Real-Life <i>Star Trek</i> Devices

May 12, 2009

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With a new Star Trek film exciting longtime fans and attracting a new generation of "trekkies," IMT looks at real-world counterparts of the iconic franchise's high-tech devices.

Among sci-fi fans, Star Trek is one of the longest-lasting obsessions, providing aficionados and casual followers alike with an elaborate mythology, thought-provoking depictions of future society and, most importantly, cool technology that steps beyond the boundaries of daily life.

But how realistic is the science behind the sci-fi? While warp speed and teleportation are still largely theoretical, modern progress has caught up with some of the series' best-known devices, offering real-world equivalents of Star Trek inventions.

The Tricorder Despite its name, the Star Trek tricorder can do far more than three things. It has served as a hand-held sensor, a complex medical scanner, a data analyzer, a communications device, a data storage unit and even a brainwave reader. Never mind the 4 billion mobile phones in use around the world: A Canadian company, Vital Technologies Corporation, built the first functional tricorder in 1997, which could detect temperature, barometric pressure and electromagnetic radiation. However, it was only recently that the more sophisticated capabilities of the medical tricorder have been tackled. The National Space Biomedical Research Institute is developing a portable sensor and monitor device that uses reflected light to analyze blood and determine metabolic rates, tissue oxygen levels and pH. Adding to its Star Trek cred, the device is designed to be used in space. (Source: LaboratoryEquipment.com)

Tractor Beams The Star Trek tractor beam, or "attenuated linear graviton beam," is a device for moving or towing objects from a distance by projecting a particle field, and it has influenced many a starship battle. In the real world, MIT researchers have developed a method of using light beams to move individual cells on a microchip. These "optical tweezers" operate on a very small scale, but the principle of moving solid objects with beam technology is at the core of the Star Trek counterpart. (Source: Network World)

Phasers The phaser is the weapon of choice in the Star Trek universe, firing nadion particles that can stun, heat or kill an organism and cut through walls and other solid objects. It's no accident that the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response laser weapon being developed by the National Institute of Justice is commonly shortened to PHaSr, as it was inspired by the Star Trek invention. Instead of nadion particles, the PHaSR fires microwaves to heat a target's skin and is being considered for use in law enforcement. (Source: New Scientist)

The Deflector Shield No space station or starship would be complete without a deflector shield to defend it from enemy weapons or hazardous environments. By concentrating graviton particles around an object, these shields block unwanted energy or matter. Researchers at England's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory have found that a miniature magnetosphere could be used to create a real-life deflector shield that forces charged particles to curve around a spacecraft, and they believe it can be used to protect astronauts from radiation during long-duration missions. (Source: MSNBC)

The Universal Translator The Enterprise crew must deal with a vast number of alien races, making the universal translator an indispensable tool for their mission. This translator analyzes brainwaves to find recognizable ideas and assigns the necessary words and grammar, making it capable of translating languages it has never encountered before. The real world Phraselator P2, designed by VoxTec, is not quite as advanced, relying on a preset library of phrases to convert English into a designated foreign language. Luckily, though, "KHAAAN!" is the same in every language. (Source: NPR)

Hypospray The extremely considerate doctors of Star Trek rely on hypospray to inject medicine into their patients' bodies, avoiding needles and reducing the risk of infection from skin punctures or blood-borne diseases. Japanese inventor Yoshoi Oyama has developed a similar device that delivers painless and needle-free injections through the use of tiny plastic ampoules. The SonoPrep, an alternative invention created in Israel, is also needle-free, but uses ultrasonic waves to open up pores and allow medication to enter a patient's bloodstream. (Source: Gizmodo)

Additional

Some 'Star Trek' Gadgets No Longer Futuristic by Benny Evangelista The San Fransisco Chronicle, May 10, 2009

Resources

Memory Alpha Wikia Entertainment, May 6, 2009

In-Flight Blood Analysis Technology for Astronaut Health Monitoring National Space Biomedical Research Institute, 2008

Star Trek-Tech Offers Needleless Blood Test Laboratory Equipment, April 30, 2009

MIT Lights up Tractor Beam to Manipulate Cells by Michael Cooney Network World, Oct. 30, 2007

US Police Could Get 'Pain Beam' Weapons by David Hambling New Scientist, Dec. 24, 2008

Deflector Shield Envisioned for Mars Mission by Clara Moskowitz MSNBC, Nov. 19, 2008

Phraselator P2: Speech Recognition and Translation Technovelgy.com, April 26, 2004

Phraselator Helps L.A. Police Communicate by Mandalit del Barco NPR, Jan. 30, 2008

Better Than Hypospray: Japanese Inventor Creates Needle-Free, Painless Injection by Jack Loftus Gizmodo, Sept. 28, 2008

Life Imitates Star Trek: SonoPrep Needle-less Injection Gizmodo, Sept. 28, 2004

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