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Star Trek's 50th: How Would We Ever Describe Our Tech Dreams Without It?

On the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek, a look at the tablets, tricorders, and translators the franchise has inspired.

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Fifty years ago today, Star Trek premiered with the episode "The Man Trap" on NBC. It was an episode aired out of order—the show's intended pilot wouldn't run for another two weeks—but it worked out okay anyway: Star Trek, despite some bumps along the way, became one of the world's most influential science fiction franchises, spawning a half-dozen spinoff series, more than a dozen feature films, hundreds and hundreds of novels, countless board/video/card/computer/pinball/etc. games, and a legion of unofficial interpretations of the world of Star Trek created by fans.

But the creativity that Star Trek has unlocked in its fans hasn't been limited strictly to artistic pursuits. The world of science and technology has been shaped by Star Trek, too. For much of the past 50 years, ideas like a handheld computer containing all of the knowledge our species has acquired, or a universal real-time translator, or a device that could offer a medical examination from the palm of someone's hand were the provence of Star Trek. But over the years, those concepts have begun the trek from Trek to the real world. That's not a coincidence. The people who envision the technology that shapes our lives now were shaped by Star Trek, in ways both overt and more personal.

The Tricorder

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is completely unabashed in its aims: The competition from wireless company Qualcomm's foundation offers $10 million in prize money to the team that successfully creates a device that matches the basic functionality of Trek's handheld medical scanning Tricorder.

"Imagine a portable, wireless device in the palm of your hand that monitors and diagnoses your health conditions," Qualcomm asks on the competition’s website next to a picture of Spock giving the Vulcan hand salute. "That’s the technology envision by this competition, and it will allow unprecedented access to personal health metrics." The competition opened in 2012, and narrowed to its finalists last year; it hopes to begin consumer testing the devices in the near future, and will announce its winners early next year.

To qualify, the winning Tricorder needs to be able to monitor vital signs—blood pressure, ECG, body temperature, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation—and screen for more than a dozen conditions, from whooping cough and melanoma to HIV to mono and shingles. Essentially, they're trying to invent a "check engine light" for your body. Dr. Erik Viirre, medical director for the competition, writes in a blog post about the link between Star Trek and the technology the foundation seeks to bring to consumers. "Each of us is adrift somewhere in the universe, on a planet that was built to challenge and support us in many ways," he opines. "Fortunately, we have the dreams of visionaries like Gene Roddenberry and the skills of innovators competing for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE to count on. One day, sooner than we think, we’ll all benefit from reaching far beyond our wildest expectations."

Google and Siri

The existence of Google itself is basically science fiction, even if a search engine wasn't one of the things Star Trek predicted. That doesn't mean that the way the technology is moving isn't directly inspired by the series, though—including core products like search.

Amit Singhal, Google's senior vice president of search until February (when he retired), looked to Star Trek when it came time to improve the way Google worked. He explained the drive to naturalistic, voice-based search to Canadian Business magazine back in 2012 in decidedly Trek-based terms.

Singhal's imagination was "totally captured" by watching Star Trek as a kid in the 1970s on his black-and-white TV in India. "I was just enchanted with the idea that I could talk to a computer and know whatever I wanted to know," he said. "Google Voice Search and Google Now are baby-steps toward the dream we all want, which is indeed the Star Trek computer. We’re not there yet, but we’ve sown the right seeds in all the right technologies for us to get there."

Tablets

So, Steve Jobs would never have deigned to admit that the iPad was inspired by something other than his own creative genius, but on Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a device called the PADD that was a handheld computer, activated by touch screen, and wirelessly connected to the rest of the network. And Trek designer Doug Drexler recognized the franchise in the iPad almost immediately after the device was unveiled.

"We always felt that the classic . . . graphic was malleable, and that you could stretch and rearrange it to suit your task, just like the iPad. The PADD never had a keyboard as part of its casing, just like the iPad," he told Ars Technica back in 2010. "Its geometry is almost exactly the same—the corner radius, the thickness, and overall rectangular shape. It's uncanny to have a PADD that really works."

Universal Translators

Getting everyone to speak the same language is just good business when you're talking about television and film—it's not exactly cinematically expedient for people to have to explain everything through a third-party (although the misunderstandings can be hilarious!). It doesn't make sense for creatures from all over the galaxy to just intuitively know how to speak English—hence the universal translators of Star Trek.

But even in the real world, the expedience—and the difficulties that could be avoided—by universal, real-time translators are no joke. That's why everyone from Microsoft to startups like Talir Apps have worked to develop working translation devices and applications. And, of course, when you hear from the people behind the apps, they start talking Star Trek again. When Microsoft announced Skype Translator in 2014, Gurdeep Pall, Corporate Vice President of Skype and Lync at Microsoft, invoked the franchise again in explaining what he was trying to create.

"It is early days for this technology, but the Star Trek vision for a Universal Translator isn’t a galaxy away, and its potential is every bit as exciting as those Star Trek examples," he explained in a blog post discussing the translation app. "Skype Translator opens up so many possibilities to make meaningful connections in ways you never could before in education, diplomacy, multilingual families and in business."

All of this is cool stuff, and it's not the end of where Star Trek influences technology. There's potential for warp drives and hope for teleporters, too—and if those things seem impossible, well, so did a Tricorder 50 years ago. All it takes is people with the vision to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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