2260 or 2013?
In 1966, Gene Roddenberry created a television show that followed the adventures of the Starship Enterprise as it bounced around parts of the cosmos where no man had gone before. The crew met some sexy aliens, played with tribbles, and even had a run-in with their evil, goateed doppelgangers from a parallel universe.
As we near the release of the franchise’s latest big-screen offering, Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s a good time to take a look back at which of the fanciful technologies from the original 1966 series have basically become real (or are on the cusp of becoming real).
Following are some examples of Shatner-era Star Trek tech that are just about here now.
When designing the Enterprise’s navigation systems, the Star Trek prop masters opted for assorted multihued doodads. In the real world, although we still use physical buttons to interact with our computers, we are quickly transitioning to infinitely versatile touchscreens as well as air-gesture-based interfaces and voice commands.
Are we there yet? Been there, done that. Star Trek tech of 2260 is outmoded by the tech of 2013.
Star Trek’s iconic phaser was a photon-based weapon whose technology was based on the then-nascent optical “laser”—a term that had been used for the first time only in 1959. Laser weapons have come a long way since then, and we’re about to see the big bang-bang kind and smaller handheld designs.
Are we there yet? Yup. While not widespread or especially refined, laser weapons are quite real.
These primordial cell phones allowed planetside crew members to communicate wirelessly with someone hundreds of miles away using a tiny handheld device. That probably seemed magical at the time.
Are we there yet? Yessir. Communicators were basically less flashy Motorola Razrs, which to their credit were very cool back in 2003.
One of the most memorable, if subtle, technologies in the original Star Trek series was the ship’s automated sliding doors. The first commercial automated doors in the United States became available in 1960, and although they aren’t as widespread in the real world as they are on the Enterprise, it’s hard to find a modern mall, supermarket, elevator, or subway car without one.
Are we there yet? The future of room-entering is here.
In the original series, a tricorder was a bread-box-size device with a remote probe that Bones could use to instantly diagnose whatever tertiary character the episode was in the process of killing off.
Are we there yet? We’re close. In addition to existing health apps for smartphones and tablets, there is the $10 million XPrize to create a real-life, functioning tricorder, which might make such tech a reality in the very near future.
The Trek docs always used a “hypospray” that injected medicine into the body using a high dosage of air.
Are we there yet? Yes and no. Needleless jet injectors have been around since the 1960s, but have fallen out of favor due to issues with infection. The researchers behind an experimental computer-aided injector that debuted last year claim to have perfected the technology, and will start human trials soon.
When the vastness of space is your workplace, a tractor beam is a nice tool to have.
Are we there yet? Sorta. Using some highly experimental physics, one group has been able to pull in an object using a beam of light. Unfortunately, for now the technique works only on 30-micrometer spheres.
Though the show never explicitly explained the physics behind deflector shields, they helped to protect the Enterprise from all manner of alien attack or amorphous space hazard.
Are we there yet? In theory, yes. While we haven’t had the need for such a shield quite yet, scientists have theorized about a portable magnetosphere that would protect future astronauts from radiation. But for now it’s all still just an idea.
The tech blogosphere is always more than willing to jump on the “real-life cloaking technology” bandwagon, though the point of reference has shifted lately from Star Trek to Harry Potter.
Are we there yet? Yes—in a way. Researchers have created functional cloaking devices that can bend specific kinds of light waves, rendering them invisible (within a small band of the microwave spectrum, at least).
Although warp-drive travel (moving beyond the speed of light) remains science fiction, the “impulse drive”—the standard propulsion that starships use for rapid interplanetary travel—will have to evolve as we venture farther spaceward.
Are we there yet? Yup! We already use chemical propulsion to reach space, but it’s wasteful. Currently, scientists have been using solar-powered ion thrusters to launch unmanned vehicles to nearby planets.
In the 1960s, the show’s creators probably thought our space ventures would be more advanced than they are in 2013.
Are we there yet? Kinda. While they’re nowhere near a full-fledged Starfleet, companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are dipping their toes into private space travel. On the positive side, we still have about 250 years to catch up.
Perhaps no Trek tech is more iconic than the transporter that Scotty used to beam people all over the friggin’ place.
Are we there yet? Mostly no—but, using a weird aspect of top-shelf particle physics known as quantum entanglement, researchers have managed to transfer information instantaneously across several dozen miles. This type of research will probably not lead to “beaming” humans around (in the short term), but it may bring on crazy new communication technologies.
What we don’t have
Daily life in 2013 is strangely not so far off from what Trek predicted, though we remain woefully behind in several key areas. For example, we’re not even close to being able to send physical objects beyond the speed of light. We haven’t quite been able to turn energy into food via a “food synthesizer” (a “replicator” in Next Generation parlance). And we certainly haven’t gotten that planet-living-in-unison-and-peace thing down quite yet. Luckily, we have another two centuries to work on merging fiction and reality.
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