Advances in TREKnology

Advances in TREKnology

Summary: In September of 1966, the NBC television network released an iconic but short lived series that would inspire generations of inventors to bring about changes in our daily lives in the use of technology that many of us take for granted but was once within the realms of strictly Science Fiction.The original series, based on a "Wagon train to the Stars" Western turned Sci-Fi adventure concept envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, Dorothy C.


In September of 1966, the NBC television network released an iconic but short lived series that would inspire generations of inventors to bring about changes in our daily lives in the use of technology that many of us take for granted but was once within the realms of strictly Science Fiction.

The original series, based on a "Wagon train to the Stars" Western turned Sci-Fi adventure concept envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, Dorothy C. Fontana and Matt Jeffries which ran for a total of 3 seasons from 1966 to 1969 is the basis for the feature film prequel/remake which is being released this weekend, nearly 43 years later.

In the span of those four decades, many of the gadgets and technologies showcased in STAR TREK and in the revival shows and feature films which followed it in the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s did eventually come to fruition.

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Communications Technology

Perhaps the most iconic of TREK gizmos which became reality was the device simply known as the "Communicator", a palm-sized walkie talkie with a flip out antenna that allowed  crew members to communicate with each other while in the field and allow the Enterprise to geo-locate them and communicate with them from orbit on any planet they happen to have beamed down on.
The real-life version of the "Communicator" became the Mobile Phone, which was invented by Dr. Martin Cooper of the Motorola corporation and released in April of 1973. Cooper admits to being inspired by the original Star Trek show as the driving force behind the device which now permeates virtually all of modern society. The original real-life "Communicator" was brick-sized, but Motorola eventually released the appropriately-named StarTAC in 1996 which was a dead ringer for the Trek original.

Today flip-style cell phones which look like the original Communicator have largely given way to more powerful touchscreen smartphones like the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm, but without STAR TREK we probably wouldn't have seen either of them.

The true Communicator didn't use cell towers -- it was able to broadcast over huge distances and allow crew members to communicate planet-wide and to the ship in orbit without the use of any support infrastructure. We haven't gotten there yet, and we sort of failed with mass adoption of global-capable Communicator tech with Iridium, but modern cell phones do permeate our lives and we do have the ability now to locate each other with built-in GPS capabilities, which the Enterprise was able to do for its crew members.

Recently, Google introduced the Latitude service which allows anyone carrying a GPS-capable cell phone to be visually located by their friends, so we're getting closer to the "True" TREK Communicator.

The Cell/Mobile Phone was not the only aspect of Trek communications technology which made it to reality. The wireless earpiece, which both Communications Officer Lt. Uhura and Science Officer Spock were known to have used on a number of occasions on the show also became reality as the Bluetooth Headset, also a Motorola innovation.

Information Technology

Star Trek has had so many computer and information related technologies showcased in it over the years that it's very hard to tell where the Science starts and the Fiction ends. While many of the IT advances in Star Trek haven't made it yet -- such as true Artificial Intelligence as featured in the Enterprise's shipboard computer system or Lieutenant Commander Data, many aspects of TREK IT have managed to filter their way into our daily lives.

Display technology is probably the biggie. While you can hardly credit Star Trek for inventing the CRT, you can certainly see how the show has probably inspired generations of engineers to create LCD flat screens and Hi-Def widescreen wall-mounted displays, which were simply called "Viewers" or "Viewscreens" on the original show.

My favorite of these display technologies is the PADD, or the Personal Access Display Device. Although the term was coined later in 1987 with the release of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series it did actually make an appearance a few times in the original show, where it was used by various engineers and administrative staff.

Today, aspects of the PADD can be found in many forms of handheld touch screen, MIDs and tablet devices, including the iPod Touch, the BlackBerry Storm, the T-Mobile G1 and the upcoming Palm Pre.  Larger format PADD-like devices such as e-book readers like the Kindles, the Sony PRS-700BC, UMPCs and Tablet PCs haven't taken off in tremendous volumes yet, largely due to cost and the current economy, but they are definitely a product of STAR TREK. [UPDATE: Apple released the 10" inch iPad in April of 2010, making the "PADD" a reality].

In addition to advanced display technology, Human/Computer voice interaction as featured on the various STAR TREK series has also been implemented in various forms. While most of us do not interact with our computers by talking, voice dictation using products such as Dragon Naturallyspeaking and IBM Via Voice allow for limited and specialized application by using voice commands and voice dictation.

"Expert" voice recognition systems used by airlines, telecommunications and utility companies use voice recognition for accelerating call center screening. Although when I use them, I tend to yell "OPERATOR!" at the top of my lungs.

STAR TREK's "Memory Bank" technology which enabled the crew and various alien civilizations to record and play back music and video in digital form has also made its appearance as some of the most popular consumer electronic devices in the world -- as iPods, Portable Media Players and Digital Video Recorders, as well as SecureDigital and CompactFlash memory storage cards and the latest Solid State Disk drives.

