How “Star Trek” predicted future technology

By David Gilbert

An illustrated cockpit of a spaceship.
IBM

“Star Trek” is one of the most iconic science fiction franchises of the last 50 years. Over the course of 13 films, and now seven television series, millions of people have watched and enjoyed “Star Trek” — and the show’s future technology has also influenced the people who designed and built the technology consumers and businesses use today.

From the rudimentary physical set design from the original “Star Trek” series in 1966 to the cutting-edge visuals you see in the current season of “Star Trek: Discovery,” the technology on display has always been connected to the real world.

Author Andrew Fazekas, who wrote “Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe,” explained to National Geographic that the series and its creators provide “a hopeful pathway to a possible human future that’s not-too-distant.” The “Star Trek” universe has been a source of inspiration for many innovators, according to TechRepublic.

The technology in “Star Trek” has often proved prescient in terms of real-world innovations, and the last five decades have seen numerous examples of on-screen technology jump into the real world.

Tablets

Crew members in the original “Star Trek” series used devices known as “electronic clipboards,” and by the time of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” they were using devices known as Personal Access Display Devices (PADDs). These PADDs are almost identical to the tablets consumers and mobile enterprises use today.

Consisting of a large touch-screen display and minimal manual controls — usually only one or two buttons — characters use the PADDs for everything from logging crew manifests and compiling duty rosters to running diagnostic reports.

Natural language processing

Interacting with computers using your voice has long been a staple of science fiction, and in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard regularly issues the command “Computer” to activate the ship’s artificial intelligence system before issuing an order.

Today, thanks to advances in natural language processing, people are just beginning to interact with computers in the same way. Modern smartphones have smart virtual assistants you can summon with only your voice. They can turn the lights on or off in your house, send messages, play music and more.

Cellphones

The “Star Trek” communicator is one of the most iconic pieces of future technology introduced in the very first show. In 1966, it presented a future in which you could carry around a phone in your pocket. With the flip of the cover, you could communicate with anyone, anywhere.

Fast-forward 30 years and the Motorola StarTAC brought this vision to life, as TIME reported. This cellphone looked remarkably like Captain Kirk’s flip-open communicator. The Communicator looks limited compared to the power of today’s smartphones, but it shows how “Star Trek’s” vision informed how real-world technology evolved.

Wearables

Any “Star Trek” fan at one time or another would have imagined tapping a tiny badge and being able to speak to friends or family members in another room. First seen in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Starfleet personnel wear combadges, tapping them to communicate with other crew members.

Those devices preempted the current wearable revolution where glasses, watches and even clothes are now letting people communicate and interact with the digital world. There’s even a startup in California called Vocera that has built similar devices, which hospital personnel use to avoid constant overhead pages.

The future

However, what about the future? Are there some innovations on display in “Star Trek: Discovery” that could point to how the digital workplace will evolve in the coming years?

Along with the communicator and the combadge, the one piece of technology that’s stuck in the minds of fans is the tricorder, a hand-held device crew members use to scan for geological, biological and meteorological anomalies. First seen in the original series, the range of uses for the tricorder has expanded with the show — often as a way of advancing the plot.

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Though today’s smartphones can’t scan their environments in the same way the tricorder can, there’s an increasing number of sensors packed into new smartphones, allowing users to carry out some of the same functions as a tricorder. For example, using a phone’s camera together with a machine learning app allows you to scan worrying moles, spots or lesions and receive a preliminary diagnosis.

As sensors advance, smartphones are able to scan entire rooms to map the world around them. As these features become mainstream in the coming years, it’s entirely feasible that people will soon consider the tricorder as outdated as the communicator is today.

Over the last 50 years, “Star Trek” has had an unprecedented impact on the way technology has evolved in the real world. As “Star Trek: Discovery” continues to boldly go where no one has gone before, viewers are likely to continue to see Gene Roddenberry’s world influence the world around them.

Written By

David Gilbert

David Gilbert specializes in covering the global smartphone industry and the dangerous world of cybercrime. David has worked as a reporter for VICE News, served as European technology editor at the International Business Times, and as Technology Editor for the UK edition of IBTimes…

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