4 Star Trek technologies that are almost here (and 3 that are really far off)

Want a piece of those incredible technologies from Star Trek? You've already got it. Those automatically opening doors existed when the first Star Trek episode aired 43 years ago. Cellphones (think Motorola StarTAC), and smartphones blow away the capabilities of the communicators of Kirk, Picard, Janeway and Archer. Bluetooth earpieces make Lieutenant Uhura's look primitive by a parsec and a half, and today's speech recognition could easily hold its own against the Enterprise computer's.

Still, Kirk and co. have plenty of stuff that we can only dream about at this point. When you start talking about traveling many times the speed of light, holographic simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, replicating food inside an everyday appliance, and beaming quintillions of atoms from one place to another… those are a ways off.

Or are they? Are today's intrepid scientists getting close to creating a real-world transporter or holodeck? For some techs, yes. For others, not in Chekov's wildest dreams. Keep reading, and we'll sort out the Star Trek techs we might be seeing soon (maybe within some of our lifetimes) from those that are so far out, we'd advise you not to hold your breath waiting for them.

Coming Soon:

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1. Holodeck

What is it?
Reality is perfectly simulated down to the slightest and tiniest detail. Individuals can be simulated, and experiences such as cliff diving or sailing aboard a pirate ship can be convincingly portrayed, even to the point where they are undetectable.

Is it feasible?
Today's 3-D graphics are almost photorealistic, and it won't be long before processors are powerful enough to display such imagery in real time. The ability for people to run, jump and interact with various objects in a confined space is farther off, but brain research is making sufficient progress so that physical simulators might not even be necessary to achieve these effects — it might soon be possible to electronically stimulate the human brain, creating convincing simulations with little physical effort.

Similar real-world technology
British researchers hope to have a special helmet built within the next three to five years with attachments for the nose, ears, and mouth that reproduce sights, sounds and tastes. This bulky and awkward helmet isn't hyperrealistic like the Star Trek holodeck, but it's a start.




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2. Tricorder
What is it?
This sophisticated voice-activated multipurpose sensing device detects elements, chemicals and life forms, records data on audio and video, and sends its findings back to the ship or processes data within the handheld unit for immediate analysis. Medical tricorders specialize in monitoring life signs.

Is it feasible?
If processing power improves and miniaturization continues apace, the computing power of a device this size could carry out a tremendous number of tasks at the same time. Sniffers used to detect concentrations of toxic chemicals in the air could evolve into sophisticated sensing devices. Recording huge volumes of video and audio, and searching among that data and analyzing interrelationships is already possible, and even more so as computer power increases.

Similar real-world technology
The LOCAD-PTS (Lab-On-a-Chip Application Development Portable Test System) is a handheld device that detects bacteria and fungi on the International Space Station, but it takes a while to analyze its samples.




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3. Universal Translator

What is it?
Here's a device that can translate any language into standard English, even if it's communicated by a non-biological lifeform. In early Star Trek episodes, translators weren't perfect, but by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the technology was compact enough to be built into communicator pins.

Is it feasible?
To build a device that can recognize speech in any of the world's languages, and then translate those words into any of the other world's languages is certainly feasible today. The problem is getting such a device small enough to fit into a communicator pin. That's going to take some serious effort. The ability to translate languages not in a translator's databases would require some sort of telepathy, and whether that is feasible is a more a matter of faith than science.

Similar real-world technology
The Voxtec Phraselator P2 is now on duty with the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, translating phrases spoken in one of 50 languages into another language and back. It can utter and understand 15,000 commonly used phrases.




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4. Geordi La Forge's VISOR

What is it?
Geordi La Forge from Star Trek TNG has been blind from birth, but his VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) gives him more than just eyesight. Using the bolted-on eyewear, he sees the electromagnetic spectrum, and it's connected directly into his brain. This lets him sense vital signs such as heart rate and temperature, and in some episodes even detects lies and emotions. It must be an astonishing device, because Geordi turned down normal human vision a few times in favor of that VISOR.

Is it feasible?
By electrically stimulating the optic neurons of the retina, it's possible to restore vision, creating a relatively low-quality image with no visor required.

Similar real-world technology
Scientists in 2000 successfully created an artificial silicon retina, and in a 2002 test of a similar system, wearers could tell the difference between three common objects — a plate, cup and a knife. Implanted behind the retina, the sensor contains 3,500 microscopic solar cells that convert light into electrical pulses.




Don't Hold Your Breath:





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1. Transporter

What is it?
Living human bodies, as well as inanimate objects, are molecularly dematerialized, transmitted to their destination up to 40,000 kilometers away, and then rematerialized in two to three seconds.

Is it feasible?
This would take spectacular computing power, far beyond anything possible today. One intriguing estimate of what it would take to teleport a 150-pound human involves calculating the amount of processing power necessary, and that quickly gets into unimaginably high numbers, consisting of ones followed by dozens of zeros just to count the person's atoms. Each atom would need to be scanned and recorded. One imaginative commenter estimated it would take a year to record the necessary data to transport a human. Another calculated 22 million years. And then there's the reconstituting of that person's body on the other side. That would be one long trip.

Similar real-world technology
So far, scientists tinkering with quantum mechanics have been able to transport one molecule a few feet, so maybe transporting a human is not impossible. Given the growth of computational power, the ability to crunch such enormous numbers may occur faster than anyone could anticipate. Consider this: robotic spacecraft with accurate enough sensors to allow telepresence.




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2. Replicator

What is it?
This miraculous machine can create and recycle just about anything. It has the remarkable ability to rearrange subatomic particles into molecules, and then build inanimate objects, foods, or just about anything except a living organism or dilithium crystals.

Is it feasible?
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are bored out of their skulls with refrigeration-free space food and would give just about anything to be able to bark out "Tea, Earl Grey, extra hot" and get themselves a hot cuppa anytime — or better yet, a juicy steak. But similar problems arise with a replicator that you'd run into with a transporter: creating objects from scratch. We're going to have to wait until we've mastered turning matter into energy and back again — several centuries, at least — for something like this.

Similar real-world technology
NASA is looking into creating a compact cooking machine that will contain basic ingredients that could be used to assemble a variety of recipes.




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3. Warp drive
Gigantic starships can travel many times faster than the speed of light, somehow propelled by an artificial bubble of space-time surrounding the ship.

Is it feasible?
If so, no one has quite figured out how this would be done. Imaginations run wild, but Einstein's Theory of Relativity posits that traveling beyond the speed of light is impossible, and light speed's a whole lot slower than Warp 9.9. Eric Davis, a Senior Research Physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin (and the CEO of Warp Drive Metrics) thinks traveling through a wormhole would be more likely than warp drive: "In comparing the intricacies of traversable wormhole physics with warp-drive physics, I discovered in the published research literature that the warp-drive concept suffers far more serious technical issues compared with traversable wormholes even though both FTL (faster-than-light) concepts are beyond our present ability to implement in practice."

Similar real-world technology
There's nothing even remotely similar to warp drive yet. Unless Dr. Zefram Cochrane is working on such technology in secret as you read this, none is forthcoming.