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12 Star Trek Gadgets That Now Exist

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Photo courtesy Memory-Alpha.org

For geeks growing up in the 1960s, 80s and 90s, a vision of the future has been provided by one very successful television franchise: Star Trek. And the future, it turns out, is coming sooner than even Trek's writers could have imagined. Here are 12 gizmos used on the Star Trek television shows that are now becoming real.

1. Food Replicator

Captain Jean-Luc Picard used to say ‘Tea, Earl Gray, hot!” and it would be replicated instantly. Today's 3D printers don't tackle tea, but there are machines that actually can print food. And other printers, like the MakerBot Replicator 2 are quite adept at making small objects—just as they were shown to do on later episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

2. Universal Translator


Photo Courtesy Memory-Alpha.org

In several episodes, we marveled at the universal translator, which decoded what aliens said in real-time—and in the later shows, it was integrated into the communication badges (which explains why basically everyone, regardless of home planet, spoke English). Now, there's an app for that. Voice Translator by TalirApps understands 71 languages (no Klingon yet, though). You speak in your native tongue and the app translates your phrase into another language. 

3. Tablet Computers


Image Courtesy Borg.com

Lieutenant Commander Geordi Laforge—you know, the guy from Reading Rainbow—used a tablet computer (what they called Personal Access Data Devices, or PADDs) to punch in coordinates for the next star system. Other Starfleet personnel used them to watch video and listen to music—just the things we use tablets for today.

4. Tricorder


In the TV show, a tricorder is a handheld device that scans for geological, biological, and meteorological anomalies. Handy! In 2012, Peter Jansen from McMaster University in Ontario built a working prototype that scans for magnetic fields and other interference. And there are lots of other real-world tricorders, too.

5. Holodeck

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, you could walk into a chamber onboard the Enterprise and visit your home planet for a quick barbecue, or even have an affair with a hologram. Leave it to a bunch of University of Southern California students to make virtual reality a little more down-to-Earth—Project Holodeck used virtual reality goggles to create a fictional world. (Though no encounters with Minuet were reported.)

6. Communicator Badge

Wikimedia Commons

On the original series, Kirk and crew carried handheld communicators. But in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Starfleet personnel wore communicator badges on the left breasts of their uniforms. A California start-up called Vocera has created a similar device you pin to your shirt. They're used mostly in hospitals to avoid having constant overhead pages.

7. Tractor Beam


Photo Courtesy of Memory-Alpha.org

Pulling a ship with an invisible tractor beam seems impossible, but two New York University professors are making it so. Their experiment, which uses a light beam to control tiny microscopic particles, is not going to be deployed on the next NASA mission, but shows we’re making progress.

8. Natural Language Queries

In the Star Trek universe, you can talk to a computer (voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, Trek creator Gene's wife) in casual conversation. These days, we've got Apple's Siri and Google Now, and while they aren't fully developed systems yet, they are baby steps toward a service like Star Trek's computer, which has a complex understanding of context. