Ever since it first debuted in 1966, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has inspired both tech savvy nerds and the general population for decades, with its imaginative and optimistic portrayals of what technology could do to for human society. The original series was set in the late 2260s and its characters sailed between stars at faster-than-light speed, could be teleported to exotic planets, and often made references to a world “free from disease, hunger, and hardship” all due to human invention. In its numerous television and film spin-offs, the franchise writers developed even more seemingly fantastic technologies including food replicators, interactive holodecks, and quantum torpedoes.
At the time many futurists, writers and technologists thought it really would be centuries rather than decades before we would have the tech seen in Trek. Granted, our modern society hasn’t produced all of the amazing inventions seen in the series; however, modern engineers, chemists and computer programmers have done a remarkable job of vastly improving the state of the world which in many ways are at or well ahead of Star Trek’s timeline. The following are just a few of the exciting technological innovations seen in Roddenberry’s legendary futurist series.
15. Tractor Beam
Used for a variety of functions from manipulating tool to energy tow cable to non-conventional weapon system, the tractor beams of Star Trek have been employed extensively to achieve a variety of ends throughout the canon. Within the series, tractor beams are described as a sort of graviton beam, generated through some described process, and focused and emitted from the Enterprise’s deflector dish. Granted, gravitons are still hypothetical particles and human beings have come nowhere near creating a deflector dish, engineers have none the less developed a sort of tractor beam system.
Although still in its infancy, scientists at the University of Sussex and Bristol have manufactured a tractor beam-like technology which uses high-amplitude soundwaves to manipulate objects in the surrounding environment. These primitive tractor beam generators have a variety of applications as they produce small force fields which can lift small objects and even create “holographic acoustics.”
14. Universal Translators
Traveling interstellar distances and encountering truly alien cultures is perilous enough. Particularly so when they all use different languages. Fortunately, the writers of Star Trek have extensively employed the concept of a universal translator which, after sampling only a little of a foreign species’ language, can decipher and reinterpret the language into English in real time.
Although real-world engineers and linguists haven’t found a means to develop a device to do exactly this (and realistically, they can’t) software developers have devised something very close. TalirApps has released a real-time voice and text translation program available on Apple’s App Store. This nifty application can translate, so far, seventy-one pre-programed languages from around the world.
13. Video Calls
Back in 1967 everyone in America had the same boring, rotary AT&T telephone set. At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine a far more exciting and exotic means to communicate with people on the other side of a continent, let alone the other side of the planet. Gene Roddenberry and his team of writers conceived of a future wherein people could conduct audio-visual conversations between parties on either side of planets or even between individuals on a planet and a spacecraft.
12. Diagnostic Medical Beds
Besides a unique take on faster-than-light travel and energy weapons, one of the most innovative technologies showcased on the original Star Trek was the concept of a computer-assisted medical bed. Of course, we have had mavhines for decades which display basic vital statistics (ex. heart rate, body temperature), but recently the University of Leicester has invested three years of development to take the technology one step further.
Incorporating technology developed in the space sector and medical industry has allowed physicians to monitor and analyze a panoply of features. For example, this system monitors not only blood flow but blood oxygenation as well as skin coloration, and exhalation composition. By doing this, the bio-bed can screen for conditions which would otherwise take extensive human observation and testing such as asthma and liver disease, and in so doing reduce the amount of time physicians need to spend with their patients.
11. Big Screen Displays
Back in the sixties, the concept of having large, flat display screens which could accurately render images in full-color really was science fiction. Never mind having these screens be ubiquitous in human society. In fact, when the original Star Trek series aired, only about twenty-five percent of all US households had television sets that could display color video. For decades it had seemed like the only people who would enjoy massive interactive display screens were the bridge crew of the starship Enterprise.
10. Dermal Regenerators
The military scientists of Star Trek’s Starfleet commonly find themselves on the receiving end of an enormous amount of lacerations, severe burns and general physical abuse while on their perilous journeys. Fortunately, the series writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation developed the concept of the dermal regenerator, a medical device which emits a beam which would instantly seal and heal open wounds without leaving any scars.
