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ATPM 11.12
December 2005



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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Star Trek Gadgets Have Arrived

In the back of my head, I have been adding up gadgets from Star Trek that are in use today. The Star Trek universe was created in the late 1960s, and since then there has always been a television series or movie in production, or book in publication, based on its ideas. In the original television series, which ran for three seasons from 1966–1969, we were introduced to all sorts of electronic gadgets that were futuristic at the time. Science fiction has always projected gadgets and doodads, some of which exist now. It’s hard to say whether such things are invented because they were dreamed up in fiction, or whether most of them would have been invented anyway. In either case, it has been fun watching the ones from this particular show come into being.

The Universal Translator

The device that pushed me over the edge is a thing that translates your unspoken words into another language, allowing you to talk to someone who does not speak your own language. Yes, I said unspoken words. The device, introduced in October, uses electrodes in your mouth and throat to figure out what you want to say by measuring your mouth movements. Machine translation into other languages follows.

On one level, I hope this device will be helpful for folks with disabilities, and those who wish to speak in their native language. No need for translation, necessarily. I don’t know if it was originally designed for this purpose, with the translation element added later, but the idea of machine translation has been around for a while. It is evolving, while linguists deal with homonyms and regional accents. But it is far better than what we used to have, which was (and often still is) a paperback book to help us find the right phrase.

A co-worker says his PlayStation Portable has a translation thing on it that makes it a game, correcting your pronunciation, or laughing at it, I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Those of you with PSPs will know. It can translate among half a dozen languages, among them English, Korean, and what he says is Chinese, which I assume is Mandarin. I am unable to find this software on the PlayStation Web site, but maybe it is a third-party application that they do not acknowledge. In any case, it sounds like we are making progress toward something we saw on TV nearly 40 years ago: you speak into a machine, and I hear what you said in my language. It is not the universal translator of television, but who really thought that was going to happen?

The Communicator

I finally bought a flip phone. The one I’d been using, for five minutes a month, on a plan so old it is not listed anywhere, is antique. I decided I would join this century—but still only rarely. The new phone, as do most of them now, has a feature where you can say to it the name of the person you want to call. Assuming you have put that person’s name in your directory, it will make the connection without you having to punch the numbers, or use the screen directory. I have not tried it yet, as I do not want anyone watching me speak to an inanimate object. I do so several times a day at home, but the cat ignores me. I am intrigued by the idea of a thing that will do something if I ask it to, unlike the cat.

So. You say something to a metal thing in your hand, and a minute later, your friend talks to you on the metal thing. How is that not a communicator?


On Star Trek, the doctors and nurses would give you your meds not with a big needle, but something they called a hypospray. We were to believe the liquid just entered your bloodstream by magic, as if introduced to your arm by a syringe without a needle.

I’m told that now we have needle-less shots. The PowerMed vaccine gun, called the PMED, uses pressurized helium to get the stuff under your skin—in this case, DNA particles—so maybe this will only work with certain kinds of medicine. But we also have nicotine and other time-release patches, and lots of folks use nasal inhalers instead of getting a flu shot, so we are on the way toward getting away from needles.


On the show, tricorders had two main functions: to scan the environment to determine its chemical makeup and to scan the body to assess its condition. It is obvious that we have achieved much of the second function with MRI and CAT scans, and the like. We cannot diagnose intestinal disease this way, or a myriad of other things, but that stuff is on the way. It is already the case that we scan a drop of blood for certain conditions.

The notion of scanning the environment for its chemical composition, I am not so current on. An air quality engineer friend tells me he has used such devices for years, and that they are becoming more accurate every day. He calls them quadcorders, since they measure four gases in the air. I will leave the discussion of devices to those who understand them, but I bet my hat we can do a lot of stuff in this area. I would say a barometer is such a measuring device, but we had those before Star Trek.


I am just as happy that we do not have handheld phasers right now, or we would all go around stunning each other or worse. I hear we are not far off from this concept, but right now the closest thing that is commercially available is a Tazer. These are used by police in many areas, are designed to stun someone resisting arrest or worse, and can indeed be fatal if used excessively. The device shoots wires from the gun into the target, and then an electrical charge travels along the wires into the target.

