Star Trek Tech: It’s all coming true?

In 1966, when Gene Roddenberry sold his ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ concept to Desilu Productions, and, ultimately, to NBC, things like personal computers, tablets, ultra compact mobile phones and pretty much everything in his concept, were all the stuff of science fiction. It just didn’t exist. Star Trek’s ‘writers guide’ was chock full of plot devices like the transporter, wireless earpieces, tricorders, phasers, communicators and warp drive. None of it was  real. In fact, 99% of the technology just did not exist.

Fast forward to the mid-1980’s when the Next Generation came out. A lot had changed. Personal computers were taking shape and starting to become household items. Cell phones were starting to take hold in mainstream life, though they were still very big and very expensive. Video technology was advancing. We had ‘regular’ space flight with the Shuttle program and Russia’s space program. We had actually been to the moon.  Things like transporters, replicators, PADDS, phasers, photon torpedoes,etc. were still not there. But, it was much easier to visualize such things because of the leaps in consumer and industrial electronics.  Most scientists, though, still didn’t believe warp drive and transporters were possible, at least not in the foreseeable future.

By the mid 1990’s, however, another leap in technology over science fiction began and, by the time Star Trek: Enterprise debuted, were pretty close to that original vision. Flat screens were taking off, hand held ‘flip phones’ were the hot thing and many resembled the communicator from the original show (and Enterprise.) Lasers, which were around in the 60’s, were much more commonly used and even developed as weapons. Even tricorders were getting more real. So, how much of the science fiction based technology is here now and what’s to come of the rest?

So read on and see where we are with Star Trek tech.

Communicators

Cell phones have been around since 1973, but did not become a practical and affordable consumer device and service until the late 1990’s.  Motorola led the way with its Star Tac, the first popular flip style phone, It also strongly resembled the original communicator in Star Trek. Cell service blanketed much of the country and large swaths of the planet.  Iridium, a satellite service, was the first to make cell service available where ever their satellite network could be ‘seen’, which was pretty much everywhere. The 2000’s saw cell phone technology explode and the phones became small computers that could also place phone calls.  Today’s smartphone (which can trace its roots back to the early 1980s with AT&T’s Simon) packs more computing power than NASA had during the moon shots.

Tricorder

The tricorder was amazing. A portable computer, always connected. A portable lab.  A sensor powerhouse. This thing could detect life, answer complex chemistry problems, do all sorts of things. While no one device exists (that I know about, anyway) there are devices with many of those capabilities.  Many smartphones come close.  A medical equipment company even manufactured and sold a device that not only looked a lot like McCoy’s tricorder, they named it something very similar. With today’s 3D printers, cheap microcontrollers and equally cheap sensors, I doubt it won’t be long before someone builds one that looks just like Spock’s tricorder and does much of the same scientific work.  More complex tasks (which would call for higher power chips) aren’t out the question. I’d say these things are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Wireless earpiece

Uhura looked stunning with that earpiece in or out of her ear.  Indeed, not only was she a beautiful lady, the earpiece itself looked great. The same cannot be said of today’s Bluetooth earpieces. In fact, it seems that only Uhura can pull off looking good and normal while wearing it. Appearance aside, Bluetooth earpieces are actually quite remarkable. They are much smaller than Uhura’s, probably do much more (we only knew she could hear, they never used them for anything else.) While they have a ways to go in the aesthetics department (and, for stereo, apparently in pairing and continuous use without skipping) before they become as cool as the Enterprise’s inventory.

Replicators

Replicators were only hinted at in the original, and then only for food, but the Next Generation show made liberal use of them.  We do not yet have instant replication, we do have 3D printers. These printers, which use ink-jet technology, come in a variety of sizes and employ a variety of techniques to make a three-d object. The common method is to melt strands of plastic. Others use tiny little beads. All build up the object from the bottom to the top.  Results vary and the technology is getting better and better. There are also food printers. These ‘build’ food out of organic material. There are even 3D printers that can recreate body parts out of living cells. It is quite remarkable.

Computers

Computers were around when Star Trek was created. They were big, expensive and very user unfriendly.  The computers of Star Trek used touch, switches, ‘tapes’ and voice.  It is easy to forgive the ‘tape’ moniker as that was the prevailing term of the day and everyone knew what it meant. It was the voice interface, however, that was intriguing.  Spock could carry on a conversation with the computer and both could understand what the other was saying. Today’s speech recognition technology has improved to the point where it is now a mass market tool.  Automated phone systems, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s system…all work well.

