Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.
Since the articles that are the most popular on Film Junk are Top 10 Lists, I’ve decided to succumb to the commercial pressures. (Besides, Sean suggested that I do some.) As usual, I’ll be trying to subvert your expectations as best I can in order to avoid repeating the same things that other people have said in their similar lists. I’ll try to add some historical background as to how the invention actually came to be, and sociological effects that might not be so obvious. And where possible, I’ll try to add some notes on what future developments may be in store for further improvements.
I’ll avoid being technical in order to avoid hurting your brain. Ha ha. My arrogance is unbecoming; I should have said “to avoid hurting my brain.” Gene Roddenberry was fond of saying that the success of Star Trek was partly due to its tact of not talking down to its audience because the television audience was smarter than how smart television executives thought it was. I wonder what he would have thought of the Internet community.
Oh, also, Star Trek didn’t really invent these devices, but it popularized them, or provided inspiration for their realization in the everyday world. They have become ubiquitous.
Here we go…
10. Personal Computer
On the Original Series (TOS), we saw small computers in the meeting room and in trial rooms. We never did see any keyboards anywhere. Computers and control consoles seemed to have plenty of lights, and the number of knobs, buttons, dials, and toggles was kept to a minimum. Voice commands seemed to be the main interface. I suppose major computer programming changes were performed off-site at a space station or perhaps in a room on the Enterprise that we never got to see.
Back in TOS days of the 1960s, computer processing was centralized with terminals accessing a main computer. As miniaturization progressed, the idea of distributed processing caught on and personal computers became a reality.
So perhaps the computers we saw on TOS were supposed to be terminals connected to the main computer. There were episodes that established a main computer on the Enterprise as the repository of information, but tricorders had a lot of processing power on their own, too. The early Commodore personal computers did resemble the shape of the computer in the meeting room.
Five years after TOS went off the air, Ed Roberts introduced the Altair 8800, named after a galaxy mentioned in Star Trek. This blue box was a build-it-yourself kit that is acknowledged as the first personal computer. It had no monitor and no software. And it looked like it belonged on TOS. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen would add the functionality to the Altair and build the Apple and Microsoft empires, respectively.
I doubt many home users ever used personal computers for developing applications. With the goal now being to imbed computers transparently into devices, I imagine the personal computer will become solely a tool for hobbyists.
The primary function of personal computers now is to connect to the Internet. The rapid growth of the Internet is attributed to Trekkies and porn. I’m guessing the laptop market has overtaken the sales of personal computers, because all you really need for using e-mail and browsing the Internet is what a laptop provides.
The yeomen were always getting Captain Kirk to sign off using a tablet and stylus. We now have this in the form of Tablet PCs.
A Tablet PC is formally defined as “a laptop or slate-shaped mobile computer, equipped with a touch screen or graphics tablet/screen hybrid technology which allows the user to operate the computer with a stylus or digital pen, or a fingertip, instead of a keyboard or mouse.”
The technologies required for the creation of a Tablet PC have been slowly evolving. As early as 1888, Elisha Gray patented an electrical stylus device for capturing handwriting. Before Star Trek aired, the development of a tablet culminated with one being invented by the RAND Corporation. I believe Star Trek’s creator consulted with them, so this may have sparked the appearance of tablets on Star Trek.
After Star Trek, several Tablet PC-like devices were proposed and some were constructed, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the first commercially available Tablet PC, the GRiDPad, was released.
The Apple Newton in 1991 was originally designed to be a Tablet PC, but it morphed into a Personal Data Assistant (PDA) without the graphics tablet/screen. With PDAs now adopting touch screens for displaying video, perhaps the only difference in the future between a Tablet PC and a PDA will be the size.
In 2001, Microsoft made a big push for Tablet PCs with a Tablet PC version of the Windows OS.
I don’t think Tablet PCs have made much of an impression on the general public. My brother used a Tablet PC while managing quality control. I suppose Tablet PCs have their uses for specialized environments. I would think they would be ideal in educational environments, but perhaps the cost does not justify their use.
8. Portable Memory
TOS showed solid, square disks of about 3″ x 3″ x 0.25″. (I’m terrible at estimating sizes from visual evidence.) The disks were inserted into computers and portable devices, and apparently contained information on them. These disks were unlabelled, but came in a variety of colors. I originally thought it was strange that TOS disks weren’t labeled once I started using real 3.5″ disks that came with labels, but using USB flash drives now makes me realize that this portable memory is only for temporary storage.