Prior to the development of stem cells, the closest thing to this technology was skin grafts which often required physicians to wait for weeks or even months to locate and harvest tissue from a compatible donor or rearrange existing skin on the victim. However, researchers at the University of Granada’s Department of Histology have published a new technique to derive stem cells for skin tissue development. These cells come from the undifferentiated cells in Wharton’s jelly mesenchymal stem cells found in donor umbilical cords. Once these generic cells are extracted and combined with a combination of fibrous protein and a polysaccharide polymer, novel skin cells and mucosal cells found inside the mouth are produced.
The two key advantages to this procedure include the fact that the stem cells don’t need to be painfully harvested from the victim’s bone marrow and the skin tissue cultures, once developed, can be stored for long periods and then be grafted when they are needed.
9. Directed-Energy Weapons
While a common staple of science fiction, one of the most flashy aspects of the Star Trek universe are its energy weapons: phasers. But what makes Star Trek’s energy weapons distinct are its humanitarian “stun” setting. Developed by the Raytheon, the Active Denial System is a direct-energy weapon which emits an invisible non-lethal microwave beam to incapacitate a target.
Unlike a traditional taser – and much like Starfleet’s phasers – this system doesn’t require the transmission of energy through a solid medium like darts and coils. Instead, the energy travels in a concentrated 95 Gigahertz beam through the air and excites the water molecules inside the targets top layer of skin. This excitation causes immense pain in the target but doesn’t cause any permanent damage under normal exposure. Current applications include use by the police and prison staff to disperse violent crowds without using any potentially dangerous non-lethal crowd control methods such as rubber bullets, water cannons or tear gas. The US military has also expressed interest in using this system as a means to quell civil unrest without injuring or killing civilians.
8. Orbital Skydiving
While most people may not be aware, the seventh Star Trek feature film, Star Trek: Generations’ opening scene was supposed to feature Captain Kirk in a daring, recreational dive from outer space through Earth’s atmosphere. While the footage was cut from the film, the concept was later recycled and mentioned as a recreational activity in the series Star Trek Voyager and used as a battle tactic in the franchise’s 2009 cinematic reboot.
Technically, high-atmosphere skydiving is older than Star Trek itself, but successfully and safely free-falling through the upper atmosphere has been a recent development. In the mid-1960s Nick Piantanida failed to break Air Force Colonel’s Joseph W. Kittinger’s 1960 high-atmospheric 31-kilometer fall. In an attempt to dive from 37-kilometers Piantanida barely survived a 17-kilometer drop and ended up suffering brain damage and was rendered comatose.
However, in 2012 Felix Baumgartner broke this record by safely falling 39 kilometers and also ended up breaking the sound barrier towards the end of his descent. What’s unique about this jump is that it was funded in part by a private company, Red Bull, and rather than be conducted in secret by the military, this jump was publicized as both a recreational and promotional event. Two years later, Alan Eustace beat Baumgartner’s world record with a 41-kilometer dive.
7. Deep-Space Research Platforms
The core premise of Star Trek is the exploration of uncharted space on warp-capable starships. However, the franchise’s characters learn about the universe through other means including the use of advanced deep-space arrays such as the 1.6 kilometer Argus array.
While humans have never built something of that size, they have built and launched several sophisticated probes which study both nearby and distant stellar bodies; most famous among these is the Hubble space telescope. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has observed myriad objects 13.4 billion light years away and has generated over 120 terabytes of data.
6. Bionic Eyes
Part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision was to develop a science fiction universe in which nearly anything, even the most debilitating medical condition, could be overcome through technology. One of his characters, chief engineer Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation, was born blind but had his sight restored at the age of five via a VISOR, or Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement. Said device is an arc-shaped prosthesis which enables the wearer to detect not only visual light but electromagnetic wavelengths above and below the visual spectrum and send the signal directly to La Forge’s brain.
Myriad devices similar to this have been developed since TNG was first launched in the eighties. Among them are William Dobelle’s glasses developed during the end of last century which have partially restored sight in some individuals who’ve been blind their entire life. More recently, Dr. Robert Shepherd and his colleagues at Bionics Institute of Australia have developed a far more hi-tech visual prosthesis and is specifically designed for those who suffer from the leading cause of blindness, retinitis pigmentosa. The bionic eye consists of multiple electrodes which have been wired into the brain and eyes to stimulate the surviving retinal cells. The electrochemical signals that the still-living cells receive from the environment are relayed back to the brain’s vision centers and a synthetic vision processor. These signals are then combined to restore vision allowing patients to read large font print and resolve large objects.
