'Star Trek' gadgets aren't light years away

June 18, 1992|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

"Make it so." With those stirring words, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard launches the starship USS Enterprise to yet another distant corner of the galaxy in search of knowledge and ever-higher ratings for "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

To boldly go where no one has gone before, every week, requires an awe-inspiring range of technology, from warp engines that push the Enterprise many times faster than the speed of light to food replicators that materialize cups of piping hot tea for the homesick Starfleet crew.

That technology is a big part of the television show's allure -- showing a world 400 years in the future where science and engineering have greatly improved the human condition.

But do we really have to wait until the 24th century for all these high-tech wonders?

Maybe not. Surprisingly, much of the futuristic equipment depicted on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" might arrive in our lifetimes. And some of it is being developed in Silicon Valley, Calif.

The production designers at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles who create the "look and feel" of Star Trek have taken a deliberately conservative approach, introducing many concepts that are only 10 or 20 years from changing our lives. They have also struggled to portray a consistent vision that stays (mostly) within the bounds of scientific reality.

Two art directors on the show, Michael Okuda and Rick `f Sternbach, even wrote a book called "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual," published by Pocket Books in November, with detailed descriptions of such essential systems as the transporter and photon torpedoes.

"Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in October at age 70, always stressed a realistic approach to technology -- avoiding depictions of computers as long rows of blinking lights, for example, just because blinking lights look good on television.

"He wanted to show the technology being so extremely advanced that it was simple," says Mr. Okuda.

To get a sense of which elements of Star Trek technology will arrive in the next generation, we asked Silicon Valley experts.

Here are their answers.

* Technology: Two-way Video

What it does: Visual phone calls

Prospects: Almost in your living room

On "Star Trek," the crew doesn't just talk to aliens on nearby spaceships. They see each other on the giant viewscreen at the front of the main bridge.

This isn't a view of the future, except perhaps for the aliens. Corporations can now buy two-way videoconferencing systems for less than $50,000, and business meetings by video are starting to become much more commonplace.

Next month, AT&T says, it will start shipping the $1,500 Videophone 2500, which can be installed on a regular phone line. That's prohibitively expensive for the mass market, but prices are likely to dip under $1,000 within two years.

John Walsh, senior vice president of Compression Labs Inc. in San Jose, Calif., says most home telephones will probably include a video screen within 10 years. CLI helped design the Videophone and is also working on video systems that will fit inside personal computers.

Two-way video will ultimately be used for much more than just face-to-face family telephone calls. The screens can be a source for all types of visual information, Mr. Walsh says -- anything from home shopping catalogs to highlights of a basketball game.

* Technology: Medical scanner

What it does: Instant diagnosis

Prospects: Promising

With a medical tricorder from the Enterprise sick bay, just about anybody can be a doctor.

The handy little device, about the size of a videocassette, gives an instant diagnosis of almost any ailment or injury.

Medical technology might create something like the tricorder within the next century, perhaps based on positron emission tomography, or PET scanning, a new way of looking into the body that is just now reaching hospitals.

PET scanners can view bodily functions, such as heartbeat and brain activity, as they happen, unlike X-rays and other scanning technology that show only physical structures. Today, PET scanners are huge machines, but they might shrink.

Dr. Ralph Pelligra, chief medical officer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, said the combination of a hand-held PET scanner and medical computer could provide instant medical evaluation.

"This is liable to run the doctor out of business, because anybody could make a diagnosis and start treatment," Dr. Pelligra said. Of course, he quickly added, medical science is likely to grow so complicated in the future that doctors would still be needed for the more difficult cases.

Another advance likely in the 21st century, rather than the 24th, is vision for the blind. On "Star Trek," blind Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge wears a visor that transmits visual information directly to his optic nerve.

In 20 or 30 years, one researcher said, a small computer chip wired into the optic nerve could provide the blind with sufficient vision to detect motion and distinguish the rough outline of large objects.

Scientists have already created a device called a cochlear implant for the deaf that translates sound into electrical impulses piped to the inner ear.

Approximately 3,000 profoundly deaf patients are now getting at least a semblance of hearing from these cochlear implants.

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