TECH TALK: Star Trek Tech… For Real!

This week: where are we today with real-life Star Trek Technology?!

Outside of Steve Jobs & Bill Gates, no other futurist predicted the shape of tech to come better that Gene Roddenberry (think the communicator / cell phone similarity, or the tablet computers that the red uniforms always walk around clutching!). With that in mind, EDN published a view facing forward of 10 Star Trek technologies that have come about or will come about soon thanks to the hard work and inventiveness of engineers… with some trivia thrown in!

$10M is a bargain for Bones’ handheld medical scanner: last year Qualcomm announced it was sponsoring the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize, a design contest that offers a $10 million prize and that is modeled after the famous Star Trek medical scanner. Modeled after the instant-diagnosis scanner, the contest calls for a device that will be capable of capturing key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases. Metrics for health could include such elements as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. The submissions deadline is April 2014, with judging to take place in early 2015. But the 34 registered teams aren’t sitting still until then. In fact, one team already received $10.5 million in funding to make their Tricorder vision a reality!
 Star Trek Trivia: The first handheld medical scanners used by Dr. McCoy were modified salt and pepper shakers, purchased originally for use in Star Trek episode “The Man Trap.” They were of Scandinavian design (IKEA? Surely not!) and on-screen were not recognizable as salt shakers to US viewers.

Warp drive could be here faster than you think: although it remains beyond our technical capabilities, warp drive – “warping” spacetime around a spaceship – was shown to be theoretically possible by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. In the fall of 2012, engineers and scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre stated that the amount of energy required to create an Alcubierre drive may be smaller than what was first thought. If adjustments were made to the proposed Alcubierre warp drive that include changing the shape of the warp bubble from a sphere to more of a rounded doughnut, it would enable warp to run on significantly less energy, making such travel at 10-times the speed of light possible.  Indeed, in making the sphere-to-doughnut change, among other details, NASA believes that the energy requirements will be far less for any faster-than-light ship, roughly equivalent to the mass-energy of an object the size of NASA’s 1977 Voyager 1 craft.
Star Trek Trivia: warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane makes his historic warp flight and aliens make First Contact with humanity in April 2063 – so only another 49 years to go, then!

Research pulls in tractor beams: Israel Institute of Technology physicists in an April 2012 paper described how negative radiation pressure – the pulling of particles using light rather than pushing particles with light – could offer a way into Star Trek-like tractor beams. In short, the paper shows that negative radiation could be used to create an optic vacuum within specially designed meta-materials. Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic took the idea a step further and managed to create a miniature Star Trek-style beam that moved objects around at a microscopic level. Still, as of now, there’s no realistic ETA on beams that can move entire vehicles and even if there were, we’d need Data on hand to fully explain how it worked.
Star Trek Trivia: According to the Memory Alpha Wiki, to safely tow a vessel at warp speed, the target vessel’s engines had to be deactivated to avoid shearing forces against towing vessel. A tractor beam could be used at warp speed only if both vessels’ speeds were exactly matched.

Replicators, sans Earl Grey: in the world of Star Trek, all one needed to do for a cup of Earl Grey, hot, was to find the nearest replicator and ask for it. We’re not quite there yet but we do have 3D printers available that (assuming what you want is made of polymer) can churn out an object rather quickly, replicating as many as you wish. Advances with 3D printing are being made each day. And such 3D printers are even making their way into space. Indeed, in August 2014, a 3-D printer will be sent to the International Space Station by NASA to fabricate tool and materials that the astronauts need while doing their jobs out in space while orbiting Earth. In fact, at this year’s CES, the first 3D food printers were unveiled, making the most intricate food shapes from sugar and chocolate.
Star Trek Trivia: When it comes to Earl Grey, one can “make it so” themselves, just like Jean-Luc Picard would have ordered. Think Geek carries official Star Trek-approved Earl Grey tea.

Holodecks: Data enjoyed the Holodeck as he journeyed to understand human nature. Holograms may be used today for 2 Pac as a posthumous concert act, but tomorrow is full of potential outside the entertainment industry. Launched on Kickstarter, Oculus Rift now offers a virtual reality headset for immersive gaming building a brand for itself as a wearable headset with promises beyond gaming. Rift uses custom tracking technology to provide ultra-low latency 360-degree head tracking. The company says every subtle movement of your head is tracked in real-time creating a natural and intuitive experience.
Star Trek Trivia: One of the keys to regaining control of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Ship in a Bottle” is knowing that Sherlock Holmes’ rival Moriarty is left-handed.

