Sunday, May 10, 2009
For the past four decades, Star Trek has been influencing and predicting new gadgets and technologies. How close are we to Trek-inspired phasers, tricorders, and invisibility cloaks?
Phaser, tricorder, holodeck: It’s a given that the futuristic (and make-believe) gadgetry of Star Trek should appear light-years ahead of today’s technology. But cut the 21st century some slack. Finding naturally occurring dilithium crystals is easier said than done--and without them, you can kiss warp speed good-bye. Still, we’re slowly catching up, particularly in the area of wireless communications.
As millions of Trekkies flock to movie theaters to watch the new prequel film of Star Trek (slated to open on May 8), we’re taking the opportunity to compare classic Trek tech with today’s relatively clumsy and primitive equivalents. How far behind is our current technology? Let’s boldly go and find out.
Star Trek: Medical Tricorder vs. Today: MRI Scanner
When Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy needed to examine an injured crewmember on some godforsaken alien planet, he used his trusty medical tricorder, a portable device with a detachable handheld scanner that Bones would wave over the patient for a quick diagnosis. (Alas, viewers at home couldn't see whether the tricorder's mini-CRT display actually spelled out "He's dead, Jim" for the good doctor's convenience.) Today’s equivalent is considerably larger than a standard-issue tricorder and not at all portable. The Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) scanner visualizes the internal workings of the body and is very useful in diagnosing brain, cardiovascular, oncological, and musculoskeletal ailments. It won’t fit on a shoulder strap, though, nor will it diagnose alien life forms, as far as we know.
Star Trek: Handheld Communicator vs. Today: Flip Cell Phone
A Star Trek communicator was truly a miraculous device, allowing the crew to contact a starship in orbit without the need for cell towers or satellites to boost the signal. In many instances, it worked underground and inside heavily fortified structures, too. The design of today’s flip phones was inspired by Star Trek, and in some ways our communicators are more advanced. Did Kirk ever text Scotty? Did Mr. Sulu shoot video of McCoy performing a reverse brain transplant on Spock? (Okay, okay--somebody did, obviously--but presumably not with a phone.) And did the United Federation of Planets have an app store?
Star Trek: Phaser vs. Today: Military PHASR
Star Trek phasers could direct energy in a concentrated beam possessing an impressive range of destructive powers. A handheld phaser could easily stun or vaporize a person, while a Starship-mounted model could wipe out a good-size asteroid. And from the look of it, the handheld device would also serve capably for mounting drywall or performing emergency dental work.
While today’s military is still shooting bullets, it is also testing a laser weapon called the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response (PHASR) rifle. A low-intensity laser designed to blind enemy combatants temporarily, PHASR is still in a developmental stage; the Pentagon has not indicated when (if ever) it will see combat--nor whether there might be a shark component involved.
Star Trek: Antimatter Engines vs. Today: Antimatter Engine Research
When matter and antimatter touch, the result is a colossal burst of energy. The starship Enterprise’s warp-drive engines used this exotic cocktail to attain faster-than-light speeds. Today’s scientists are just beginning to work with antimatter, which is extremely difficult to create on Earth. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, which closed in 2007, had been funding a team of researchers working on a design for an antimatter-powered spaceship. Private tech firms such as Positronics Research are researching antimatter propulsion systems as well. But don’t expect to hop aboard an antimatter rocket anytime soon. In his book Physics of the Impossible, physicist Michio Kaku speculates that such craft may, at best, be decades away.
Star Trek: Holodeck vs. Today: Virtual Reality Headset
The holodeck, which debuted on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was an enclosed room that employed an exotic mix of 3D holographic images and force fields to create an immersive virtual-reality experience, including smells and sounds. The holodeck even posed an element of danger to participants, who could be injured or killed by virtual creations (such as holographic bullets) if someone turned off the unit's safety controls. Today’s cutting-edge VR is relatively primitive. For instance, one holodeck-style headset with attachments to the ears, mouth, and nose is designed to stimulate all five senses--but unless you're trying to frustrate paparazzi during a perp walk, do you really want to wear what looks like a large slice of metallic watermelon over your face?
Star Trek: Transporter vs. Today: Subatomic Teleportation
Star Trek starships didn’t need landing gear because people and cargo were usually transported to and from them via teleportation, the process of converting matter into energy, and then back into matter again. (Sometimes the crew used shuttlepods, as well.) Though this method of transportation is far beyond the capacity of today’s tech, scientists have successfully teleported information between atoms that were roughly a meter apart. But given the enormous complexities involved--such as the need to pinpoint the exact location of every atom in the body--Star Trek-style teleportation may be centuries away, or it may never happen.
Star Trek: Universal Translator vs. Today: Phraselator
In Star Trek: Enterprise, members of the crew use a universal language translator--housed in what appeared to be a heavy-duty flashlight case (or something)--to decipher a multitude of alien languages. Today’s closest equivalent is the Phraselator, a handheld device used by the U.S. military. Here’s how it works: An English speaker selects a phrase from a screen menu, and Phraselator plays the prerecorded phrase in the target language (such as Arabic). Or the user may speak into the device, which then uses speech recognition to determine the best phrase to play. The idea is to minimize the word-to-word snafus that make translations produced by programs such as Babelfish so problematic (and frequently hilarious).
