5 Star Trek Technologies: When Real Life Imitates Science Fiction

We're catching up to the Star Trek universe, working out some of the technologies used for communication, health, and war.

5 Star Trek Technologies: When Real Life Imitates Science Fiction
Model of 'Star Trek' NCC-1701 USS Enterprise Shuttle Wikimedia Commons

In the process of exploring the final frontier, the crew of Star Trek made use of technology born of the creator’s imagination. But much of that technology has been realized - at least to some extent - by the year 2019. 

Communicators

Should you still have a flip-style phone in your possession, like I do, you have a piece of tech straight out of Star Trek. In fact, TrekMovie.com suggests "the modern flip-style mobile phone was inspired by the communicators from the original Star Trek.” As Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “Life imitates art.” This has proven true for our cell phones.

So back when Paramount was working on releasing its 2009 Star Trek movie, it partnered with Nokia and Verizon for a Star Trek-themed promotional campaign.

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Europeans even had the opportunity to purchase a special Star Trek version of the Nokia 5800 (non-flip) cell phone, which threw in “some Star Trek-themed content.”  

There must have been some really die-hard fans of the original series at Nokia. Back in 2008, they built 14 prototypes of a cell phone that looked exactly like the communicators used by Captain Kirk and his crew with the functionality of the Nokia N76 flip phone.  

The universal translator

The fleet on Star Trek often has to communicate with aliens whose native language is not English, and once in a while, you do get to hear Klingon or another alien language. But most of the time, everyone is speaking in English. How does that work?

The Doctor Who series explains the same phenomenon by saying the Tardis automatically translates everything expressed by both humans and aliens; Star Trek attributes it to something much smaller known as the universal translator.

If you have any questions at all about how its function and evolution has changed throughout the different manifestations of the series, you can likely find it on the Memory Alpha site. It cites the original series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry who wrote the following:

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“We establish a ‘telecommunicator’ device early in the series, little more complicated than a small transistor radio carried in a pocket. A simple ‘two-way scrambler;’ it appears to be converting all spoken language into English."

Today, we’ve come pretty close to a universal translator.  You can see the review of a couple of specialized devices in the video below that, then, raises the question, why not use what’s already free?

The video leaves out Siri, which also started to offer some translation functions, though its list of 5 languages is far from impressive. It does mention  Google Translate and Microsoft Translator, which offer the additional functionality of translating the text you scan in and not just voice.

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Google is certainly working on improving its own functionality, having just rolled out live text translations on Google Lens. However, that is limited to 14 languages.

The thing about Google and Microsoft is that they fall a bit short on the “universal” aspect in terms of the number of languages they can translate. But even your specialized devices won’t translate every language currently spoken on Earth, never mind in solar systems beyond our own.   

Phasers on Stun

From the original series through the latest iterations, 'Phasers on Stun' is one of the standard phrases uttered by the captain or someone else in charge, to signal their desire to avoid killing even when there is a need to stop someone who poses a serious threat.

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Now, while we have not quite come to the point of being able to stun someone at a distance with a hand-held device, the US Department of Defense has developed what it calls the Laser-Induced Plasma Effect, Solid-State Active Denial System. You can see it in action in this video:

Switching on invisibility with a cloaking device

In the original Star Trek, The Romulans had a secret weapon that the Federation did not: a cloaking device. The captain and Spock went to some lengths to steal it in “The Enterprise Incident.”  See the clip below:

Well, what is shown, or perhaps we should say not shown, in science fiction is being pursued by scientific researchers.

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In this Smithsonian video, a cloaking device called the Rochester cloak is offered as progress toward the Star Trek-style cloaking used by Romulan spaceships. The principle at work here is bending light so that, it is seen by the observer as if there is no object in the way.


Some of these scientific researchers working for the military, whose interest in invisibility is to gain a tactical advantage over an enemy. Armed with Science: the official US Department Science blog of Boubacar Kanté, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

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Kanté, was one of the researchers who applied Teflon to scatter electromagnetic wave, including light. In 2015, he declared, “Full invisibility still seems beyond reach today, but it might become a reality in the near future thanks to recent progress in cloaking devices.”

There have been a number of advances since. Last year, for example, “Multilayer homogeneous dielectric filler for electromagnetic invisibility”  was published in Nature.  The idea is to obtain invisibility by employing layers of substances with quality of reacting to light in a way that would obscure the object within.

What we’ve seen at work so far is still somewhat limited in terms of the size of the object it can cloak. But perhaps one has to start small and work one’s way up when there is no alien technology on hand to steal.

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The Tricorder

Dr. McCoy was able to rapidly diagnose his patients on the go thanks to the advanced technology packed into the portable tricorder. A competition called the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE  offered $10 million in prizes “to incentivize the development of innovative technologies capable of accurately diagnosing a set of 13 medical conditions independent of a healthcare professional or facility, ability to continuously measure 5 vital signs, and have a positive consumer experience.”

The winner of the $4.7 million prize from this competition was a design from Basil Leaf Technologies for DxtER.™. It’s built with “algorithms for diagnosing 34 health conditions” and involves “non-invasive sensors, custom-designed to collect data about a person's vital signs, body chemistry, and biological functions.”

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See the real-life tricorder explained in this video:

The tricorder, at least, can be used to advance health to help our society attain the Vulcan blessing: live long and prosper.

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