Ships traveling faster than the speed of light, handheld beam weapons and replicator devices that can make most anything materialize on command. Yup, we're talking "Star Trek", a show that never dreamed of not dreaming big, and captured generations of viewers with its exciting and hopeful vision of humanity's future. OK, so maybe we aren't flying around in space yet, many of the Enterprise's futuristic technologies have become bona fide hardware.
We’ve put together a list of six such technologies for you: Shields up! Set phasers on the future! (For related reading, check out Astounding Sci-Fi Ideas That Came True.)
Captain Kirk was always a lady’s man. But it wasn’t just his dashing good looks or how well he rocked a girdle – he was a communicator. Within the space of a few minutes, Kirk was able to find the words to warm the hearts of even the most hostile Orion Slave Girl, thanks in no small part to an invaluable piece of 22rd technology called a Universal Translator. According to the "Star Trek" canon, universal translators were first invented in the 22nd century (as seen in the 2001 "Star Trek" franchise spin-off, "Enterprise") for use on earth, but were quickly modified to make inter-species communication in the depths of outer space possible. These early models were rife with linguistic flaws, but by the time James Tiberius Kirk was cruising the cosmos, the kinks had mostly been worked out of the system.
"Star Trek" Enterprise Universal Translator
Source: Alex Walker Studios
Today, we take advantage of complex translation software and hardware on a daily basis. Thanks to Google Translate, Web surfers are able to peruse any website from around the globe in their own native language. And, on the ground in hot zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has been arming soldiers with a handheld device called a Phraselater. The device is designed to allow its soldiers to input a word or phrase which is then translated into a language that members of the local population can understand.
Making the leap from fiction to reality in less than 50 years? Not too shabby.
What’s that? A member of your Away Team has contracted a mysterious illness? A member of the crew lost the lower third of her arm in a Klingon bat’leth training accident? No problem. Just given them a good once over with your medical tricorder and find out what the best course of treatment is. In the original "Star Trek" series, tricorders were used by Starfleet personnel to collect a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data on the world around them – a valuable resource for anyone exploring strange new worlds – not to mention seeking out new life and new civilizations. Medical tricorders allowed a surgeon or Away Team medic to explore the internal physiology of a crew member or alien without the aid of an intrusive medical procedure. With nothing more than a few passes of its sensor wand, a medical tricorder could locate injuries, isolate illnesses and even suggest a course of treatment, whether the patient was an Andorian, human or Klingon.
Medical Tricorder MKX
Source: Alex Walker Studios
DST Science Tricorder
Source: Alex Walker Studios
While a great deal larger, the medical tricorder’s direct descendant (or ancestor, depending on how you look at it), Medical Resonance Imaging – also known as an MRI machine – does pretty much the same thing. Best of all, it’s not just a figment of some script writer’s imagination.
Even when McCoy, Spock and Kirk were exploring the deepest recesses of an alien world, they could contact the Enterprise with little more than the flick of the wrist thanks to their personal communicators. That's the device that the flick of the wrist opened. The personal communicator was perhaps the most valuable piece of hardware featured on "Star Trek"; it allowed the Away Team to stay in touch with the Enterprise (err … in most cases).
Plus, the cost of running a telephone line from the Enterprise down to a planet’s surface would have been astronomical.
"Star Trek" Alpha Hero Communicator
Source: Alex Walker Studios
There’s little doubt that in both form and function, the modern cellphone is the spiritual successor to the personal communicator. Providing practical portable, wireless communications to anyone and everyone, the emergence of the cellphone has changed the way that we communicate and socialize with one another. In the past decade, mobile phones have even taken on some of the characteristics of a tricorder, providing us with location and weather information about the world around us, as well as a wealth of data served up on command from the Internet. A two-for-one "Star Trek" inspired gadget mashup? That’s a feat of engineering that’d even impress Scotty. (Learn about the latest in cellphone data technology in VoIP Over 4G: The Future in VoIP Communications.)
Flip Phone, 2008
PADD Computing Device
While handheld computers have been featured in "Star Trek" since the 1960s, it wasn’t until "Star Trek: The Next Generation" came to television in the 1990s that these gadgets approached anything resembling cool. In the 24th century, the fictional computers in "Star Trek" had evolved to such an extent that most of the shipboard functions on a starship could be controlled by a Starfleet officer's voice. Despite this, most people working with computers seemed to prefer a tactile interface for working with lists, computations and controlling many shipboard systems. This could be done through the use of capacitative control panels located throughout the ships and starbases in which they were installed, or with a Personal Access Display Device (PADD).
Fast forward a few years and those fictional PADD tablets look and functioned very much like Apple’s ubiquitous iPad or the Motorola Xoom do. In fact, using a modern tablet computer is as close as you can get to living in the 24th century. And you don't even have to worry about a Jem’Hadar invasion fleet warping into our solar system.
When the crew of the Enterprise were concerned about the potential dangers of navigating into an unknown astral body, or couldn’t visually track the whereabouts of an enemy ship, they’d fire a sensor probe. These compact, semi-autonomous vessels were fired out of a photon torpedo tube into space. Packed full of sensor hardware designed to send telemetry data back to the Enterprise, sensor probes provided the ship’s crew with data to analyze.
While we may not be firing them out of photon torpedo tubes just yet, NASA has been firing probes, robots and unmanned exploratory spacecraft off into space for almost as long as "Star Trek" has been on the air. Voyager I & II, Magellan, Viking I and the Mars Exploration Rovers are all great examples of sensor-packed hardware designed to be launched into the depths of space and send us back detailed telemetry of their findings. You know, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life … that sort of thing.
Fun fact: "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry came up with the idea for moving Starfleet personnel around using transporter technology because the show’s budget was too tight to afford the building of a shuttlecraft set. This monetary shortfall is to blame for one of the most iconic phrases associated with the show: "Beam me up, Scotty." On "Star Trek", transporter technology allows personnel, materials or hardware to be disassembled at a molecular level, electronically beamed across a great distance, and then reassembled instantaneously in a new location.
While we may not have found a way to beam a family of four from Halifax to Honolulu just yet, in 2005, scientists successfully used pulsed laser light to transport electrical information from one atom to another over a space of 200 micrometers. Is this the first step in a continuing mission toward instantly transporting a human being from one location to another in a beam of light?
Not even close. It could, however, be the first step on the road to what scientists refer to as quantum computing, an ultra-fast computing system that uses atomic particles instead of transistors to process information.
To Boldly Go …
Watch "Star Trek" these days and in some cases, it's hard to tell where science fiction ends and reality begins. Many of the technologies dreamed up to help Starfleet communicate and analyze the strange new worlds around them have now been beamed into this one – dreams that became a reality.