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HomeOpinionPrinTechHow Star Trek inspired modern tech—smart phones, touch panels, VR

How Star Trek inspired modern tech—smart phones, touch panels, VR

The LCARS computer on the Galaxy-Class USS Enterprise D is basically the foundation of what Google is today.

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Science fiction has inspired modern innovation in unimaginable ways. But of all such literature ever published and movies and shows ever made, Star Trek easily stood out as the pioneer. With Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a utopian future where the concept of money didn’t exist and humanity explored the cosmos with state-of-the-art equipment. It was never like Star Wars, which was focused on mystical powers like “the force” and was more of a “good vs evil” space opera. Star Trek was always about science and concepts that could potentially become real one day—which they did.

How Star Trek inspired modern tech

The most famous one is the cell phone itself: Captain Kirk’s communicator inspired the folks at Motorola to make the first handheld mobile device in 1973. Star Trek: The Original Series (popularly called TOS) from the 1960s also inspired video conferencing. But things started to amp up when, in 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation (aka TNG) hit the floors, with Sir Patrick Stewart in the lead. It became one of the most syndicated shows on television—which is how I discovered it in mid-90s India on the Star network. It fundamentally impacted my life, inspiring me to become the technology writer I am today.

But more than me, this show heralded more technological concepts that are becoming increasingly real. The LCARS computer on the Galaxy-Class USS Enterprise D is basically the foundation of what Google is today. Google’s former head of search, Amit Singhal, often said that the company is “trying to build the Star Trek computer”.

All the chatter around ChatGPT, Bing and Google’s new Bard AI systems is an extension of the ideas that Star Trek postulated. It was a utopian idea where a  conversational AI would understand what you said while giving answers from a seemingly limitless repository of information. That is what LCARS was. Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa are first-generation attempts at this idea. Now, with ChatGPT and Bard, we enter the next phase of this idea.

Heck, even the team behind Amazon’s Alexa has spoken about building the Star Trek computer.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is an ardent Star Trek fan, and he even had a cameo in Star Trek: Beyond in 2016. Bezos, of course, is not just the man behind Amazon; his other venture, Blue Origin, competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and is in the business of making reusable rockets. Bezos even arranged for William Shatner, who played the legendary Captain Kirk in TOS, to travel to space in a Blue Origin rocket.

Star Trek’s influence was so profound that the first US orbiter was named ‘Enterprise’ after the shuttle in the show. Star Trek fans had lobbied for the space shuttle to be named Enterprise though NASA had decided to name it Constitution. But then US President Gerald D. Ford sided with Trekkies and directed NASA to rename the shuttle to Enterprise. Of course, the name carried on in Star Trek, as when the TNG show started, Picard’s ship was called the Enterprise D, the fifth ship to bear the name in the Star Trek universe.

The first episode of Star Trek TNG, Encounter at FarPoint Station, has inspired technologies like virtual reality. Here, Jonathan Frakes, who plays Commander William Riker, meets Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) for the first time in the “Holodeck”, which uses “holograms” to create simulations of real people or situations. Needless to say, it became the template for today’s VR tech.

If we look at modern user interface design concerning capacitive touch screens, look no further than the original TNG show. Everything was touch-based on that Galaxy-Class starship. If one looks at modern cars like the Mercedes EQS, the 56-inch hyper screen looks like a glorified panel from Star Trek. There is so much more, all rooted in what first started 57 years ago.

Also read: Xiaomi 13 Pro is more a camera than phone, beats Apple. But don’t buy it if you want the best

Picard: Last of the best

TNG catapulted an obscure Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart—who played the eponymous Captain Jean-Luc Picard—to global stardom. This popularity also landed him the role of Professor X in the X-Men franchise alongside his dear friend, Ian McKellen, who played super villain Magneto. But as the final season of this legendary franchise wraps up in the next few weeks, Stewart and Jean-Luc Picard’s remarkable 35-year journey will also come to an end.

In 2019, it was announced that Stewart would be reprising his role as Jean-Luc Picard after 18 years in a show called Star Trek: Picard. The TNG crew was last seen in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the fourth and final movie with the show’s original star cast. Picard would tell the story of the legendary Starfleet captain in retirement. The first season aired in 2020, ironically on Amazon Prime Video, and returned after a hiatus of two years last year for a second season.

As an ardent Star Trek fan, I’d admit these first two seasons don’t represent the best of the series. They are also quite different because of their darker tonality but be assured that Stewart hasn’t lost his flair. Season 3, the show’s last season, is different. Only three episodes have aired so far, but they are as gripping as ever. This season has all the old Star Trek charm that made the movies based on TNG (Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis) so memorable.

In its first two seasons, Star Trek: Picard only featured cameos of other crew members from the original TNG show. But season 3 is the last hurrah of the TNG crew with everyone – Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton—reprising their roles. If anything, they hint at the baton’s passing to the next generation.

The show is nostalgic as it reunites Picard with many from his old crew. The visual effects are mind-bending, to say the least. Apart from Stewart’s, McFadden’s, Frakes’, and Dorn’s performances show you that the chemistry between these veterans is still intact. The show also brings one of the most menacing villains from the Star Trek universe back to life, forgotten after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993).

This one is not just for Trekkies like myself but also technologists because there is nothing you use today in your home that wasn’t first dreamed up in Star Trek. Chances are you saw it first in Captain Picard’s Galaxy-class Enterprise.

Sahil Mohan Gupta is Editor, Technology at Acko Drive. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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