In 1966, the science fiction series Star Trek was first beamed onto our television screens. During the following 50 years, over 700 episodes were broadcast, split across 6 series, along with 13 movies. In this year of the 50th anniversary, there are no signs of Star Trek stopping, as Star Trek: Discovery will debut on the digital platform CBS All Access in 2017. Star Trek is not just a piece of entertainment; it is something that has permeated our culture and influenced the design and evolution of the technology we use today. Through the influence of Star Trek, science fiction has become science fact. In this blog post we will look at some of the real-life “Treknology” that a lot of people use everyday.
Starting with the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), set in the 23rd Century, the communicator was used in every episode. This was a portable communications device that allowed communication over vast distances and was 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. But the Nokia 6350, for example, was a clamshell phone that could be answered by flipping it open. And 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 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. Also, 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 carried with them Personal Access Display Devices (PADD). These were portable touch screen devices that could connect wirelessly with the central computer on board the ship and were used to perform everyday tasks, transfer information from one point to another and had a variety of multimedia functionality, with the ability to 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 the Enterprise of both eras, one feature it had was voice activation and control. Captain Kirk or Captain Picard could simply verbally activate the computer and request information or for it to run a program. A keyboard or mouse was 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 in this blog article is the Universal Translator. In Star Trek everyone speaks English, and the consoles on the Starship 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 was that the ship’s computers and the personal communicators were also universal translators that could 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.
The Continuing Voyages
These are just a small selection of the real-life technology that was first seen in Star Trek. There have been so many technological advancements in the last 50 years since Star Trek began, that in some ways we are now more advanced compared to where Star Trek thought we would be in 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, and as designers we should take inspiration from all around us, and not to be afraid to reach for the stars.
Live long and prosper.