The Next Generation’s PADD device has also come to fruition. Microsoft had long pursued the tablet computer, but it took the market prowess of Apple to make them common. Today, there are small tablets that resemble the PADD from the Next Generation.

Phasers, photon torpedoes

While phasers and photon torpedoes do not exist as portrayed, we do have powerful lasers that are used as weapons. These things can burn, blind you and cut. They cannot, yet, blow things up or vaporize things, they are, nonetheless, used as both weapons and tools. No pistols or rifles yet, but truck and plane mounted lasers are here today. As for photon  torpedoes, there are rumors of plasma like devices that may, one day, become torpedoes or missiles.

Warp Drive

Like Transporters, warp drive was once believed to be impossible.  That NASA is, apparently, even thinking about it shows that we could, in fact, build such a device.  They even have a design that resembles a Vulcan warp capable craft with an ode to the Enterprise.  The theory behind warp drive is sound, but, for us, the problem becomes power. We, currently, just cannot generate enough to create and sustain a warp bubble.  But, there is work being done here.

Transporters

It seems, everyday, I read about some scientist successfully transporting light-and, now, a particle-a few feet. The research is progressing, but there are many, many hurdles to overcome. Where do you store the trillions of billions of pieces of information that make up a person? How do you break down matter, then put it back together without harming it? You don’t. You have to destroy the original to make the copy. How many times can you do that before you introduced errors? The important thing is that progress is being made.

Commander Data

Now, here’s something that always puzzled me with the Next Generation. They’ve done all of these amazing things. Cured the headache. Cured cancer. Warp Drive. Tackled disease, hunger, human greed.  But…there’s only ONE ANDROID that works? Weak.  Anyway, today’s androids are a far cry from Cmdr Data, but we are very close, at least in form.  Humanoid robots are getting better and better. The mechanical aspect is nearly perfected.  Many human robots are made to look like robots on purpose: so they don’t scare those who would be using them. It’s the computational end where the work really needs to happen. Artificial intelligence.  I once tried to write code that would mimic walking into a McDonald’s and ordering a Big Mac.  Do you realize how difficult that is? The sheer number of steps involved is amazing. And I only started with walking into the restaurant. Not getting out of a vehicle.  Think, the next time you go into a fast food joint, about everything you did to walk in, place your order and then eat. Seems easy, but not when you are teaching a machine to do so. AI is smart, but needs to be smarter if we are to engage it like a Cmdr. Data.

Deflector Shields

Still science fiction devices, but not for much longer. Work is being done to direct energy in a way to reflect anything coming toward it. Many techniques have been discussed but, as with warp drive and transporters, energy is the key.

ION Drive

ION drive is real and has been employed on several space probes.  The propulsion is slow, and it takes time build it up, but, the technology does work.

Sickbay’s Diagnostic Beds

When Star Trek was first broadcast, Roddenberry received several requests about the diagnostic bed.  What did they use for the sound? What type of sensors did it have? These were questions from doctors-smart people-who knew that it was make believe but were interested anyway. Roddenberry, supposedly, toured the set with a few of these people and the effects guys allegedly gave them a sample of the sound.  Well, it must have made an impression as today we have these beds. I’ve seen them myself. My late father in law had a heart attack in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina while we were on vacation. The heart center rooms had these beds that could, with few physical connections, detect his heart rate, oxygen levels, temperature and a slew of other things. It was remarkable.

Dr. McCoy’s HypoSpray

Another part of the Trek mythos that is now fact.  Hypospray guns are commonly use to administer vaccines and other medicines.

As you can see, what was once science fiction is, mostly, science fact. We still have a way to go before we meet Surak or experience Shakespeare in the proper Klingon way, but we’ll get there.

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BASIC Stamp, VB.NET and LED’s=a great Starship Simulation

sttrk2While taking a break from my XGS PIC Tiny Basic project, I’ve been experimenting with my Basic Stamp Homework board.  While playing around with the seven segment LED counting circuit, I realized that I had a pretty nifty little computer that could interact with software on my Windows computer while also making something happen on it, something that interacts with the physical world. Like lighting up an LED or moving a servo.  That got me thinking about interactive smart games.

