Star Trek gadgets: Beyond the realms of fiction

In anticipation of the latest Trekky release, Star Trek Beyond, we take a look at some futuristic gadgets used in the franchise that are now more reality than fiction.

William Shatner, who played the iconic original captain James T Kirk of the starship USS Enterprise, remarked that the sci-fi technology we see in Star Trek is not as otherworldly as it seems.

At Smithsonian magazine’s ‘Future Is Here’ festival in April, Captain Kirk commented that “it’s not that far-fetched. Although a lot of the concepts in science fiction are absurd to our Newtonian minds, anything is possible because of the new language of quantum physics.”

Some of the tech we have seen in the 50 years of the franchise has surprisingly become a part of our normal lives, and in the run-up to the latest Star Trek instalment, we take a look at some of the out-of-this-world gadgetry that is now a reality.

Automatic sliding doors

The automatic sliding door was not a common gadget in the 1970s, although it had been invented in 1954, before the release of the original TV series in 1967.

Many people had their first glimpse of sliding doors when the Enterprise crew rushed on to the bridge during an emergency, long before the motion-sensor door was the ideal product for shopping centres and supermarkets.

Phaser

The phaser was a standard- issue weapon for Starfleet in Star Trek: Enterprise. Before this, in the mid-22nd century, phase-modulated particle weapons were used. The phaser had a stun setting, which was low yield and non-lethal, but it would cause disorientation, unconsciousness and minor burns to humanoids.

On Earth we have the Dazzler, which emits visible light - usually lasers - to humans, causing temporary blindness and disorientation. There is no permanent damage to eyesight, and the directed-energy weapon has been used by the US military since the Iraq war, becoming more commonplace in security and law enforcement. The weapons are portable and use the red or green areas of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Replicator

Provisions are an essential element of any voyage. A replicator provides food, water and spare parts and is on-board most starships, which is rather handy if you’re boldly going where no man has gone before. The replicator can make parts of the ship with just a voice command, so most damage to the vessel can be repaired without the need to go back to a starbase. You can also ask for Starfleet uniforms, toys and souvenirs, and the replicator grants your wish, like a robotic genie.

3D printing is what is closest to the replicator on Earth, but it’s a little slower. Honeywell is a manufacturer of civil and military avionics and other aerospace products, and it develops and implements 3D printing with metal, not polymer, which is the usual material - echoing the futuristic Star Trek gadget. The technology duplicates a part using a computer-aided design and drafting (CAD) model and a laser to print (weld) the metal powder.

Honeywell’s Additive Manufacturing Lab has Laser Powder Bed Fusion Technology and Electron Beam Powder Bed Fusion Technology, which produce highly complex geometries with cavities and undercuts.

Communicator badge

The communicator badge, or combadge, was a vital part of Starfleet personnel uniforms in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The combadge was used for communication on board the starships - tapping the badge once activated it, tapping it twice turned it off.

Like the combadge, the Vocera Communication Badge is hands-free, wireless and is voice-controlled. It’s effective at communicating with other badge wearers and smartphone users in real time. It also has acoustic noise reduction (ANR). Its main use is in the healthcare environment.

Holodeck

Virtual reality’s popularity is gaining pace in our world, with many applications exploring just what it is capable of. In America, the Void theme park relies entirely on VR, with customers donning headsets and interacting with a simulated environment - very similar to the Holodeck, only without the ability to touch. Additionally, scientists believe that we will have a Holodeck-like product available for everyday purchase by 2024.

Tricorder

The tricorder has been used since the beginning of the Star Trek series. It is a portable, handheld device used for data analysis, sensor scanning and recording data. The name is an abbreviation of ‘tri-function recorder’, as it senses, computes and records. The standard tricorder scouts out strange territories, meticulously details living things, scans for anomalies and reviews data. The engineering version is for the starships and the medical tricorder is used by doctors to diagnose patients and retrieve bodily information; it also has a detachable high-resolution scanner.

AVEVA, a provider of engineering software, has technology capable of 3D laser scanning of environments. It scans areas such as oil rigs and engineering plants and the information is digested and available to interact with via a large 3D touchscreen.

Stanford electrical engineers have also experimented with ultrasonics, creating a tricorder-like device that has the potential to detect early-stage cancers without even touching a patient’s skin.

Universal translator

The universal translator was used to decrypt spoken language in real time, making it easier for the Starfleet crew to communicate with other humanoid alien species. The translator works by scanning brainwave frequency and the results make the foundation for translation. Translators were built into the computers of the USS Enterprise, and Captain Kirk used a handheld one to communicate with the Companion, a non-humanoid lifeform. In the later series and films, the translator was included in the combadge.

In our world, there are plenty of apps that can do it for you, such as Microsoft Translator, in which you can choose speech detection translation, two-way translation or keyboard translation. There’s also The Waverly Labs Pilot, a tiny Bluetooth gadget you put inside your ear to translate languages in real time.

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