon that can change the way we eat? A 17-inches wide box could be the first glimmer.
Foodini isn’t a replicator yet. It’s more of a machine that whips up dinner with the raw ingredients you feed it. What it promises to do better than others is cook with more variety.
The good news is that 3D food printing technology is a burgeoning field, and we can get to see a machine close to the reel-life replicator in our lifetime. I just hope it comes with a diet function.
Does Life Imitate Art?
Look around. Life imitates art every day. Someone or something’s inspired Gene Roddenberry, and he returned the favor. A lot of Star Trek technology – from communicators to Star Trek’s computer are already common facts. Many of the others will follow. Okay, maybe not teleportation.
But the one “vision” of his we would want to see in our lifetime is a future where humanity has learned to live in peace and harmony. Maybe, we won’t go on five year galactic missions so soon, but maybe we can make a start by exploring the best in alien cultures at home.
How has Star Trek inspired you? Which Star Trek tech do you think will become real soon? And let’s also talk about this one – who do you think was the best predictor of technology? Da Vinci, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, or Gene Roddenberry?
Image Credit: donielle (Flickr)