I have not figured out how we get the wires out of the person being Tazed. It is too icky to think about for long.


When I was preparing this column, I asked some friends to remind me of gadgets from the Star Trek world we do and don’t have. The holodeck was suggested as a thing we don’t have, but I argued that virtual reality simulations are on nearly the same level. If you have not seen the shows (the holodeck was introduced in a 1980s series, not the original), the holodeck is just a room with a grid in it. The computer creates sensory information to match whatever environment you have programmed: a beach, battle, or Sherlock Holmes mystery. Anything. When the writers ran short on story ideas, they put a crew member in danger on a holodeck episode.

The modern equivalent is virtual reality systems, in which you are hooked up to a set of goggles or some other kind of eyepiece, and one or both hands are attached to a glove with sensors. You play along with the software, learning to drive, popping bubbles, or whatever the software is set up to do. I have read reports of folks who have undergone therapy for September 11 trauma, by using such programs to gradually acclimate themselves to the idea of planes flying into buildings. I have not done it justice with such a short summary, but the therapy is benign, and it works. By now this kind of immersion therapy is becoming more accessible, I would think for firefighters or police officers who experience trauma, or just for trainees. I like the idea of pilots and astronauts training in such environments before having to do it in the real world. Virtual reality software can also be used to help learn biofeedback techniques to control pain.

I was seeing the holodeck as a machine feeding us sensory information a la Descartes’ brain in the vat, but I have come to understand that the holodeck created actual solid matter. In that sense, today’s virtual reality set-ups are not comparable. I still think as far as our experiences go, it is on the same path, but it is less analogous than our earlier examples.


We do not have transporters. These devices I guess would compress your DNA and atoms into bits, and then fling them electronically to another location, where they would be reformed. The TV show also used this device as a plot launcher: it was cool to have someone get stuck in the transporter beam, and then get mixed with someone else’s DNA, or stuck for 80 years, or whatever. Made some great stories.

This is the device I think we need to get cracking on. If we want to solve the fossil fuel and energy problems, we could save a ton of gas by transporting our atoms this way. I realize we would need to burn some kind of energy to accomplish the transport, but the Law of Conservation of Energy is outdated and needs to be replaced.


Also in This Series

Reader Comments (6)

Niklas · December 17, 2005 - 11:11 EST #1
Actually, we do have them. But on the other hand they are not very useful today (if ever). Scientists have "transported" a single electron (maybe larger objects today - like a proton or a neutron) about 10 cm in very specific labratory conditions. The experiment is very sensitive to outside disturbance (you can't even look at it - that's enough to disturb it) but it certainly is possible to do. "Transported" means that they have recreated the first object completly, in a quantum mechanical way.
Simon Barnsley · January 18, 2006 - 03:37 EST #2
Woosh - Sliding doors:
Auto-opening sliding doors that woosh. We have them everywhere now
James · September 2, 2006 - 00:48 EST #3
Actually, some Star Trek gadgets may or going to go obsolete. But here's a rundown review on your part and where we are:

There IS a device similer to the universal translator that's comming out, and it does measure your mouth movements. However, it's no Star Trek translator, but newer ones could learn the patterns of the language of other unknown languages within the next 15 years.

(COMMUNICATOR - Already exists)
Vocera has announced a small communicator device that could be pinned to your shirt, and can be slapped by the hand and is voice activated, much like the ones the crew uses in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. However, Communicator devices used in Star Trek: The Origional Series are obsolete by our standereds. Because advanced walkie talkies are built in to today's cell phones, which are also equipped with an MP3 player and can also be used for text messanging and can be used for playing games over a wireless connection, this makes these communicators in the origional Star Trek series look nothing but a tired-old usless product with a few knobs.

(HYPOSPRAYS - New thing comming very soon)
These are actually called in real life: Compressed Air injections. People who need insulin can get it by inhailing. Some injections are going to made in a drinkable form or a form of a "cookie" or a "granola bar" that you eat. Other injections will used the compressed air injection, and you will feel a "flick" instead of that painful "pinch".