While pondering this, I was also looking for a small, Star Trek game that I could adapt as an example game for my XGS PIC Tiny Basic project.  Suddenly, I remembered an article in an old Interface Age magazine that outlined a very complex starship simulation. In the article, the author wrote about networking several microcomputers (it was a late ‘70s magazine) that would each run part of the simulation and one ‘central’ micro would bring it all together. Hmm…Star Trek, BASIC Stamp, Windows…

So, I whipped up a two LED circuit (ok, I ‘built’ it from the book) with a red and a green LED.  I wrote some simple code to:

  • light up the appropriate LED based on the ‘ship condition’
  • search for the nasty Borg (I updated the game)
  • alert the Windows computer when a Borg cube was ‘found’
  • the Windows computer displays the Borg threat on an Next Generation style screen
  • do not much else at the moment.

Now, when I’m done with the Tiny Basic project, I’m going to explore this game a bit further. Imagine having several of these Basic Stamps connected, each running, say, a borg simulation, the ships computer or even another alien species hunting both down. You could get quite elaborate and since each Basic Stamp would be dedicated to a specific function, you only need to worry about communicating with the Windows computer and that is something that the Basic Stamp does very well.

An enterprising soul (hmm) could build a Next Gen looking housing and mount switches, LED’s, etc. for an even more engrossing game.  The possibilities are endless.

Endeavour’s last flight

OV105finalvoyageThe Shuttle Endeavor is on its final voyage, to its new home in Los Angeles. The Endeavor, the newest in the fleet, was built in response to the loss of the Challenger.

Reading news accounts of Endeavor’s last voyage inevitably led to a recounting of its history, its reason for being built: the loss of the Challenger. Now, most of those retellings made the same mistake: that Challenger ‘exploded.’  This is not the case.

Challenger did not explode, it was blown apart.  Because of the way the shuttles were mated to the launch vehicle, there was enough room between the external fuel tank and the bottom of the shuttle to allow a shock wave to form from the external tank’s explosion. The shock blew apart the shuttle, resulting in the loss of the crew.

Video and forensic evidence shows that the crew, at least those on the flight deck, were alive after the craft was blown apart.  Oxygen tanks were turned on and the crew compartment can be seen falling, intact, into the water. The impact likely killed whomever may have survived the initial event.

President Reagan vowed to continue the Shuttle program and the decision was made to replace Challenger.  Initially, thought was given to refurbishing the Enterprise, but, ultimately, spare frame parts were used to built a new Shuttle, the Endeavour.

Endeavour, named after the first ship commanded by James Cook, an 18th century British explorer.

Endeavour’s first space mission was to retrieve a stranded communications satellite in May of 1992. The last mission was flown in May of 2011. In all, Endeavour flew 25 flights, spent 299 days in space, traversed the Earth 4,671 times and travelled 122.883 million miles.

More information on Endeavour

Reaching for the skies…RIP Neil Armstrong

NeilArmstrongJuly 16, 1969. On that date, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins boarded the Apollo 11 craft that would take them to the moon. Four days later, on July 20,1969, Armstrong and Aldrin landed the Eagle on the surface of the moon.

Armstrong, as commander of the mission, got the honor of being the first human being to set foot on another celestial body.  His comments, as he did so, will forever be etched in the minds of humans. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those words were written prior to his footprints being implanted on the moon. Written prior to the launch of Apollo 11. Even through the static in the transmission, the words had a very symbolic meaning. 

As he took his moment in history, Armstrong was more concerned with accomplishing his mission than what it meant for human history. And, once he returned to earth, he did not let his new found fame go to his head. Instead of doing endless appearances, book deals, movie deals, etc., Mr. Armstrong went back to Ohio and became a aerospace professor at the University of Cincinnati for nearly a decade.

apollo-11The journey to the moon was a decade long challenge for the nation, NASA and people like Armstrong. Indeed, in 1957, the former Soviet Union put the first man made satellite in orbit, Sputnik. Sputnik scared the nation into space. four years later, President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. 

Armstrong and Aldrin fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge-with the help of thousands of people-and spent more than three hours roaming around the moon.  Armstrong placed a patch on the moon to commemorate the astronauts and cosmonauts who lost their lives while serving their respective space programs.

Armstrong’s last public appearance came in 2010 when he voiced his concern about the cuts to the program that President Obama had ordered.

Armstrong passed away August 25, 2012. He was 82 years old.  Godspeed, Neil. 

the brains behind curiosity

curiosityCuriosity, the latest man made object to occupy Mars is a marvel of technology.  The robot, as big as a car, safely touched down on the red planet and almost immediately began its mission.  One of the first things it did was to take photos and let us know it was safe and sound. To control the experiments, vehicle operations and everything else on the probe, NASA chose an advanced microprocessor: the G3 PowerPC chip.