Since the TOS, I’ve seen quite an evolution in portable memory in reality. From 10″ floppies to 5.25″ floppies to 3.5″ disks (that actually resembled TOS disks) to memory sticks (that resembled the Next Generation (TNG) isolinear chips), postage sized memory cards, and USB flash drives.
I think portable memory has gotten to its smallest size before it gets too small to handle with human fingers. We are now seeing increased capacities.
Biometrics is the science of developing and applying statistical and mathematical methods in the analysis of physiological characteristics for the purposes of identifying and verifying individuals. If a physiological characteristic is unique to each individual, and it can be measured reliably, then it serves as a candidate worthy of study. The earliest form of biometrics was possibly used in 14th century China where they had a form of fingerprinting.
In Star Trek, we saw computers use voice recognition to identify users. This is a behavioral biometric generally used for verification. When Kirk was on trial, we saw palm registration used. And in The Wrath of Khan, we saw the use of a retinal scanner. These latter two cases are examples of physical biometrics used for either identification or verification. Star Trek guessed correctly that with advanced technology, biometrics would flourish. In the real world, there are many more physiological characteristics that have been used in biometrics.
Regarding retinal scanning, research in the 1930s suggested that the patterns of blood vessels on the back of the eyeball were unique to each individual. It wasn’t until 1976 when a company called EyeDentify was founded that someone thought that technology had advanced enough to make retinal scanning a viable method. Two years after The Wrath of Khan was released, EyeDentify released the first retinal scan device for commercial use.
Laptops have had fingerprint readers and face detection software available for years now. As well as improving the technology for analysis, modifications are constantly in development in order to stay ahead of ways to deliberately deceive biometrics devices, called “spoofing”. We’ve all seen films where the bad guy, or hero, will kill his opponent and cut the person’s hand or finger off, and then apply the dead appendage to the scanning device. Well, if you find yourself in a similar situation and try this, it might not work since systems have been updated to measure blood flow.
One of the more promising biometrics in current development measures saccades, which is the rapid, involuntary reflex movements of the eyeball.
For most people, biometrics has played a somewhat negligible role. There have been two developments that are slowly changing things.
One is the spread of identity theft. (I had this happen to me. There was an identity theft ring that was able to create Canadian driver’s licenses. I guess all they needed was your driver’s license number, your address, and your date-of-birth. I saw a photocopy of the fake license, and there was a photo of a chubby, balding occidental on it. With these licenses and using my name, they were able to borrow money from banks and lending institutions. I never did find out where they got my personal information from.) There needs to be a better way to identify people. Signatures are really kind of useless. Credit card companies want to introduce a better form of biometrics.
The other development occurred on September 11, 2001. From that day forward, it became extremely important to be able to screen people effectively. The government agency in Canada responsible for passports wants to introduce biometrics.
With being reliably able to provide quick identification, biometrics will make life easier and increase security.
6. Wireless Earpiece
We currently have wireless Bluetooth headsets that attach to the ear and that are reminiscent of Uhura’s communication ear piece. Spock and Chekov also sported the earpiece on occasion.
The Bluetooth initiative was started in 1998, and many companies endorsed it. Its mandate was to allow electronic devices to communicate with each other without wires. By the year 2000, the first Bluetooth headset / earpiece was available.
Currently, to me, the Bluetooth headsets appear geeky. I’ve only seen a few people wear them in public, but I live in a relatively small town.
I wonder if communication devices embedded under the skin will be the future of communication so that the wireless headset will be long gone before the 23rd century.
5. Remote Location Finding
On TOS, the idea of locating someone was incorporated into the communicators. This was a good way for keeping track of crew, but was also important for the transporter system to be able to lock onto your coordinates for beaming from one place to another. Also if you needed your starship to send some firepower down to an area, you could have your starship use your communicator location for reference.
Nowadays, this idea has been implemented through a Global Positioning System (GPS) that relies on Earth orbit satellites. We use GPS for navigation in the sky, on water, and on land.
Four years after Star Trek went off the air, the American Department of Defense decided to start development of GPS originally as the Navigation Technology Program, which became NAVSTAR (Navigation System for Timing and Ranging). The military continually launched satellites and refined the system over a period of time. GPS was made available for civilian use after Korean Airline Flight 007 was shot down in Soviet territory in 1983. By 1995, the system was fully operational, and by 2000, civilian users could expect an accuracy of 20 meters.