(TRICODERS - Within the next 5 to 10 years)
We use ultrasounds and X-rays for medical examinations, but new technology is making it possible to check for blood oxygen and other blood stats with a device that uses like a bar-code scanner. It sends rays through the body and picks up signals, such as cholesterol, blood sugar, and other levels in your body.

(PHASERS - within the next 5 to 15 years)
While tazers are the closest thing, new technology is being introduced that can use electrical UV or plasma currents into the suspect without the use of wires. What the advantage over tazers is that it can reflect off mirrors and there's no more hassle on removing the wires from the suspect once he/she is apprehended. It is expected that within 30 to 50 years, phasers could be purchased without a license since it can be so safe and it can be used as a defense weapon without killing anyone.

(HOLODECKS - 20 to 30 years)
With quantum computers fastly being developed and a university in Canada develop 3D-like objects, as well as hard disk drives reaching 1.5 terrabytes by the end of the year, holodecks using true 3D images are on the way. Contrarely to the past beliefs, holodecks could be used for more than just training courses- they can be used for entertainment and exercising. On top of that, quantum computers could allow for gravitational treadmills which allow for jogging with the enviornment, not on a boring treadmill that stays in one place.

It was used to be impossible and plain-old science fiction about teleporters. But that's changing. New developments on quantum computers has sucessfully teleported atoms through quantum entanglement. Sure it takes a million billion qubytes of information to teleport a person from one place to another, but with hard drive space rapidly swelling in size (1.5 terrabytes comming out by the holidays of this year and 10 to 15-terrabyte drives out by 2010, we may reach sufficient space with in 40 to 50 years. On top of that, transisters are getting smaller and energy requirements to change a qubit are decreasing rapidly. The first teleporters may require two platforms, but later ones will transmit a signal to a spacific location, making it possible to do a star-trek like teleportation system that could allow ships to teleport people from the planet to the space station without the need of launching rocket shuttles.

(SLIDING DOORS - Allready exists)
Stores, banks, and other commercial areas have them now. But new homes are becomming equipped with sliding doors, not only because of convenience when walking into another room and that cats/dogs could also easily go around the house, it's more secure, because the sliding doors are capable of identifying DNA. Because of this, front doors could be secured by DNA-testing device that could easily welcome in guests, allowing easy acces for you and your family, while it protects your house from burglers and unwanted strangers.

Also, Photon torpedos, deflector shields, impulse drives, ship cloaking devices, warp drives, and ion engines are not out of the question. With quantum computers capable of producing force fields and Deep Space 1 having ion engines, new technology could break the light barrior, and it could be possible to reach the nearest star in just a few hours to a few days, even though it's many light years away. Works could be underway to produce artificial gravity without the need for rotation, making it possible to create a Star Trek Enterprise-like ship. It is also expected that civillians will live in a Star Trek Deep Space Nine-type space city.

(KLINGONS, QUARKS, and ROMULINS - Unlikely, but possible)
There is a possibility that other races of humans may very well indeed develop as we spread out in the galaxy. Klingons, though unlikely, may become a reality through genetic defects or a genetic-related disease. Whether or not they do indeed become enemies to humans, I don't know, but we may see something similer.

(REPLICATORS - Within ??? years)
Some replicators may exist, but produces only plastic or metal. But as replicators can handle more and more material, perhaps replicating food may be possible through the replication of proteins, fats, sugar, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

That's all for now.
julian green · June 23, 2008 - 18:33 EST #4
great info, i enjoyed it show more pictures
i love the star trek reruns very few available now in clev/shaker h area without
direct tv
Chris Mathews · March 2, 2009 - 15:22 EST #5
What about the computerised notepad that Captain Picard always had in his ready room? At the time in the 80's it seemed futuristic, although by todays standards of notepad it looks cumbersome and bulky.
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · March 2, 2009 - 18:47 EST #6
Chris - that would be known as a PADD (Portable Access Display Device). And yes, the design of it is no doubt a product of the 80s. But it's what the device represented that we're still a long way from. Every PADD interfaced with the main LCARS computer system—a computer that we're still a few decades out from coming even close to mimicking.

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