Star Trek has always been pretty far flung when it comes to its vision of the future. Seeing humanity as an intergalactic society that has not only transcended the bounds of our solar system but also achieved world peace, to call the franchise more aspirational than prophetic is somewhat of an understatement.
In saying that, though, looking around at the technologies available to us today, it does seem that creator Gene Roddenberry may have been closer to the mark than first thought. As everything from tractor beams to warp drives, universal translators and even phasers either already in use or not far off, the world of Star Trek, at least technologically speaking, is within our grasp.
So with that in mind, and with Star Trek Beyond out now on digital, Bluray and DVD, we thought we would go through 10 pieces of Star Trek tech that actually do exist.
1. Tractor Beams.
One of the first technologies I was blown away to discover existed was tractor beams. Used in Star Trek by spaceships to tow each other around, or as was more often the case in the show, prevent the Enterprise from escaping, tractor beams are like big beam-hands used to grab things (can you tell I have no background in science what-so-ever?). And while we may not have any on the scale of those featured in Star Trek, we have invented tractor-beam-like forceps to move atoms around. ‘Cos you can’t do that with tiny, tiny tweezers which until researching this article is how I assumed it was done.
2. Food Replicators
Again, what we’ve got falls woefully short of what was promised by Roddenberry and co, but just as Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard could ask/demand – “Tea, Earl Gray, hot!” – the current wave of 3D printing tech has seen machines tackle food. Sure they can’t make tea yet (I’m sure the British have a tea-bot 1000 in development somewhere), but who are we to complain? We’re just sitting here reading about Star Trek.
This might be the one area where we have exceeded Star Trek’s futuristic vision, as these days there are more ways to communicate with each other than ever before. From those dorky looking Bluetooth ear pieces, to smartphones, to wearables – when it comes to communication, 21st Century tech has got you covered. There is even a Star Trek-esque communicator currently being used in hospitals.
4. Universal Translator
More than just a convenient plot device to explain why every alien in the universe speaks English (although why they often had distinct accents was never really covered), the Universal Translator was by far one of the coolest pieces of Star Trek tech. Now, not only is there Google Translate, but there’s an app for that too. Voice Translator by TalirApps understands 71 languages and all you do is speak and the app translates whatever you said into another language.
5. Transparent Aluminum.
So this one also blew me away, with scientists recently unveiling an aluminum-based ceramic that is transparent and, on top of that, can stop a .50 caliber round. This, of course, harks back to one of the weirder Star Trek adventures where the crew had to go back in time and bring back some humpback whales to the future or else the world would end. Unfortunately though, there is still no technology available to explain this to me.
6. Tablet Computers
The Star Trek tech that I remember most fondly is also perhaps the only one I now own. That’s right, Tablets, just like the one Lieutenant Commander Geordi Laforge (or as I called him, the guy with the awesome future glasses, which I still want btw) used to have. They called them Personal Access Data Devices, or PADDs, tantalisingly close to what we call them today. Mind you, Geordie used his to punch in coordinates and other useful activities, whereas I use mine almost exclusively to watch videos on YouTube and order food. Lo and behold the brave new world.
In the Star Trek universe, a tricorder is a compact handheld device that lets the crew scan for geological, biological, and meteorological anomalies. Very useful if you like to make a habit of exploring untouched new worlds. Now this was another thing I thought must be years off, but apparently, McMaster University Ontario’s Peter Jansen built a working prototype. Unveiled in 2012 it does however only scan for magnetic fields and other interference instead of the all in one functionality of the tricorders in the show. But don’t let that get you down, as there are also a bunch of other real-world tricorders as well. Now we just need to wait for some Steve Jobs style tech guru to mash ’em together inside a sleekly designed oblong and we’re good to go.
8. Warp Drive
Of all the tech in this article, this one is my favourite by far. Why? Because it’s Warp Drive. The ability to bend time and space to travel faster than the speed of light. It’s just crazy. And while we may still be a long way to it being a reality, recently experiments with the EM Drive seem to suggest it may not be as far away as we think. Hell, even NASA are saying it’s possible.
Coming in at a close second for coolest Star Trek tech, the Holodeck was a great tool/narrative device to help the members of Star Fleet escape the confines of their spaceship. ‘Cos let’s face it, as cool as space is, after a while you’d bound to get tired of it and want to sit on a beach somewhere (although the Holodeck in the show did sometimes imprison the occupants and force them to play a life or death game of wit and skill, not exactly a sunny escape from the vacuum of space). Again we are pretty far off the Star Trek level of full environmental immersion into a different world, with the best we’ve seen so far being a creepy 2 Pac hologram. On the other hand, thanks to Oculus Rift and other tech, virtual reality is fast becoming a thing. Come on boffins, put your heads together and let’s get this one done.
Last but not least we have Star Fleet’s weapon of choice, the phaser. A directed energy weapon that according to the setting could either stun or disintegrate enemies, the US military has apparently been using a similar device since the first invasion of Iraq back in the ’90s. Known as Dazzlers – which let’s face it sounds more like a troupe of strippers – the weapons send pulses of electromagnetic radiation or just high-intensity laser beams to incapacitate and halt would be enemies. As with a lot of the tech in this article it isn’t quite up to Trek levels yet, so the Dazzlers can’t disintegrate people… yet. Knowing the US military, I’m sure it won’t be long.