The chip runs at 200mhz, which is more than fast enough to do what it needs to do. It has 256 megabytes of RAM and 2gb of Flash Memory for caching of data and photos for transmitting back to the orbiting observatory and, eventually, back to Earth.

If you do not know, the G3 is, now, a fairly old and slow processor, but, for what NASA needs, it is state of the art. The chip that NASA is using is a hardened chip. That means that the chip can withstand all of the dangers of space: radiation, cold, heat, cosmic rays, etc.  If they used a normal chip, the craft probably would be useless by now.

The G3 is also the processor that Apple used in Macs, back in the day. The processor isn’t all that Curiosity shares with its Mac brethren: the operating system in the probe is VxWorks, the same operating system that is in use Apple’s Airport Extreme WiFi hub. VxWorks, while old, is a solid, stable and proven real time operating system. It is still being developed by Wind River Systems.

The system is smart enough to detect problems, such as hangs or software faults and can reboot itself. If the main CPU dies, a secondary CPU will take over.  Software can be upgraded on the fly and add new functionality (provided the hardware can support it) on the fly. NASA has been able to do this since the Voyager craft lifted of decades ago.

One might wonder why NASA continues to use ‘old’ technology in its spacecraft. Well, the simple reason is that the craft are in planning stages for years, then they move onto the construction stages and, finally, they get launched. During that time, though, the software is developed and thoroughly tested. It is a bit difficult to send a programmer or technician to fix something post launch, so everything is tested and retested and tested again. It is probably the most bug free code deployed.

That this all works is almost as much as impressive as the landing of the craft on Mars is itself.  My hats off to designers, builders, developers and testing people…well done!

Enterprise: the forgotten shuttle

One of the things that always bothered me with our Enterprise ATP Patch shuttle program was the fact that Enterprise never saw duty.  Well, let me  rephrase that: never saw space duty.  Fact is, with out Enterprise, the shuttle  program would have ground to a halt.  See, Enterprise, while a full sized  vehicle, was a test orbiter and was never intended to fly in space. It could  have been made space worthy, but NASA already had four orbiters in the pipeline  with a fifth one that would come later.

Enterprise, otherwise known as OV-101, got her name from a write in campaign from fans of Star Trek.  It was unveiled on September 17, 1976  in Palmdale, California. A few months later, in January of 1977, the orbiter  began her career as a test vehicle.

It’s first tests were primarily designed to test the  aerodynamics of the craft in the atmosphere. In other words, NASA wanted to verify that the craft could function as a glider, a crucial function of the fleet.  The shuttle was supposed to launch like a rocket and land like a plane-an unpowered plane (or glider.)  In effect, once it re-entered the atmosphere, the shuttle would become the worlds most sophisticated-and expensive-glider.

Enterprise did, in fact, see a lot of duty.  Even as a test vehicle, it was outfitted for launch, tested in both manned and unmanned configurations and, ultimately, served to prove why the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon her final mission.  Indeed, the Enterprise’s sacrifice of its wing probably helped to save the few remaining shuttle flights and, as a result, lives of those crews.Enterprise is launch configuration

The Enterprise could have actually seen duty in space.  Originally, the Columbia was going to be the test vehicle and OV-101 would get  the space worthy clothing that went to Columbia. Consideration was also given  to make the Enterprise a space worthy vehicle in 1986 after the destruction of  the Challenger in January of that year. Ultimately, it was decided to build a  new vehicle, the Endeavour.

Once the shuttle program was off the ground, so to speak,  Enterprise was used for various public relations details, being ferried about  like a replica of the Batmobile and was also used for testing mating rigs and  launch operations at the Vandenberg Air force Base and in Florida.  Vandenberg  was ultimately not used for shuttle launches but could have been.

Enterprise also served as a spare parts bin. One notorious  episode involved a launch of the Challenger.  At t-minus thirty seconds, the  launch was aborted because one of the redundant computers (something like a  Rockwell Aim-65 microcomputer) failed to communicated with one of the bigger  computers. Turns out, a communications bridge (modem) failed. One was taken from  Enterprise and the launch proceeded later.  Now, I don’t know if this is a true
story, I’ve searched for it and have not been able to verify it, but it does  make for an interesting tale nonetheless.

The most recent and perhaps most public use of Enterprise as a  spare parts bin was the use of one of its wings to prove that a piece of foam  hitting the wing during launch could be catastrophic enough to cause Columbia to  break up on re-entry.  It was.

