"Beam us up." It's one of the most iconic lines in television history. It's something often heard in the hit science fiction television series "Star Trek" and all of the television shows and movies that followed.
The transporter essentially dematerialized a human body at one point only to rematerialize it in the transporter bay on the ship. Somehow, it broke down atoms and molecules within the body -- scattered them through the vacuum of space without losing a single one from point A to point B, then voila, that person re-emerged out of thin air. Sounds pretty cool, though impossible, right? But what if there was such a device?
The truth is, you can forget about a transporter. No one has been able to realize such a concept. But that doesn't mean some of the ideas that seemed far-fetched when the show debuted in 1966 haven't become a reality. In this article, we feature the top 10 technologies from Star Trek that actually did come to fruition, listed in no particular order. Some of them may surprise you.
The fourth installment of the original "Star Trek" movies is perhaps the most endearing to fans. The crew returns to modern-day Earth. Kirk, Spock and the rest of the gang ditch a Klingon Bird of Prey spacecraft in the San Francisco Bay after narrowly missing the Golden Gate Bridge while flying blind in a storm. You may remember the scene -- but how many of you remember Scotty introducing transparent aluminum for the first time?
In the flick, Scotty traded the formula matrix for transparent aluminum -- a huge engineering advancement -- for sheets of plexiglass in order to build a tank to transport the two humpback whales (George and Gracie) to the Earth of their time. The claim was that you'd be able to replace six-inch (14-centimeter) thick Plexiglas with one-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick see-through aluminum.
It may sound impossible, but there is such a thing as transparent aluminum armor or aluminum oxynitride (ALON) as it's more commonly known. ALON is a ceramic material that starts out as a powder before heat and pressure turn it into a crystalline form similar to glass. Once in the crystalline form, the material is strong enough to withstand bullets. Polishing the molded ALON strengthens the material even more. The Air Force has tested the material in hopes of replacing windows and canopies in its aircraft. Transparent aluminum armor is lighter and stronger than bulletproof glass. Less weight, stronger material -- what's not to like?
Whenever Captain Kirk left the safe confines of the Enterprise, he did so knowing it could be the last time he saw his ship. Danger was never far away. And when in distress and in need of help in a pinch, he could always count on Bones to come up with a miracle cure, Scotty to beam him up or Spock to give him some vital scientific information. He'd just whip out his communicator and place a call.
Fast-forward 30 years and wouldn't you know it, it seems like everyone carries a communicator. We just know them as cell phones. Actually, the communicators in "Star Trek" were more like the push-to-talk, person-to-person devices first made popular by Nextel in the mid to late '90s. The "Star Trek" communicator had a flip antenna that when opened, activated the device. The original flip cell phones are perhaps distant cousins. Whatever the case, the creators of "Star Trek" were on to something because you'd be hard-pressed to find many people without a cell phone these days.
In later incarnations of the "Star Trek" franchise, the communicators evolved to being housed in the Starfleet logo on the crewman's chest. With the tap of a finger, communication between crewmembers became even easier. Vocera Communications has a similar product that can link people on the same network inside a designated area like an office or a building by using the included software over a wireless LAN. The B2000 communication badge weighs less than two ounces and can be worn on the lapel of a coat or shirt and allows clear two-way communication. It's even designed to inhibit the growth of bacteria so it's suitable for doctors [source: Vocera].
The creative team behind "Star Trek" found spiffy ways to spice up some activities we endure on a day-to-day basis. Take medical treatment, for example: Not many people enjoy getting a flu shot, and in "Star Trek," inoculating patients was one of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy's primary duties. It seemed not an episode went by that Bones wasn't giving someone a shot of some sort of space vaccine. But what was more fascinating was the contraption he used.
Hypospray is a form of hypodermic injection of medication. A hypospray injection is forced under the skin (a subcutaneous injection) with high air pressure. The air pressure shoots the liquid vaccine deep enough into the skin that no needle is required. The real-world application is known as a jet injector.
Jet injectors have been in use for many years. In fact, the technology predates "Star Trek." Jet injectors were originally designed to be used in mass vaccinations. Jet injecting is safer (no needles to pass along infectious disease) and faster in administering vaccines. Similar in appearance to an automotive paint gun, jet injection systems can use a larger container for the vaccine, thus allowing medical personnel to inoculate more people quicker.
When NASA needs to make repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, astronauts have to be specially trained to get out of the Space Shuttle for extravehicular activity. They also have to learn how to work within the confines of their space suits, with thick gloves on. Wouldn't it be nice to just bring the telescope inside, where repairs wouldn't be so challenging and dangerous?
In science fiction, space ships including the Starship Enterprise snatch each other up using tractor beams. In some cases, large vessels have a tractor beam strong enough to prevent smaller vessels from escaping the gravitational force. So is this science even plausible?