5. Planet-Wide Networked Communications
Generally speaking, even the most imaginative science fiction writer didn’t see the world-wide web coming. However, writer Robert Hammer and Gene L. Coon did develop a similar concept when writing the original series Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon”. The plot of the episode centers on a planet, Eminiar VII, whose inhabitants are locked in an interplanetary conflict with their neighbors, the Vendikar. Rather than engage in traditional warfare, both planets use computers to simulate war games on a planetary scale. In order to save the infrastructure of both planets, the ordinance used is virtual but “causalities” which have been “hit” in certain metropolitan areas are required by treaty to report to disintegration chambers.
While not exactly the internet as we have it now, this was one of the first examples in televised science fiction of planet-wide networked communication. Of course, our world-wide web is used for far more constructive ends. In fact, the adoption of the internet has been a massive economic boon for companies in both high- and low-income countries all over the world, and is slated to further boost economic growth by nearly four to over eleven trillion dollars by the year 2025. This example is one wherein the real world has actually drastically outpaced Star Trek.
4. Voice-Interactive Computers
One of the most distinguishing tropes established by the Star Trek franchise is the voice interactive computer. On Star Trek, everything from food replicators to starship computer cores can be accessed with only a person’s voice. Of course, in our world, handheld voice-interactive user interfaces such as Siri and Cortana are ubiquitous, but technologists are pushing this technology even further.
Craig Nevill-Manning is developing a phenomenal new update for Google: a wholly voice-activated interface. In addition to performing traditional search-engine queries, the upcoming “Star Trek computer” will locate data, analyze it, and give the user personalized answers or advice based on the user’s question from both desktops and mobile devices.
3. Medical Tricorders
What would Star Trek be without the handheld tricorder devices which are able to tell you nearly everything about the environment around you but leave out just enough information to drive the plot forward? A specialized form of this device is the medical tricorder which would allow Dr. “Bones” McCoy to assess a patient’s condition and diagnose everything from a case of Andorian shingles or contraction of the Auroral Plague.
As a result of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, dozens of teams have been developing just such a handheld medical scanner. One of the devices which most meets the function of the medical tricorder so far is the Scanadu SCOUT. Just like the medical tricorder, the Scanadu SCOUT can read key vital signs in under ten seconds, though rather than do this with aid of an external hand scanner, the SCOUT assesses the patient via contact with the temples. The hand-held device is also slated to be compatible with additional support devices which can test saliva for influenza, adenovirus, RSV, and streptococcal infections.
A lot of people really, really hate needles. Evidently, Star Trek writers most of all. Or at least that’s our suspicion for why the hypospray features so prominently within the franchise. Fortunately, Ian Hunter and colleagues at MIT have developed a novel needle-free method of intra-arterial medicine delivery. The device’s ampule fires medicine at nearly the speed of sound in under a nanosecond through an ultra-thin filament similar to a mosquito’s proboscis.
Unlike traditional needles which shoot drugs into someone’s body using the pressure of the administrator’s fingers, Hunter’s device uses a built-in computer to allow for by the millisecond control of the speed and pressure at which the drug enters the body. By doing this Hunter’s “hypospray” reduces the amount of pain and risk of infection the patient is exposed to. Lastly, unlike Star Trek hyposprays, which are shown only administering drugs into the neck or arm, Hunter’s device can painlessly administer drugs directly into the skin, the eye, as well as the middle and inner ear.
Perhaps one of the most iconic, and certainly the earliest, tech portrayed in Star Trek is the use of hand-held communicators. Obviously, cellular devices are everywhere today allowing nearly everyone to instantly wirelessly communicate with a simple lid flip. In fact, according to a study conducted by the UN, out of its seven billion inhabitants six billion people either own or have access to cell phones.
Upon launch of the Next Generation series and all later spin-offs, the handheld communicator was replaced by a stylish comm badge worn on a Starfleet officer’s uniform. A real-world version of this device actually exists, too. Developed by Vocera, the Communications Badge B2000 allows users to communicate hands-free with a simple push to talk feature. Since this device incorporates BioCote antimicrobial technology, has changeable multimode wireless support and Wi-Fi security options, it’s ideal for use in hospitals and other medical settings where cellphones would cause interference with medical equipment.
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