As on Star Trek, GPS can be used in emergency situations. With providers such as OnStar, GPS built into automobiles can allow services such as flashing the headlights or honking the horn to help you find your automobile in a parking lot. And with GPS in cell phones, 911 operators no longer have to rely on the caller being able to say where he is.
One interesting future use of GPS is for automated driving systems where you can go to sleep and let your computer do the driving.
4. Sliding Doors
Before Star Trek, I guess people were used to sliding doors in elevators. Senior citizens will even remember having human elevator operators. It wasn’t until the 1950s that automatic push button control systems replaced manual controls in elevators. (And then in the 1970s, electromechanical controls were gradually replaced with solid state electronic controls.) But sliding doors weren’t common elsewhere even though they had been invented before Star Trek! (I grew up in a small town, so I didn’t see a sliding door in real life until after I saw it on Star Trek.)
In 1954, Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt invented the sliding automatic door using a mat actuator. They founded a company, Horton Automatics, that developed and sold the first automatic sliding door in America in 1960. With the advent of shopping malls, the automatic sliding door would become ideal.
After the invention of the motion sensor, automatic sliding doors would incorporate this technology for ease of implementation and better reliability.
The sliding doors on all the Star Trek series were operated manually off-screen through either a pulley-system or levers. This was probably a cost-saving measure, but it was also required because the AI controlling the doors seemed as though it could read people’s intentions. The Nitpicker Guides by Phil Farrand for various Star Trek series point out various inconsistencies in how the doors seemed to work between various episodes. These inconsistencies were due to the dramatic requirements of scenes. For example, if a character exited a door and turned around to say something, how close to the door would the character have to be in order to keep the door open? (As an interesting side note, video games have to deal with these sorts of problems when triggering level changes at doorways.)
Even with having grips operating the Star Trek doors, there are many bloopers showing what happens when doors don’t open rapidly enough. This is a problem with real sliding doors in that you need to pause to allow the door to open; though, you still have to pause to open a hinged door.
Sliding doors haven’t caught on in domestic homes. I imagine the convenience isn’t worth the cost and potential hassle in breakdowns. I guess sliding doors make more sense in stores where you’re more likely to have your hands full. I’ve always thought that patio doors should be automatic for convenience sake.
Sliding and automatic doors have eliminated one more situation for chivalry as men no longer have to open doors for women. (As another case, with cigarettes being banned everywhere, a man can no longer be chivalrous by lighting a woman’s cigarette.)
The movie Doom had the concept of a nano-door, which I thought could be the future of doors. Basically, with nano-technology, you could have a door composed of tiny nano-devices that could allow solid objects to move them aside and pass in between them. To lock a door, you could set the nano-devices to be rigid. In Doom, they were able to “close” a nano-door and have it solidify with a person, or monster, trapped as it was going through a door. I’m not sure if the idea in Doom was that the nano-devices would actually penetrate the trapped object and potentially kill it, but in my conception, a live creature would not die.
The tricorder is the omnipresent landing party device. (I’ve never thought about why the thing is called a tricorder. The name seems to suggest that it does three things.) The tricorder is somewhat equivalent to our Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) of today. Only recently with the iPod Touch and BlackBerry Storm have PDAs evolved to have a monitor screen that is present on the tricorder. (However, the tricorder screen does not appear to be flat.) It is only a matter of time before PDAs have the sensory capabilities of the tricorder.
In 1983, the CASIO PF-3000 was released. Although the term PDA would not be introduced until 1992 by Apple, this device is considered to be the first PDA. In 1996, Nokia introduced the first mobile phone with PDA functionality, the 9000 Communicator.
In 1995, a Canadian company called Vital Technologies marketed a tricorder-like device. The company had a licensing agreement with Paramount Pictures so it marketed the device as Tricorder Model TR-107 Mark 1. The TR-107 uses the design graphics of the TNG tricorder and somewhat resembles it, except the TR-107 doesn’t fold. The TR-107 measures temperature, pressure, light, color, and EMF! It also had an expansion port for connecting other sensory devices. (Oh, it also has a timer, clock and calendar.) And it only cost $500. Its major advertising was done through Shreddies cereal boxes!
There was a half-price introductory sale, and I bought one. (My serial number is 941.) I only used it to measure the EMF being emitted from my computer monitors. I should check my cell phone to make sure it’s not giving me brain cancer. Anyway, the company went out of business after a year or two.
