For geeks growing up in the 1960s, '80s and '90s, a vision of the future has been provided by one very successful television franchise: Star Trek. And the future, it turns out, is coming sooner than even Trek's writers could have imagined. Here are 12 gizmos used on the Star Trek television shows that are now becoming real.
1. Food Replicator
Captain Jean-Luc Picard used to say "Tea, Earl Grey, hot!" and it would be replicated instantly. Today's 3D printers don't tackle tea, but there are machines that actually can print food. And other printers, like the MakerBot Replicator 2 are quite adept at making small objects—just as they were shown to do on later episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
2. Universal Translator
In several episodes, we marveled at the universal translator, which decoded what aliens said in real-time—and in the later shows, it was integrated into the communication badges (which explains why basically everyone, regardless of home planet, spoke English). Now, there's an app for that. Voice Translator by TalirApps understands 71 languages (no Klingon yet, though). You speak in your native tongue and the app translates your phrase into another language.
3. Tablet Computers
Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge—you know, the guy from Reading Rainbow—used a tablet computer (what they called Personal Access Data Devices, or PADDs) to punch in coordinates for the next star system. Other Starfleet personnel used them to watch videos and listen to music—just the things we use tablets for today.
In the TV show, a tricorder is a handheld device that scans for geological, biological, and meteorological anomalies. Handy! In 2012, Peter Jansen from McMaster University in Ontario built a working prototype that scans for magnetic fields and other interference. And there are lots of other real-world tricorders, too.
On Star Trek: The Next Generation, you could walk into a chamber on the Enterprise and visit your home planet for a quick barbecue, or even have an affair with a hologram. Leave it to a bunch of University of Southern California students to make virtual reality a little more down-to-Earth—Project Holodeck used virtual reality goggles to create a fictional world. (Though no encounters with Minuet were reported.)
6. Communicator Badge
On the original series, Kirk and crew carried handheld communicators. But in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Starfleet personnel wore communicator badges on the left breasts of their uniforms. A California start-up called Vocera has created a similar device you pin to your shirt. They're used mostly in hospitals to avoid having constant overhead pages.
7. Tractor Beam
Pulling a ship with an invisible tractor beam seems impossible, but two New York University professors are making it so. Their experiment, which uses a light beam to control tiny microscopic particles, is not going to be deployed on the next NASA mission, but shows we’re making progress.
8. Natural Language Queries
In the Star Trek universe, you can talk to a computer (voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, Trek creator Gene's wife) in casual conversation. These days, we've got Siri and Alexa, and while they aren't fully developed systems yet, they are baby steps toward a service like Star Trek's computer, which has a complex understanding of context. Google even codenamed their voice-based service "Majel," in honor of Barrett-Roddenberry.
9. Warp Drive
No one in Star Trek ever sits down and explains how a warp drive works in detail, but we know it has something to do with bending space and traveling faster than the speed of light. Doesn’t seem possible, but NASA is working on it.
Captain Kirk was pretty handy with a phaser, and he didn’t always set his to stun. Ironically, we’ve been using something similar since the first Iraq War. Known as a dazzler, the directed-energy weapon sends a pulse of electromagnetic radiation to stop someone cold in their tracks.
To get from place to place, Captain Kirk and company didn't need an airplane—they didn't even need a space elevator. Instead, they teleported using the U.S.S. Enterprise's transporter (a scenario we all dream about while standing in line at airport security). We've already done some teleportation—specifically, of photons and atoms. These particles don't disappear and reappear, though. According to Forbes, "the information contained in the photon’s quantum state is transmitted from one photon to another through quantum entanglement – without actually travelling the intervening distance." An exact copy appears on the other side, while the original photon is destroyed. According to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, we consist of 15 trillion cells, so we'll need to wait a few centuries before we're teleporting like Kirk. And we'll still have to destroy the original.
In the world of Star Trek, there's no need for needles (and thus no trypanophobia)—Bones administered medicine through the skin using painless jet-injected hypospray. Recently, MIT created a similar device that, according to Geek.com, "delivers a drug through the skin at speeds of up to 340 meters per second and in under a millisecond. The amount of drug can be varied, as can how deep it is injected. And as far as the patient is concerned, they shouldn’t feel anything other than the tip of the injector against their skin. That’s because the jet is as thin as a mosquito’s proboscis." It's not the first, but it does have more control than other hyposprays, which means it could actually be a replacement for needles—and that would make visits to the doctor's office with your kids much easier.