Star Trek: the start of the IoT?

By | 4 minute read | September 15, 2016

Star Trek and its inspiration for the Internet of Things

Happy Birthday Star Trek!

It’s 50 years since the first episode aired on NBC, in which a crew of astronauts aboard the Starship Enterprise explored a fictional United Federation of Planets in the 23rd century.

At the time of filming, Star Trek was a goldmine of imaginative technological goodies. But could it have also been the inspiration for some of the IoT technologies we have today?

Leaving aside for a minute the fun and games of exploring space: the final frontier, let’s look at the Starship itself. When our beloved programme was first filmed, the Enterprise represented a brave new world of connected devices. There were in-ship communication screens, a holodeck where alternate realities could be simulated with astonishing clarity, and teleports to instantly transport crew members from one place to another.

Star Trek – inspiring the Internet of Things?

While teleportation is still a way off, some of the gadgets beloved by the Star Trek franchise bear a striking similarity to today’s connected devices. The Enterprise’s voice activated computer system has its modern-day equivalent (albeit in miniature) in the guise of smartphones, light switches, and even cars. The swanky, silver earpiece worn by the Enterprise’s Communications officer looks a lot like a Bluetooth headset, and Captain Picard’s touch-based control panels (‘PADDs’, if you’re interested), might have been an inspiration for the iPad.

So thank you, Star Trek, for sowing the seed! Let’s take a look at where technology could take us next.

The tricorder – the connected medical device that started it all

The occasionally cantankerous ‘Bones’ McCoy, Chief Medical Officer aboard the Enterprise under Captain Kirk, used a medical tricorder to scan his patients and diagnose their condition instantly. The tricorder would collect and analyse body data in seconds.

Instant, correct diagnosis of any condition from a single gadget isn’t possible yet. But there has been a growing shift in devices that allow for a certain degree of self-diagnosis and care – thanks to the increased power and availability of cheap processors, and the rise of the smartphone.

Back in 2009, a New York woman was fitted with the first wireless pacemaker, which allows remote monitoring of her heartbeat, and will even alert her doctor automatically should a serious problem emerge.

In the same vein (yeah I know, sorry) there are devices that track your baby’s breathing rate, sleep position and movement via a sensor attached to their clothes, while sending the data directly to your smartphone.

Many patients are taking a more first-hand approach in managing and monitoring their existing medical conditions. IBM is partnering with Medtronicon, a medical device leader, to help people with diabetes predict hypoglycaemia ahead of its onset, thereby averting crisis. The device uses data from finger sticks (which measure blood glucose from a drop of blood) to monitor basal rate, insulin sensitivity, and even carbohydrate intake.

The Holodeck – alternate reality immersive experience

One of my personal USS Enterprise favourites is the Holodeck. An immensely complex bit of kit, the Holodeck can simulate almost any given scenario – from replicating the physical conditions on a hitherto unexplored planet, to calling into being extremely realistic holographic projections of loved ones left behind on earth. Star Trek: Voyager goes a step further – creating an Emergency Medical Hologram (a simu-doc) who can function outside the facility itself.

It’s not quite the sensory feast achieved by the Holodeck, but virtual reality devices of various shapes and sizes have been around for a while. Virtual reality headsets use high-resolution screens and tracking sensors to detect your head movements and offer an immersive, virtual reality experience. High-end models (such as the HTC Vive) include a feature that allows you to walk around a large space – up to 4.5 x 4.5m – heightening the sense of full participation.

Food generators – instant meals

The Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation boasts a ‘replicator’ – a machine able to create any inanimate matter – even food or drink. Mohito? You got it! No mixing, chopping or shaking required. Steak dinner? Our pleasure. You can even specify how you’d like it cooked.

The mind boggles. And no, I’m not about to tell you that they’re about to be stocking these in your local supermarket. We aren’t able to produce food from thin air. However – we’re not far from smart kitchens that will cook your food for you, as long as you provide the ingredients. There are smart cookers that can be switched on remotely, fridges that tell you when you’re out of milk, and, on the horizon, a microwave with built-in temperature sensor and barcode scanner that will use that information to automatically cook your meal. There is even 3d printed food as an option.

It’s a brave new world folks. Thank you Star Trek for the creative inspiration.