The science fiction series Star Trek was first beamed onto our television screens in 1966. Since then, more than 700 episodes have been broadcast across 6 series, along with 13 movies. This is the 50th anniversary year and there are no signs of Star Trek stopping. Star Trek: Discovery debuts on the digital platform CBS All Access in 2017. Star Trek is not just a piece of entertainment history. It is something that has permeated our culture and influenced the design and evolution of the technology we use today. Through this influence, science fiction has become science fact. Here we will look at some of the real-life “Treknology” people use everyday.
Starting with the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), set in the 23rd Century, the communicator is used in every episode. This is a portable device that allows communication over vast distances. It is activated by flipping open the top panel.
I am sure I do not need to draw the comparisons between it and the mobile phone (though for those born after the iPhone revolution, a mobile phone may seem like ancient technology to them). As an example, the Nokia 6350 was a clamshell phone that could be answered by flipping it open. Whether it is a mobile phone or smartphone you have, it is still a portable, personal communications device that can be used across vast distances, just like the communicator on Star Trek.
On the bridge of the Enterprise, Communications Officer Uhura used a wireless device in her ear to listen to transmissions. This allowed her to connect to both the ship’s main computer and main communications system. Today many people can do the same thing through Bluetooth. This wireless earpiece connects the user to their phone or computer and is used to communicate with other people. Even the latest Apple iPhone comes with wireless earphones.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), set in the 24th Century, the crew of the USS Enterprise carry with them Personal Access Display Devices (PADD). These are portable touch screen devices that can connect wirelessly with the central computer on board the ship. The PADDs are used to perform everyday tasks, transfer information from one point to another and have a variety of multimedia functionality. They can record and display images/video/audio.
When the show debuted in 1987, this seemed like a futuristic idea but today approximately 338 million iPads have been sold, as well as a variety of other tablet computers. These touchscreen devices do the same, if not more, as what the PADD did on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Sticking with the computers of either Enterprise, one feature they have is voice activation and control. Captain Kirk or Captain Picard can verbally activate the computer to request information or for it to run a program. A keyboard or mouse is not necessary.
Most smartphones (and some computers) now also offer this feature. One notable example being Siri on the Apple devices. This allows the user to ask it questions, such as “where is a nearby restaurant” and Siri will verbally respond with the correct information. It can also be used to tell your phone to call people or to put a reminder in your calendar.
The final piece of technology we will look at is the Universal Translator. In Star Trek everyone speaks English, and the consoles on the Enterprise all display English text. This occurs in spite of the fact that the United Federation of Planets is made up over 150 members with many, many different alien species. The in-universe explanation is that the ship’s computers and the crew’s personal communicators are also universal translators. These translate any alien language into English.
Today, we have Google Translate that does the same thing for text with most languages here on Earth. There are also apps that will translate the spoken word in real-time, such as Google Translate with Word Lens or iTranslateVoice.
Star Trek – The Continuing Voyages
These are just a small selection of the real-life technology that was first seen in Star Trek. There have been many technological advancements in the last 50 years since Star Trek began. In some ways we are now more advanced compared to where Star Trek thought we would be by the 23rd and 24th Century. We still don’t have warp speed, nor transporters that can beam people from one location to another, but rest assured there are people out there working on it. With Star Trek: Discovery coming in 2017, one can only wonder what fictional technology it will “invent” that will become reality someday. It also shows that design influence can come from a variety of sources. As designers we should take inspiration from all around us, and not to be afraid to reach for the stars.
Live long and prosper.