Tuesday, March 16, 2004

From the Perisphere to Deep Space Nine

San Francisco Chronicle | TREK TECH: 40 years since the Enterprise's inception, some of its science fiction gadgets are part of everyday life
In the 23rd century universe of "Star Trek,'' people talked to each other using wireless personal communicators, had easy access to a vast database of information and spent hours gazing at a big wall-mounted video screen.

On 21st century Earth, that future is already here.

People talk to each other on wireless communicators called cell phones. They have instant access to infinite amounts of information on the Internet. And they can spend hours staring at a big wall-mounted plasma or liquid- crystal display TV watching reruns of "Star Trek." That is, if they can afford one.

Indeed, 40 years after "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry outlined his vision for the groundbreaking science-fiction TV series, some of the once- futuristic personal technology depicted in the voyages of the starship Enterprise have become a reality.

Moreover, "Star Trek" has influenced a generation of engineers and scientists, inspiring them to engage in the future they saw on TV and to "make it so."
Well, yeah. Duh. Who wouldn't want a tricorder?

Before that it was the 1939 New York World's Fair that defined what we thought of when we thought of "the Future". For the next forty years, imaginative engineers worked to make a world that looked like that, and by and large they succeeded. Subsequent World's Fairs, whatever their other charms, generally failed to ignite the popular imagination as that one had (although 1964 came close).

Just as 1939's inspiration waned, along came a new generation of scientists and inventors raised on Star Trek. It's as good a place to find inspiration as any. Few of the gadgets that Kirk, Spock and McCoy waved around were based on any real technology, nor were they meant to be. (It's well known that many of McCoy's "medical scanners" were actually salt shakers.) They were good-looking boxes that performed a dramatic function, props that, with a minimum of business by the actors, would appear to allow the characters to learn what they needed to know to resolve that episode's crisis.

With this sterling model of product usability before us week after week, it's no surprise to me that engineers began designing user interfaces to fit.

I wonder what the next source of inspiration will be. EPCOT was supposed to be exactly that (it stood for "Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow", as I recall), but doesn't seem to have worked out that way. I'd hate to think that Microsoft is the best we can do.

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