Clear potential in transparent aluminium: In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Enterprise engineer Mr. Scott divulges the formula to a 20th century engineer for transparent aluminum, a material that in 1-inch depth is equal in strength to 60-foot x 10-foot, 6-inch-thick Plexiglass, on the basis of “how do we know he wasn’t the fella who invented it?” While we have not exactly figured out a way of making metallic aluminium transparent, scientists have developed a transparent aluminum-based ceramic that is almost as strong. Aluminum ox-ynitride, or AION, is four times harder than fused silica glass, 85 percent as hard as sapphire, and stable up to a temperature of 1,200 degrees C. At 1.6-inches thick, it is strong enough to stop .50 calibre bullets. It’s also transparent, so a whale tank in an aquarium could be made out of it, if needed.

Star Trek Trivia: During pre-production of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a real humpback whale swam into the San Francisco Bay. Although the crew scrambled, they did not capture footage.

Voice commands: Speaking of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in the same scene as Scotty describes transparent aluminum, he attempts voice commands on a computer. When speaking directly at the PC does not work, Bones suggests he try speaking into the mouse, much to the bemusement of the 20th century engineer in the room. But today, thanks to Siri and her relations, you can shout three times into your iPhone before it eventually realises what you want!
Star Trek Trivia: Actor James Doohan who played Scotty lost his right middle finger during World War II. Most of his lead scenes are shot to hide it.

Cloaking devices: Stealth technology is a staple of the Trek universe. There’s been a buzz of reports in recent years on technology that could bring such cloaking to reality, but none of the technologies have been fully successful. However, an approach to invisibility cloaks that uses the same principle as noise-canceling headphones has been demonstrated at the University of Toronto. The approach is to surround the object to be cloaked with tiny antennas tuned to the frequency band in which the cloaking is to occur, such as radar. The antennas then send out a signal that cancels out the reflected signal — effectively cloaking the object. In experiments, the researchers effectively cloaked an aluminum cylinder with an array of 12 magnetic-dipole loop antennas. By changing the weights controlling the current applied to each element of the array, the cylinder was effectively cloaked in the forward and backward directions. And by adjusting the weights in various configurations, they were able to demonstrate how the object could be disguised to be a different size or in a different location, feats that were never demonstrated by meta-material cloaks that merely channel signals around objects. But in terms of cloaking to the naked eye, don’t hold your breath…
Star Trek Trivia: According to StarTrek.com, cloaking technology is of Romulan origin, first described in 2266, that can generate an energy screen to render a target object relatively invisible to sensors. Due to their immense power drain, cloaking generators have usually prohibited simultaneous use of other major systems such as weaponry, shields, or warp drive.

Communicators and in-ear comms: It’s well known that the first flip cellphone is often cited as a comparable item to Star Trek communicators; but equally well Bluetooth technology is synonymous with the abilities of Uhura’s huge, silver in-ear communication device – in fact she’d have a smaller, more discrete Bluetooth earpiece.
Star Trek Trivia: “Uhura” comes from the Swahili word uhuru, meaning “freedom.” Uhura does not die on the TV series and is portrayed by original actress Nichelle Nichols in several Star Trek movies, somehow outliving the Star Trek “red shirt” curse.

VISOR: Star Trek: TNG engineer Geordi La Forge was born blind but with assistance of his VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) he gained sight through the electromagnetic spectrum. The immediate comparison in 2013 is to Google Glass. However in 2005, Stanford University successfully implanted a small chip behind the retina of blind rats. In doing so, it enabled the rats to pass a vision recognition test. The bionic eyes work much the way the Star Trek VISOR did. The implants go in behind the retina, then a pair of glasses fitted with a video camera is used to convey images. Light enters the camera and moves through a small wireless computer, which then broadcasts it as infrared LED images on the inside of the glasses. The images are reflected back into the retina chips to stimulate photo-diodes. The photo-diodes replicate lost retinal cells and change light into electrical signals which in turn send nerve pulses to the brain.
Star Trek Trivia: Character Lieutenant Geordi La Forge, played by LeVar Burton, was named after a Trekkie. George La Forge was a devoted attendee of numerous Trek conventions who had muscular dystrophy. Rumour has it he and Gene Roddenberry became friends over the years, but alas, the real La Forge died before Roddenberry named the character after him.

Sources: EDN

GS Reporter: SilverFox

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