Currently, the Enterprise resides in the Dulles Annex  of the Smithsonian. Soon, however, it will move to New York City and the
Discovery will take its place in the Smithsonian. While it is a shame that the craft never saw duty in space  (imagine how cool it would be to see the real Enterprise launch and have the  words ‘starship Enterprise’ spew from some newscaster’s mouth and it be for  real…ok, I’m a nerd…) it’s contribution to the program was no less impressive or  important as the other craft.

They did what? Thank Hedy, Bing, Lucy and Arthur for our techie life

A recent Facebook post from someone in the Windows group got me thinking about contributions by people whom you would not otherwise associate the contribution.  This particular post was about Hedy Lamarr and the Spread Spectrum method that is the basis of most modern communication systems.

Hedy LamarrYep, Hedy Lamarr, the gorgeous and glamorous star from Hollywood’s earlier days is one of two people responsible for the foundation of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell phones.  How’s that?  Turns out, Lamar was a mathematical whiz.  Taking an idea from her neighbor that involved multiple player pianos playing at the same time.  Lamar and the neighbor, George Antheil, patented the idea in 1942.  The idea was also submitted to the Navy as a means of protecting radio guided missiles (using piano rolls to switch 88 frequencies on the fly) but was ultimately rejected.  The idea was put into use in the 1960’s during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Of course, the idea is in wide use today and is taken for granted, but in 1941, when the patent was submitted, it was ahead of its time and was due, in part, to an amazing actress named Hedy Lamarr.Patent drawing

Bing Crosby also lent his hand, or funding, rather, to technology. During the 1940’s and through most of the 1950’s, many television programs, especially variety shows, were broadcast live.  When coast to coast live programming became a reality, this meant that those news and variety shows had to be done twice: once for the east and once for the west.  Bing Crosby, tiring of this practice for his show, commissioned his laboratory to come up with a better way.  Kinescope recording was the standard method at the time for recording shows. This process involved placing a movie camera in front of a video monitor and filming it.  The result, while viewable, was less than ideal as it meant a muddy picture, film that had to be processed and edited and cost.  Bing’s labs, in conjunction with Ampex Corporation, developed the first practical magnetic video recorder, a direct descendant of today’s (or yesterday’s) VCR.

Lucille Ball also left her mark on pop culture and, indirectly, on technologies in use today. How’s that? Well, America’s favorite redhead was owner of DesiLu Studios.  So what? Well, DesiLu is the original studio that produced Star Trek and, as head of said studio, Lucy gave the final word on productions.  She reportedly liked Gene Roddenberry and loved the Star Trek premise. When the original pilot was rejected, she stood firm behind the show and it, ultimately was sold to NBC.  While Lucy unloaded the studio in 1967 to Gulf + Western, she had left her mark and didn’t realize it.  Many astronomers, inventors, scientists and a few business people have said that it was Star Trek that influenced them and many of those people have gone on to be responsible for many aspects of our lives. Perhaps the most public of those influences is NASA. Not only was a space shuttle named after the iconic starship, but Lt. Uhura herself worked at NASA for several years.  A person you may not have heard of, but has certainly left his mark on technology is Rob Haitaini, a designer for Palm. He is the person who designed the UI for the Palm OS. He has credited Star Trek as the inspiration for his work. Arguable, Palm set the standard for small, touch oriented devices such as those seen in the Star Trek the Next Generation program, which, again, would never have been made if it were not for Lucy. The original show also portrays many devices we take for granted: Bluetooth earpieces like the one used by Uhura, ultra portable communications in the form of cell phones (the communicator, which also suffered similar problems that we have with the phones), portable computing and others.  While Lucy’s motivation may have been profit, that she stuck with the show as long as she could says a lot about her. Lucy, we still love you.

Arthur C. Clarke, well known science fiction author, is responsible for pretty much our modern means of entertainment and communication…sort of. In 1945, Clarke proposed the notion of extra-terrestrial relay stations.  His idea was to use such stations to relay radio signals around the globe. These stations would be in a geo-synchronous orbit so they appear to be in a fixed point overhead.  That orbit is roughly 22,500 miles above the earth.  Though this idea was put forth in a slightly different manner some twenty years earlier by a German named Herman Oberth.  Clarke acknowledged this in a later work.  Regardless, Clarke is widely acknowledged as the ‘father of the satellite’ and, as such, is indirectly responsible for the delivery mechanism for the way in which 99% of our phone calls, television, internet and even astronomical observations are handled.

So, you have two actresses, a crooner and a science fiction author who, collectively, had a tremendous influence on our lives.   Kudos to them and kudos to the thousands who actually made all of this stuff just work.

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