Medical Technology

The "Sickbay" on the Enterprise was a medical science marvel, filled with all sorts of fantastic tools with the capability to diagnose virtually any ailment in existence and perform complex surgeries on life-threatened patients with virtually no blood spilled. While we've got a long way to go until we get the full set of medical tools that was available to Dr. McCoy, quite a few of TREK's medical gizmos have left it's influence on real life healthcare technology.

The magical diagnostic bed that displayed all sorts of metrics on patient vital signs that was used on the original series did eventually come to fruition as various independent diagnostic and health monitoring equipment used in hospitals today.

One of those is the LifeBed, which is a near-dead ringer for Dr. Mccoy's sickbay. Similar diagnostic equipment has been used aboard the International Space Station and in mobile field hospitals in the military. Naturally, advanced medical imaging technologies inspired by the original series and Next Generation sickbays made their way into CT and MRI equipment, which are a staple of modern medical diagnostics.

Mccoy's  "Hypospray" which allowed for instantaneous, bloodless and needle-free liquid injections hasn't quite made it in terms of handheld portability yet to every medical office,  but a real-life equivalent for use in mass-dosage scenarios exists as the Jet Injector and is used for vaccinations by the Department of Defense and other government and relief agencies around the world.

While the truly non-invasive surgery employed on the original Star Trek and TNG shows for generalized use still remain largely Science Fiction, some procedures such as Stereotactic Radiosurgery for treating specific types of tumors allow for non-invasive surgery on brain tissue using focused radiation beams.

And while the hand held directed energy "Phaser" guns used for combat against hostile aliens still remain a fantasy, LASIK surgery using focused low-wattage lasers to correct vision is now well on its way to making eye glasses and contact lenses obsolete.

Is there a favorite real-world STAR TREK technology that I've managed to leave out? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: BlackBerry, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • I can think of three . . .

    right off the top of my head:

    1) The high-speed sliding doors at every mall, store, emergency room, etc, you go to today, came about as a direct result of the inventor seeing it on Star Trek, and wanted to duplicate them so paramedics could get people into emergency rooms and not have to think about opening doors (every second counts). The ones on the show were controlled by a props man with a rope :) .

    2) The Iraq vet (who was on Fox and Friends the other day) who has the world's first robotic prosthetic legs, controlled by computers inside that can sense what the person wants to do by the moving of the remaining muscles.

    3) Powered wheelchairs/scooters like the rascal (and it's ilk). Remember Commodore Pike in his powered life support chair?

    • Are you talking about...

      ...the ones with three circular lights mounted in his front body? I mean--he does not speak, but when it comes to answering questions, he lights up a sequence of lights and someone has to translate those sequence of lights.

      Yeah, I remember that.
      Grayson Peddie
      • Yep that's the one.

        The chair acts as a complete portable life support system for him, as well as a self directed mobility chair.

        The Details of what we can do today weren't there, but the overall concept was. We have the capability of making chairs that can be directed by eye motion and muscle flexes, and life support systems are getting smaller and smaller . . .

  • Live long and prosper

  • RE: Advances in TREKnology

    Teleportation! But we're not quite there yet.
    chris jablonski
    • If "not quite there yet"

      Means "we've successfully moved one proton a few feet away" I'd tend to agree with that!
      • Yeah, I read about that.
        Grayson Peddie
      • i thought

        that was a photon
        • i was right

          if you read the article, it mentions photo, not proton...i read about that years ago
          • Either way

            It's a -single- particle. That it's a photon and not a proton means it doesn't even have any mass, it's even less of an achievement.
  • Universal voice translation

    We're a long way from real time voice translation, but there lots of interest:
  • Geordi's Visor/Bionic Eyes

    We've made a lot of progress in neuroscience in the last decade, so much so that we now have clinical trials for <a href="">bionic eyes</a> and glasses that relay visual information to the retina.

    Just do a quick Google search, and you'll find a plethora of articles relating to bionic eye implants.
    • Real Life Miracle

      I've got a friend whose vision was damaged by pressure as a result of service as a submariner in the US Navy. His vision deteriorated to nothing but the ability to tell light from dark. Basically, everything mechanical that could go wrong with an eye had gone wrong.

      Surgeons in Greensboro, NC re-attached his retina, replaced the cornea, and removed the opaque blood-laden fluid from the eye, replacing it with a synthetic substitute.

      Over the course of a few months of recovery, my friend went from being able to just tell the difference between night and day, to once again being able to read, use a computer, and drive his own car.

      Medical science has made awesome advances.
    • re:Geordi's Visor...

      Don't forget the nueral interface that allows a completely paralyzed person to interact with a computer just by thinking.
  • Two More

    1. Thumb Drive: On Star Trek they looked like plastic wafers about the size of a credit card and went into a rectangular receptacle.

