Seven imaginary technologies represented in vintage episodes of the cult Sci-fi series Star Trek that have since to a greater or lesser degree been implemented in reality.
It was copy-edited prior to publication by Philip Graves on April 21st, 2017.
1. Communications badge
The type of communications badge used in The Next Generation now not only exists in a closely matching design, but is available to purchase! The real-world version of the badge allows you to communicate through Bluetooth, so you can take phone calls and reply to messages. You can also access your phone’s virtual assistant through it – just as the computer is used in the series.
For example, you might say: “Okay, Google, turn the lights on!”
In the show
The show has had some iteration of these since the first season. They operate as a means of communicating between crew members; but additionally they record information on the crew members’ health and their location.
To communicate, the crew member simply taps the badge and then says the name of the person they are trying to contact, and a voice communication line is started. Generally, the crew member would say the name of the person they are trying to contact and a small subject line. This is then played to the target, who can choose how to answer.
In real life
The communicator badge on the linked website works perfectly as a Bluetooth communications device. You can even tap the badge to activate your phone's virtual assistant, resulting in Google or Siri asking you what you would like to do. From there, you can call someone, and the call will be routed through to the communications badge, allowing you to talk just as they would on Star Trek.
Currently, the commercially available communicator badge can’t do location tracking or health monitoring. However, modern smartwatches are fitted with GPS, heart-rate monitors, microphones, and everything that would be needed to complete the functionality of the communications badge. It’s surely now just a matter of time until someone fits everything into the same form factor of the communications badge that is existingly for sale.
2. Virtual Display Device
In Star Trek, a virtual display device is used by the Jem’Hadar and their Dominion Overlords as a means of controlling their ships. It sits over the wearer’s eye, creating a virtual field in front of you, and allowing you to look through the ship’s hull.
This is identical in function to the Microsoft HoloLens, which creates virtual objects that mix in with the real world.
In the show
The devices are used to control the Jem’Hadar ships. In the show, the first of the Jem’Hadar units wears one, along with the Vorta commander in charge of that cell.
They allow the user to look directly through the hull of the ship, giving a situational awareness advantage over traditional sensor readouts. However, they were designed specifically for the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta, and give other species severe headaches when they attempt to use them.
In real life
The Microsoft HoloLens is a technology that is technically classed as augmented reality. It doesn’t require you to block out the real world around you as a true VR device like the HTC Vive would. Instead, it adds virtual objects around you.
For example, a globe can be moved around and controlled by the user with hand gestures. Or if you had a TV in the augmented world, you could increase the size by simply dragging the corners wider. This is identical in practice to the Virtual Display Device in Star Trek, that served the needs of users to interact with the world around them at the same time as being able to look through the ship's hull.
3. Automatic Doors
This is a technology that many people take for granted nowadays, because automatic doors are everywhere.
Imaginary automatic sliding door technology was presented in the original series of Star Trek long before the technology existed in reality.
In 2017, most urban environments include doors that open automatically for you.
In the show vs. in real life
Today’s real automatic doors work by means of a small sensor above a door that detects when a person approaches, activating motors to slide or swing the door open.
This technology is identical to that used in the doors on the show. The main difference is that the doors on the show were typically exceptionally strong, being able to withstand huge impacts and immense heat. However, this mostly comes down to the type of material envisaged: we haven’t invented the material needed for these properties yet.
In the original series of Star Trek in 1966, the technology did not yet exist but was represented as though it did. The cast had no way of opening the supposedly automatic doors, so two members of the production crew were used to manually pull them apart behind the scenes whenever cast members walked up to them. They had to lie down and pull the doors open as the cast walked up to them. This is why, if you watch closely, you’ll often see one door open more quickly than the other one!
4. Klingon Language
The Klingon language is now an official language. What’s more, Duolingo, a service dedicated to teaching languages for free, have begun developing a program for it to allow anyone to learn Klingon. This is slated for release in 2018.
In the show and in real life
The Klingon language is described in Star Trek as an exceptionally harsh language with very few ways of saying basic niceties like ‘thank you’. It’s not that the Klingons are rude, although they do come across as that by the standards of most other races – it comes down to them being entirely focused on war and combat, as a result of which they do not deem it necessary to say things like ‘thank you’.
The language itself was fleshed out by the show’s creators; but fans took it to the next stage of development.
If you learn the Klingon language, you can even get to understand the parts of the shows that were spoken in Klingon without being given subtitles.
5. Tractor Beams
Tractor beams were used by almost every ship in the Star Trek universe, the idea being an energy force that can pull or push objects away from the ship.
A Bristol engineering team has successfully developed a method of achieving this through sound waves.
In the show
These devices were used by ships, docking platforms and heavy equipment for manipulating physical objects through energy fields.
The basic premise is that the energy field acts as a net around an object, which can then be moved around. These fields were exceptionally strong, to the point of being capable of essentially warp-towing a disabled ship.
There were also a few instances in the show where the engineers were able to repurpose them to form energy shields, or simply to push objects away from the ship.
In real life
Sadly, the energy net aspect of the hypothetical technology is not identical to the real-life method that has been developed. Instead, the real-life equivalent uses sound waves. The Bristol-based engineering team is able to ‘grab’ beads using sound waves, pulling them back and forth, to the effect of levitating the objects around.
While this is certainly far away from what was envisaged as being achievable in the Star Trek implementation, it is a good beginning.
6. Deviceless Control
In Star Trek, the cast often controls computers with regular buttons. However, in newer iterations, they simply swipe messages away and perform actions without ever touching a screen.
This is a technology that is available for purchase today in the form of the Leap Motion controller.
In the show
These types of devices aren’t seen in the earlier shows often, since they didn’t yet have the graphical technology needed to represent them effectively during the filming of the shows.
However, they have begun making an appearance in the newer movies, where the crew members are able to control objects on a monitor by simply swiping left and right, manipulating the objects by pulling and pushing.
In real life
The Leap Motion controller is a fantastic first shot at this, allowing users to control their display using their hands. It’s even starting to advance into new territory by tying this into existing VR solutions, allowing for the manipulation of virtual objects using your hands.
7. Renewable Energy
Star Trek heralds the creation of the antimatter reactor as the way that they generate massive amounts of clean, free energy. However, there is also a great emphasis on renewable sources such as wind energy throughout the series.
In the show
Within Star Trek, we see antimatter powering the USS Enterprise and most of the other starships. However, this isn’t the only power source available. In fact, we see things like tidal barrages and wind turbines throughout most of the series.
One of the earlier episodes features a ‘paradise’-like planet, which is littered with wind turbines in the background, demonstrating how the population are able to keep the planet looking amazingly clean while still supplying all of the energy that the inhabitants need.
In real life
Aside from antimatter drives, Star Trek doesn’t really focus on the ways the characters generate their electricity. Instead, we see recognisable renewable sources throughout the show. In fact, a Ferengi makes a confused comment about how it doesn’t understand how early humans could pollute their own planet.
The human race has the ability to create all of these technologies - and we are, albeit slowly! With further research in this area, we could even overtake Star Trek’s envisioned implementations of renewable energy.