Yes and no. Optical tweezers are as close as you're going to get to a legitimate tractor beam on current-day Earth. Scientists have harnessed small lasers into beams capable of manipulating molecules and moving them with precision. Optical tweezers use a focused laser to trap and suspend microscopic particles in an optical trap. Scientists can use optical tweezers to trap and remove bacteria and sort cells. Optical tweezers are used primarily in studying the physical properties of DNA. While the beams used in optical tweezers aren't strong enough to dock the space shuttle to the International Space Station, it's a start in that direction.
"Set phasers to stun" -- another oft-heard command given to the Enterprise crew. The crew often relied on the stun setting of their fictitious weapon of choice known as a phaser. Armed with a phaser, Kirk and his colleagues had the ability to kill or more desirably, stun their adversaries and render them incapacitated.
Actually, stun guns have been around for some time. In fact, electricity has been used for punishment and to control livestock as far back as the 1880s. But it wasn't until 1969 when a guy named Jack Cover invented the first Taser that the stun gun was most realized. The Taser fails to kill like the phaser did, yet, it packs enough of an electrical punch to render its victim disorientated, if not completely incapacitated.
Unlike the phaser, the Taser and other stun guns must come in physical contact with the target in order to have any effect. Tasers take care of this by projecting two electrodes, connected by wires, which attach to the target's skin. Once in contact, the handheld unit transfers electricity to the target, thus having the stun effect. Stun guns with stationary electrical contact probes are somewhat less effective because while they have a similar effect on the target, you have to be much closer (within arm's length) in order to zap your target.
Something more along the lines of the phaser may be in development. Applied Energetic has developed Laser Guided Energy and Laser Induced Plasma Energy technologies that are said to transmit high-voltage bursts of energy to a target [source: Applied Energetics]. In other words, these pulses of energy would stun the target and limit collateral damage. So a true phaser may soon be a reality.
Imagine if no matter what country you visited, no matter what the culture, you could understand everything the indigenous people were saying. It sure would make traveling easier. Take that thought to another level like say, if you were planet hopping like the crew onboard the Enterprise. Fortunately for Captain Kirk and his peers, they had a universal translator.
The characters in "Star Trek" relied on a small device that when spoken into, would translate the words into English. Guess what? The technology exists for us in the real world. There are devices that let you speak phrases in English and it will spit back to you the same rhetoric in a specified language. The only problem is, these devices only work for certain predetermined languages.
A true universal translator like the one on the show may not be a reality, but the technology is available. Voice recognition has advanced considerably since its inception. But computers have yet to be able to learn languages. Computers would be able to theoretically gather the information much faster than a human brain, but a software program is dependent on actual data. Someone has to take the time and expense to put it together and make it available, which is probably why these systems focus on more popular languages.
When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" thrust the love of everything "Star Trek" back into popular culture, the quirky Mr. Spock and crass Bones McCoy and others were supplanted by a new cast. One of the most popular characters on the new show was engineer Geordi LaForge.
What made Geordi unique, perhaps even mysterious, was his funky eyewear. Geordi was blind, but after a surgical operation and aided through the use of a device called VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement), Geordi could see throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. Though it may sound far-fetched, in reality, similar technology exists that may someday bring sight back to the blind.
In 2005, a team of scientists from Stanford University successfully implanted a small chip behind the retina of blind rats that enabled them to pass a vision recognition test. The science behind the implants, or bionic eyes as they're commonly referred to, works much the way Geordi's VISOR did. The patient receives the implants behind the retina, then wears a pair of glasses fitted with a video camera. Light enters the camera and is processed through a small wireless computer, which then broadcasts it as infrared LED images on the inside of the glasses. Those images are reflected back into the retina chips to stimulate photodiodes. The photodiodes replicate the lost retinal cells then change light into electrical signals which in turn send nerve pulses to the brain.
What it all means is that in theory, a person with 20/400 sight (blind), due to the loss of retinal cells from retinitis pigmentosa, can obtain 20/80 sight. It's not good enough to pass the driving test (normal vision is considered 20/20) but it's good enough to read billboards and go about your day without the aid of a seeing-eye dog.
In the second installment of the "Star Trek" movie franchise, the beloved Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, died after saving the Starship Enterprise from certain disaster. The movie culminated with the crew firing Spock's corpse out of the torpedo bay in a coffin shaped like one of the ship's weapons, the photon torpedo.
Believe it or not, you too could be laid to eternal rest in your own Federation-approved photon torpedo casket. OK, it may not technically be Federation-approved since there is no such thing as the United Federation of Planets (UFP) but the coffins are, in fact, very real.
Designed by Eternal Image, the "Star Trek" coffin was slated to be available early 2009, but is still not for sale as of this writing. The price is yet to be determined. If the fan would prefer to be cremated, the company also plans to offer a "Star Trek" urn as well.