Star Trek: Global Positioning via Transporter Console vs. Today: Global Positioning System
Never mind its groovy industrial color scheme, the Enterprise’s transporter console was remarkably adept at pinpointing the exact location of crewmembers under attack on a hostile planet or stranded aboard an enemy warship. (And rather than depending on some space-age antiglare coating, the console employed a highly advanced light shield for optimum screen visibility.) Today’s Global Positioning System (GPS), which relies on positioning data generated by an flotilla of 24 to 32 orbiting satellites, isn’t as flawlessly precise, but it’s a vast improvement over compasses, astrolabes, and paper maps.
Star Trek: Scalpel-Free Surgery vs. Today: Ultrasound Surgery
In the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Dr. McCoy is horrified by barbaric 20th-century surgical methods, in particular the venerable science of trephination: "My god, man! Drilling holes in his head's not the answer!" To heal a seriously injured Commander Pavel Chekov without cutting him open, McCoy uses the futuristic gizmo pictured here. Bloodless surgery may sound like science fiction, but doctors today are using high-intensity ultrasound beams in lieu of the knife to treat some health problems, including injured lungs, uterine fibroids, and tumors. If the trend continues, operating rooms of the future will have more bloodless surgical tools and fewer shiny scalpels.
Star Trek: Starships That Detect Signs of Life vs. Today: Mars Research Spacecraft That Detect Signs of Life
The Enterprise’s onboard sensors were so sophisticated they could detect planetary life forms from orbit. While today’s Mars orbiters and rovers are less refined, they have managed to uncover clues that the Red Planet is hospitable to life. A neutron spectrometer aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter (the communications link to the Mars rover shown here), for instance, has detected large amounts of hydrogen in the Martian soil--a promising sign of the presence of water ice and a life-friendly environment--but it isn’t equipped to find and identify actual life forms. Future missions (such as the ExoMars rover, which will drill into the Martian soil for organic molecules) will have better life-sniffing skills.
Star Trek: VISOR vs. Today: JORDY
In Star Trek: TNG, blind character Geordi La Forge wore a device that enabled him to see. Called VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement), the prosthetic attachment curved around Geordi’s face like an unusually narrow oil filter and allowed him to visualize most of the electromagnetic spectrum, including infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths of light. Today’s equivalent is a device named after Geordi, though spelled differently. JORDY (Joint Optical Reflective Display) is a headset designed for people with “low vision,” meaning that their sight can’t be corrected by means of conventional glasses. The portable yet bulky JORDY goggles magnify objects up to 50 times, and the user can adjust contrast, brightness, and display modes. (Fun fact: Neither Geordi nor JORDY has any known connection to Newcastle.)
Star Trek: Communications Earpiece vs. Today: Bluetooth Earpiece
Lieutenant Uhura often used a wireless earpiece in her job as the Enterprise’s communications officer. The device's transmission range is difficult to assess, as Uhura seldom left her post. Today’s Bluetooth headsets look to be lighter and more comfortable to wear, and some Bluetooth devices have a range of up to 100 meters. Moreover, a number of wireless headsets today are stereophonic Bluetooth models, an advance that might have helped Uhura avoid her lopsided, Beanie Baby-with-tag look.
Star Trek: Cloaking Device vs. Today: Prototype Cloaking Devices
Various civilizations in the Star Trek universe mastered the science of cloaking--the ability to render an object invisible to the naked eye, to the electromagnetic spectrum, and to most sensors. Starships were often cloaked for military combat, and Romulan warships always seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Researchers today are developing cloaking technologies that bend electromagnetic waves around an object. These prototypes don’t render an object invisible to infrared and visible light, but they can cloak different types of waves. A short video from Duke University demonstrates and explains how this is done. Another approach is demonstrated in the picture above: Researcher Susumu Tachi has created an optical camouflage system--though we're inclined to call it a windbreakering device rather than a cloaking device. Anyone wearing this special reflective material seems to disappear (or at least become see-through): A video camera captures what's going on behind whoever the subject is and projects that image to the front of the reflective material. Can Romulan-style cloaking be so very far away?
Star Trek: Force Field vs. Today: Plasma Bubble
Force fields were widely used in Star Trek. These energy barriers were handy for protecting starships, space stations, and individuals. They also made nifty containment fields to prevent antimatter from escaping. Scientists today are researching force fields, including a plasma bubble that may someday protect astronauts from dangerous cosmic rays during lengthy space journeys. The bubble’s magnetic field could deflect the rays, which would otherwise damage the astronauts' DNA and increase their risk of incurring cancer and other ailments.
Star Trek: PADD vs. Today: iPhone
Here’s a rare example of a 21st-century technology that tops its fictional Star Trek counterpart, at least aesthetically. A PADD (Personal Access Display Device) was a handheld computer capable of performing many mundane Starfleet tasks, including filing diagnostic reports and duty rosters. Like the iPhone, it had a minimalist interface with a touchscreen and maybe an external button or two. The iPhone is certainly better looking, but it isn't nearly as rugged. A PADD could endure a 35-meter drop and keep on ticking; don’t try that with your iPhone. On the other hand, we have no way of knowing whether a PADD could withstand immersion in a bowl of Froot Loops.
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