The show has been ground-breaking in many ways. It has been innovative in its treatment of strong female characters, featuring a diverse crew of mixed origins (both terrestrial and otherwise). It also showed characters representing a medley of professions, all working together for the greater good of their mission.
However, Star Trek has also been ground-breaking in its presentation of future technology, sparking imaginations all over the world. When the Original Series aired in the 1960s, nobody would have guessed that in 2017 personal communicators would be a ubiquitous and very real device. Today, it is hard to imagine life without smartphones and the ability to communicate in real time across great distances.
The newest addition to the franchise, Star Trek Discovery, will be airing this month. In anticipation, here are a few Star Trek technologies, and how they compare to today’s available tech.
Bones using a medical tri-corder in Star Trek: The Original Series. Image courtesy of Paramount.
In the Star Trek universe, the medical tri-corder is used to scan and make immediate observations about a crew member's health.
In 2011, Google’s XPRIZE Foundation, in partnership with Qualcomm, announced the Tricorder X Prize contest to bring this Trekky technology to life. The contest had a general prize ranking of $7 million, $2 million, and $1 million to first, second, and third place, respectively. The contest concluded in April 2017 after all submissions were tested.
The entries had to meet a series of qualifications:
- be an automatic and non-invasive system for medical diagnostics
- weigh less than 5lbs
- be capable of providing on-the-spot diagnosis of 12 diseases, as well as identify if someone is free of medical conditions (anemia, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, leukocytosis, pneumonia, otitis media, sleep apnea, and urinary tract infection)
- provide a stream and record vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, and temperature
While none of the over 300 submissions to the contests were able to meet all the above qualifications, first place was awarded to Final Frontier Medical Devices. Their submission was DxTer, an at home consumer device driven by artificial intelligence.
The system processes real data from emergency medical clinics, pairing symptoms and health vitals with diagnostic outcomes, and assesses the user's health based on that information. Vital signs are collected by non-invasive sensors, such as a breath analyzer, or finger clips to collect vitals. Then, a series of questions are asked via an app on a smartphone or tablet to provide more information. The DxTer makes use of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data analysis to provide insight into what's going on in the user's body.
While this isn’t quite the same thing as the scanning medical tri-corder, the DxTer can still identify several possible medical conditions from the information it gathers (although a diagnosis from a real doctor is still required).
In the Star Trek universe, alien languages can be translated in real-time using the Universal Translator, breaking down barriers when communicating with a new species.
Universal Translator from the Star Trek universe. Image courtesy of the Federation Starship Data Link.
One2One is one step closer to this reality. Powered by the IBM Watson Language Translator, the wearable device can translate conversations in near real-time between English, German, Chinese, Italian, French, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese.
The caveat is that the device has to be worn by both (or all) individuals engaged in a multi-lingual conversation in order for it to work. However, the device is independent of external network connections so that it can be used on airlines or in remote areas where a reliable Wi-Fi connection is not available.
One2One wearable translation device. Image courtesy of Lingmo.
Another device, called Pilot, is also using the same concept of a wearable device capable of real-time language translation. A successful crowdfunding campaign ran in late 2016-early 2017 to support Pilot, which is capable of translations between French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
Similar to the One2One, Pilot requires all participants in a translated conversation to be wearing the device and has a few seconds of delay before a translation is provided. It also requires a smartphone to be paired with its app.
Pilot wearable translation device. Image courtesy of Waverly Labs.
The creators have stated their goal is to eventually have a version of the Pilot that is capable of translating many languages in real-time and also capable of translating conversations even when the other individuals are not wearing the device.
The character Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably most recognizable because of his unusual eye-piece called a VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) that permits him to see despite being born blind. The fictional device interfaces with the optic nerves and scans electromagnetic information from the surrounding environment to create images.
Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Image courtesy of Paramount.
A real-life device called the eSight 3 is similar in spirit, enhancing vision for the legally (but not completely) blind.
The device is worn over the eyes and has external cameras that enhance live-streamed images and presents them on displays on the interior of the device. This brings the images closer to the wearer’s eyes and provides a full field of view, including the peripheral view. It is also capable of autofocusing between things that are close and far away.
The eSight 3. Image courtesy of eSight Eyewear.
Technology has come a long way since the 60s. Hopefully we can look forward to warp drive and transporters in the future.