The addition of sensory capabilities into PDAs will make PDAs more indispensable. Imagine being in a basement parking garage, and you hear a noise. You could then whip out your PDA and scan for human life forms. You would be able to detect any potential muggers in hiding, and take appropriate action!
Currently, PDAs with phone capability sell over 150 million units per year while non-phone (“stand-alone”) PDAs sell about 3 million units per year. The BlackBerry boasts a subscriber base of over 14 million currently. With the popularity of the iPod Touch introduced in September 2007, I’m guessing a promising future for the tricorder.
2. Large View Screen
The Enterprise’s bridge view screen has become a reality in homes everywhere with big, wall-mounted, flat-screen televisions. Jerry Seinfeld used to joke about the bridge view screen in his stand-up act. Captain Kirk had the best seat in the house.
Star Trek didn’t come up with the idea of a large view screen, but it popularized the notion by having one on the bridge of the Enterprise. I think most spaceships depicted on film had windows with possibly metal shutters that covered the windows when they weren’t needed.
We never saw big screens used for recreational purposes on Star Trek, but television and film weren’t popular by Star Trek’s time. (The crew of Voyager did have a movie night, but I think it might have been instigated by Tom Paris, who had a fondness for the 20th century. Also, on a long voyage home, they needed as much entertainment as they could find.)
Science fiction literature used big, wall-mounted, flat-screen televisions. Ray Bradbury used the idea in Fahrenheit 451, and even had screens taking up entire walls and the ceiling in The Veldt. At that size, we’re getting into holodeck territory.
I recently got a 50″ plasma television. Everyone I know seemed to get a big screen television this past Christmas.
I wonder how large big screen televisions will get in homes. Currently, the 50″ size is at the price point where anything larger results in a large jump in price. I suppose a wall sized television would be nice, but I’m not sure how convenient it would be to replace a broken wall. Perhaps screens would be modular so that you could replace broken segments.
Deep Space Nine had view screens that materialized in empty space between two side frames with emitters. So you could technically walk through the view screen if it was at floor level. This would solve the hassle of transporting a big screen television home. And I’m using the word “transporting” in the reality sense rather than the Star Trek sense of the word if you catch my meaning. No more having to worry about keeping the screen upright during transport.
Holographic displays could replace view screens in the future, but I imagine there will be an option to flatten a 3-D holographic display in space challenged environments.
Cell phones are our communicators. Having watched Star Trek, I guess I was blasÃ© about the introduction of cell phones. It’s amazing how we all take for granted this technology. I do marvel that, beginning with military walkie-talkie sized cell phones, we were able to miniaturize cell phones to the size of communicators and even smaller than the ones on TOS.
TOS communicators had only 3 buttons with all the other functionality being voice activated, I guess. They never showed anyone retrieving messages from a communicator. I wonder how they got around the use of voice-mail in the future. One feature that I’m waiting to be available for cell phones is the option to set it to overload for use as an explosive device.
By the time of TNG, the communicator was incorporated into a brooch aka a comm badge. This idea has been used for some hospital personnel.
Martin Cooper, who worked for Motorola and is acknowledged as the inventor of the cell phone, says that Star Trek’s communicator was the inspiration behind the cell phone. Cooper made the first call on a portable cell phone in April of 1973. Note that automobiles had mobile phones prior to this, but this was the first cell phone designed for use outside of an automobile.
Time was needed to set up the communication infrastructure and to deal with Federal Communications Commission rules. By 1987, there were over 1 million cell phone users.
To keep up with the increasing popularity of cell phones, manufacturers added features such as photo taking, internet access, GPS capabilities, and PDA functionality. These advanced cell phones are called smartphones.
More and more people are dispensing with land line telephone service, and using their cell phones exclusively for talking to people over distances. I recently had my land line disconnected.
I imagine cell phones make it harder for spouses to stay out of reach of each other. So it’s harder to cheat on a spouse nowadays. Although I guess you can say that you forgot your cell phone somewhere, or cell phone reception wasn’t possible at your location, orâ€¦
I hope you learned something from this Treknobabble, because I certainly did when I researched it. As William Shatner stated in How William Shatner Changed the World, we are indeed living in a Star Trek world.
In the coming weeks, assuming Treknobabble doesn’t get cancelled, you can look forward to “Top 10 Star Trek Inventions Yet To Be Invented”, “Top 10 Inventions That Star Trek Failed To Foresee”, and “Top 10 Timeless Inventions As Seen In Star Trek”. (I’m serious.)