Star Trek: Tech advances, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry

Star Trek: Tech advances, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry

Summary: In 1966, NBC released an iconic but short-lived series that would inspire generations of inventors to bring about changes in our daily lives with technology that was once within the realms of strictly science fiction.

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  • (Image: CBS)

    The "Communicator"

    Perhaps the most iconic of Trek gizmos that 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 allowed the Enterprise to geo-locate and communicate with the away team from orbit on any planet they happened to have beamed down on.

    33662-motorola_startac
    (Image: Motorola)

    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 1973.

    Cooper admitted to being inspired by the original Star Trek show as the driving force behind the device that 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 that look like the original Communicator have largely given way to more powerful touchscreen smartphones like the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy, 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 allowed crew members to communicate both 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.

    In 2009, Google introduced the Latitude service, which allows anyone carrying a GPS-capable smartphone running Google Maps to be visually located by their friends, so we're getting closer to the "True" Trek Communicator.

  • motorola-headset-2
    (Image: Motorola)

    (Image: CBS)

    The Federation communications earpiece

    The cell/mobile phone was not the only aspect of Trek communications technology that 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 a reality as the Bluetooth Headset, which is also a Motorola innovation.

    Motorola Mobility was purchased by Google in August 2011.

  • (Image: CBS)

    Flat-panel displays

    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 HD widescreen wall-mounted displays, which were simply called "Viewers" or "Viewscreens" on the original show.

    samsung_82_inch_lcd
    (Image: Samsung)

    It should probably also be mentioned that the telepresence technology using video feeds for ship-to-ship communication first shown in 1966 is now commonplace, using technologies such as Skype, Google Hangout, and Apple FaceTime in addition to corporate video conferencing products such as Microsoft Lync, Citrix GotoMeeting, Cisco WebEx, and Cisco Jabber.

    However, it should be noted that social norms have limited their actual adoption, and voice communication, while now more advanced than ever before with the advent of VoIP and digital signal processing, is still the way most people like to do things if they aren't texting or emailing.

Topics: Tech Industry, Emerging Tech, Hardware

About

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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57 comments
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  • warp speed and food replicators?

    we're still missing those. And one more thing, transporting devices, no need to fly to our destination.
    Maarek
    • Not yet :)

      This article is about tech from Trek that's actually materialized.
      jperlow
      • Warp drive coming sooner than we may have thought?

        Warp drive may not yet have "materialized" (heh heh - kind of an amusing term to use in reference to replicator/transporter tech, actually) but published reports suggest that NASA is already moving the development of an Alcubierre-style warp drive system from the realm of pure sci-fi/fantasy speculation to an attempt to produce a desk-top scale proof-of-concept piece of hardware. Granted, still a long way from being able to order an immediate jump to "maximum warp", but a sign that this -could- be reality a lot sooner than the original Trek series imagined (IIRC it was set about 300 years in our future).
        Spaceref.com posted another interesting article about it on 04/12/2013: http://spaceref.com/nasa-hack-space/propulsion/clarifying-nasas-warp-drive-program.html
        pretzelogic
    • Star Trek

      We are missing the antimatter engines, without those warp is not possible. It requires extreme energy source to warp space.
      hayneiii@...
      • Antimatter does exist though, and it can be contained ...

        ... in a magnetic bottle.

        The beauty of antimatter is that mixing it with matter results in pure energy. No human technology can produce 100% conversion of matter to energy - NOT EVEN CLOSE. Even thermonuclear devices are extremely inefficient by comparison. That said, if we could harness that much pure energy, the ability to manipulate it might become a matter of engineering. We just don't know what we can do at such staggering energy densities. The LHC is just now touching on the energy densities necessary. Still, 1966 was not that long ago ... and look where we have come!
        M Wagner
  • How about Transparent Aluminum?

    Remember Scottie in the San Francisco episode (rescue the whales). He was trying to create transparent aluminum because it was so strong, and other properties.
    Here is the reality:

    http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123012131

    http://www.livescience.com/420-military-aluminum-windows-stop-50-caliber-bullet.html
    Randy Reimers
    • sorry

      been done look it up
      sarai1313@...
      • Yes, kind of - but only at ...

        ... extremely restricted wavelengths!
        M Wagner
        • but is out there being use in products

          sorry but it is out there.
          sarai1313@...
    • I should also note gorilla glass . . .

      I should also note that gorilla glass is pretty strong. While we haven't seen panels as large as in Star Trek, it does a decent job at preventing breakage when a cell phone is accidentally dropped.
      CobraA1
      • HAHA

        Not disagreeing with you...Just laughing because my buddy's going out to get a new phone. He dropped his iPhone the other day. All he had at the time was a roll of scotch tape to hold it together till he can get a new one. I laugh every time I think about it.
        67cougargt
  • Data storage

    there was also what looked like a floppy disk that kirk could insert into his chair (arm rest on left side). i think spock also had one on his console.

    in the episode "All Our Yesterdays" Mr. Atoz was the librarian who used media which looks like todays CDs/DVDs although his were slightly thicker.
    http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Verism_tape
    gwa000
    • Plastic Media

      I used to think it was rediculous that they would insert a piece of plastic into the computer for information. 20 years later I found myself doing the same thing when the 3 1/2 discs came out...
      Scooter73
      • I just stuck a 64GB MicroSDXC disk into my Surface RT.

        The capacity of MicroSDXC stands at 2TB! You were saying?
        M Wagner
  • Auto-opening doors

    were copied directly from Star Trek. According to one of the books, someone at a company wrote asking where they could buy them. The ST folks replied that there were actually people behind the set manually moving the doors. The company's response was, "Well, let's build them!" The original versions used switchmats and that was later replaced with ultrasonic detectors.
    Rick_R
    • Unless you're referring to the sliding doors specifically, ..

      "auto-opening" doors existed long before Star Trek.
      bkshort@...
      • Not sliding doors that had no visible sensor though.

        NT
        M Wagner
  • but

    CBS bought up paramount and all the rights to it all because they could not have any one go after prier art that Roddenberry came up with if only in concept and use it against apple. who they own a huge block of.
    sarai1313@...
    • one last thing

      If you look on the back of the 2001 a space odyssey album you will see the first tablet computer.
      sarai1313@...
      • The 2001 tablet computer

        Is featured in the 1968 film. But Star Trek preceded it by 2 years.
        jperlow