    2. Ion Drive, used today for satellite orbital maneuvering and deep space solar missions.

    Science fiction has been an inspiration for real science for a long time. Look how much of what Jules Verne and H. G. Welles wrote has come to fruition? We are only limited by our imaginations. I wish I could be around 200 years from now to see how far science will take us. Look how primitive we were just 200 years ago compared to today.
    • Ion Drive

      Yeah, but Trek's ion drive had no relation to the real thing, other than a really cool name. In the Real World, the only thing slower out of the gate than ion drive is a solar sail. Nevertheless, Scotty says of the builders of an ion drive starship, "They could teach us a thing or two".

      Then again, the episode was "Spock's Brain," which also gave us the immortal line, "Brain and brain! What is Brain!?"
      • immortal!

        Indeed, that has to be the single biggest line ever delivered in television history. Set the equality movement back a decade in some circles!

        BTW ever hear of rifftrax? Look it up, it's maintained by the fellows that used to do mystery science theater 3000. I bought the riff for "spock's brain," it's OK, but there are better ones. Still worth the 99 cents though. Makes watching the original trek like seeing it for the first time.
  • Better than Trek...

    I can think of an instance or two where we've one-upped the original Trek. In no particular order:

    [b]1. That cell phone.[/b] First, it's worth mentioning that Trek apparently pioneered hands-free dialing. Kirk would say, "Kirk to Spock" to his communicator, but it wasn't like a walkie-talkie: Spock's (and only Spock's) communicator would beep. I can't say I'm thrilled about the limited choice of ringtones, though. And while we can't talk to space on our phones, for flexibility they beat the Trek communicators hands-down. On my phone I can text, play video games, read eBooks, listen to music, record messages, map my location, surf the Web, shop, watch videos, take pictures and record and send video, etc. Let's face it... today's phones kick ass. Kirk's just let him talk to his ship... it didn't even have a display or two-way video.

    [b]2. Portable computing.[/b] In Trek they still hadn't gotten the concept of a portable computer down. PADDs were of limited use, and Tricorders were presumably great for gathering data, but they had a severely limited display size, and pitiful HCI. You couldn't even talk to it as you could the ship's computer. In the 60s, computers were still thought to be huge affairs (the computer core of the Enterprise took up significant real estate). I've never really understood how the writers of the time could envision humanoid robots, but not desktop computers. It seems painfully obvious to me that a robot is merely a computer with appendages. So why were the robots so hard to tell from real people, while the computers were so damned stupid? Because they made the distinction, I can't give them props for accurately predicting the state of computing OR robotics.

    [b]3. Fuses and circuit breakers.[/b] We have 'em, Trek didn't. We rock.

    [b]4. Seat belts.[/b] Ditto. Trek had "inertial dampeners", but while they might have prevented you from becoming mayonnaise on the aft bulkhead when the ship suddenly went supraluminal, they were strangely incapable of keeping a body in his seat if something tapped on the hull.

    [b]5. Clothing.[/b] The Star Trek universe suffers from a dearth of competent fashion designers, suspiciously coinciding with the abolishment of the monetary system. Also, our red shirts don't warp the probability fields around them, bringing near certain doom upon the wearer. BTW, in Trek there was evidently a service pack that fixed that problem with the red clothing: it was called "rank". Scotty was mostly immune.

    [b]6. Gaming.[/b] Our computers play more than just chess. So we beat the original Trek hands-down. And while there have been attempts at gaming in later incarnations of Trek, they've been almost uniformly lame. The movies have shown us wireframe biplane dogfights and abstract boringness. While I will give the holodeck the edge on adventure gaming and sports, anything else has been pretty embarrassing. The Next Gen has shown us VR stoner glasses and holodeck games that insult the intelligence of the youngest children. Strategema looked pretty good, but I'm not so sure about putting the cow-milking devices on my fingers. Even now we have better VR gloves. And in Enterprise, Trip tried to play a game and wound up getting pregnant. Uhm.. no thanks. While we're still working on that immersive experience, in general we have a wider selection of more interesting diversions.

    [b]Arts & Literature.[/b] While this isn't tech, [i]per se,[/i] perhaps it's an indication of a generation's creativity and inventiveness to note that they apparently read nothing but Shakespeare and Melville. Have they no authors? Have they no pop culture? And why isn't Rock-and-Roll considered "classical music" by the 23rd century? "Nothing exciting for us, thanks... we'd like to hear yet another chorus of Greensleeves, or perhaps some Bach."

    Ah... Bach.
    • Now I've seen the movie...

      ...and they've addressed my issues with rock-and-roll and pop culture. Good. Just knowing that Nokia will survive the Eugenics Wars makes me want to rush right out and invest. If it weren't for that "no money in the 23rd century" thing.
    • Keyboard Alert!

      The parent message is the most brilliant commentary I think I've ever read on ZDNet. Pure comedic gold!

      Well done sir!