In 1966, the idea of interacting with each other while separated by the void of space seemed as far fetched as, well the idea of being in space. That's precisely what the idea of telepresence is.
Telepresence is more than just video conferencing. The visual aspect is important and immersion is vital. In other words, the more convincing the illusion of telepresence, the more you feel like you're there.
In 2008, AT&T teamed up with Cisco in delivering the industry's first in-depth telepresence experience. The key to Cisco's TelePresence is the combination of audio, video and ambient lighting working together. These telepresence kits are designed to mirror surroundings and mimic sounds so that users on each side of the video conference will feel as though the images on the screen are in the same room with them. For instance, the people in boardroom A will see the people on the screen in boardroom B as though they are sitting across the table from them. The ambient lighting and room features are constructed to mirror each other. Sure, these telepresence kits are much more advanced than anything drummed up on "Star Trek," but perhaps that's because the show sparked our imagination so many years ago.
How many of you remember that instrument Mr. Spock used to always carry over his shoulder, especially when the crew (usually consisting of only Spock and Captain Kirk) first surveyed a new planet? That was a tricorder.
One of the more useful instruments available to "Star Trek" personnel, variations of the tricorder (medical, engineering or scientific) were used to measure everything from oxygen levels to detecting diseases. Often times the tricorder gave an initial analysis of the new environment. So, what's the real-world tie-in? NASA employs a handheld device called LOCAD, which measures for unwanted microorganisms such as E. coli, fungi and salmonella onboard the International Space Station [source: Coulter]. Beyond that, two handheld medical devices may soon help doctors examine blood flow and check for cancer, diabetes or bacterial infection.
Scientists at Loughborough University in England use photoplethysmography technology in a handheld device that can monitor the functions of the heart. Meanwhile, researchers at Harvard Medical School have developed a small device that utilizes similar technology found in MRI machines that non-invasively inspect the body. Using nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, this device would be sensitive enough to measure samples of as few as 10 possible infectious bacteria. This kind of sensitivity (800 times more sensitive than sensing equipment currently used in medical labs) could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose disease [source: Mick].
HowStuffWorks talks to Caroll Spinney, the man behind the 'Sesame Street' characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969.
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More Great Links
- Applied Energetics. "Laser Guided Energy." (Nov. 9, 2009) http://ionatron.net/laser-guided-energy.asp
- AT&T. "AT&T first service provider to deliver intercompany Cisco telepresence for business around the world." April 21, 2009. (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.att.com/gen/press-room?pid=4800&cdvn=news&newsarticleid=25523
- Bartkewicz, Anthony. "Company creates Star Trek coffins." KRQE.com. April 6, 2009. (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.krqe.com/dpp/news/strange/offbeat_dpgo_Company_creates_Star_Trek_coffins_SAB_040420092296082
- Batchelor, David Allen. "The Science of Star Trek." NASA. (Oct. 22, 2009) http://ssdoo.gsfc.nasa.gov/education/just_for_fun/startrek.html#transporter
- BBC News. "'Star Trek device' could detect illness." Sept. 20, 2002. (Oct. 20, 2009) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2231989.stm
- Cisco. "Telepresence: Product information." (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/ps7060/index.html#,hide-id-trigger-g1-room_environments
- Coulter, Dauna. "Space Station Tricorder." Science@NASA. May 9, 2008. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/09may_tricorder.htm?list185546
- Cruz, Gilbert. "Jack Cover." Time Magazine. Feb. 19, 2009. (Oct. 19, 2009) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1880636,00.html
- Lundin, Laura. "Air Force testing new transparent armor." U.S. Air Force. Oct. 17, 2005. (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123012131
- Mick, Jason. "New "miracle diagnosis" handheld medical scanner 800 times more sensitive than full-size scanners." Daily Tech. July 10, 2008. (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.dailytech.com/article.aspx?newsid=12322
- National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Optical Tweezers." (Oct. 20, 2009) http://physics.nist.gov/Divisions/Div842/Gp4/Tweezers/research.html#polymerosomes
- Schirber, Michael. "Doctors could go needle-free, but sticking points remain." Live Science. Oct. 4, 2006. (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.livescience.com/health/061004_needle_free.html
- Stanford.edu."Optical tweezers; an introduction." (Oct 22, 2009) http://www.stanford.edu/group/blocklab/Optical%20Tweezers%20Introduction.htm
- Star Trek.com. (Oct. 20, 2009) http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/library/characters/TNG/bio/1112463.html
- Vocera. (Oct. 22, 2009) http://www.vocera.com/products/products.aspx
- Young, Kelly. "'Bionic eye' may help reverse blindness." New Scientist. March 31, 2005. (Oct. 22, 2009) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7216