It has been 50 years since Star Trek first appeared on our screens and changed the cultural landscape forever. The characters, the ship, and the aliens are well known even among those who have no interest in science fiction. The vision of a future free of sexism, racism, and poverty is a profoundly positive one. But it is probably the technology available in the 23rd and 24th centuries that has most captured the public imagination.
Faster-than-light travel and matter transportation may be a long way off, but in many ways the present we now live in has caught up with the future envisioned in Star Trek. Let’s explore the many ways Star Trek predicted the future we’re now living through.
At a time when telephones were wired and attached to your wall, the idea of a small device you could carry with you at all times must have seemed amazing. The transporter was the quasi-magical device beaming our heroes away from any dangerous situation, but it was the communicator that allowed the show to heighten the tension. You can see this in The Original Series episode “The Doomsday Machine,” when Captain Kirk calmly requests to be transported away from certain death.
Until the arrival of the iPhone, many cellphones had a flip design similar to Star Trek‘s original communicators. While the smartphone is too useful for us ever to return to those glory days, you can now buy a replica communicator that connects via Bluetooth to your real communicator. However, at $149.99, it’s one for the committed fans only.
If you prefer the lapel-type communicators worn in The Next Generation then never fear, as one is now available for pre-order. As well as a cheaper price, it has the advantage of more openly displaying your geek credentials. It’s also more useful as a Bluetooth device than one you have to take out of your pocket and flip open to use.
The earpiece often worn by Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura bears a remarkable similarity to today’s Bluetooth headsets, and serves a similar function. In the show it appeared to be a hands-free device, but when receiving communications from Starfleet Command, Uhura would hold her hand against it. This is an apparently unnecessary gesture that has also been adopted by many Bluetooth headset wearers.
Google Glass — which has yet to become an everyday device — also had its precursor in Star Trek. In The Next Generation episode “The Game,” the crew become addicted to a game played wearing a headset that beamed images directly into the eye. And the virtual display device, Dominion technology that appeared in several episodes of Deep Space Nine could have been a bulky prototype for Google Glass.
In The Original Series, Captain Kirk would occasionally be approached by a Yeoman with a tablet and a stylus. This was presumably to sign off on the Captain’s Log he had narrated at the beginning of the episode. We never got to see much of these devices, and their inclusion seems to have been an excuse to show a young woman in a miniskirt.
The Next Generation saw the introduction of the Portable Auxiliary Data Display (PADD), a portable touchscreen personal computer that looks and functions remarkably like a modern tablet. They came in various sizes and appeared to be used for work and recreation.
There are a number of Star Trek-inspired apps for Android available. These allow you to change the interface on your phone or tablet to simulate the LCARS operating system (Library Computer Access and Retrieval System) used in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.
Computers You Can Talk To
From the very beginning, the computers on Star Trek understood complex natural language queries and could answer questions on any topic.
Google staff have been open about their goal to create a similar experience. Google’s Voice app, along with Siri and Cortana, are impressive early attempts at this. Voice recognition has improved dramatically in recent years and is probably now at least as accurate as typing. Natural language processing has also made huge advances, making these services much better at understanding what we mean without us having to change the way we speak.
Amazon’s Echo and Alexa devices probably come closest to replicating the Star Trek experience of controlling the conditions of a room as you enter it. After all, with nothing other than simple voice commands you can now change the lighting, play some music, listen to the news, order food, and instantly communicate with any of your contacts.
It’s not yet a seamless experience but with the right purchases and a little work you can certainly turn your house into a smart home — which can in itself feel like a scene out of Star Trek.
Real-Time Language Translation
One of the most remarkable features of the Star Trek universe is the aliens who can speak perfect English. This, of course, makes for much more convenient television than creating new languages every week. And there’s no need for subtitles or interpreters.
For the most part the details of how this is supposed to work are glossed over, but occasionally the Universal Translator is highlighted. A great example is the Deep Space Nine episode “Little Green Men”. A temporal anomaly results in a spaceship with three Ferengi crashing in Roswell in 1947. They are unable to communicate with the humans they encounter until they repair their universal translators which are implanted in their ears.
The Starfleet versions were built into their communicators. This presumably made them easier to repair. When working correctly, they effortlessly translated any language into almost any other language.
We’re not quite there yet, but automatic translation has vastly improved. Google Translate can recognize and translate text in over 100 languages, use your phone’s camera to (almost) instantly translate signs and menus, and even allow real-time translation between spoken languages.
It’s a little clunkier than the Star Trek version, of course, and it uses dictionary files rather than brainwaves. Regardless, it’s still an astonishingly useful tool. This is especially true for travelers. One glaring omission in Google Translate is Klingon. Fortunately, Microsoft’s Bing Translator has you covered. Hoch vaj megh’an toH, as Shakespeare put it.
A company called Waverly Labs is working on an earpiece that will instantly translate between spoken languages. They expect to have it for sale by May 2017.
The replicators introduced in The Next Generation were mostly used as vending machines for dispensing bergamot-infused beverages. But they were actually capable of producing almost anything on demand.
The 3D printers we have today don’t make matter out of energy, and also can’t make tea. However, they have been used to make food, clothes, toys, cars, and many more amazing 3D-printed items. One has been sent to the International Space Station to manufacture replacement parts.
Some of Star Trek‘s inventions remain science fiction, but many are on the cusp of being realized. Improvements in virtual reality may lead us to something like the Holodeck. Versions of other Star Trek technology from hyposprays to phasers aren’t far away. It may be centuries before humanity can truly explore strange new worlds. However, in almost every other way, reality has caught up with Star Trek faster than anyone could have imagined.
Did we miss anything? What Star Trek inventions would you most like to see become reality? Please let us know in the comments below!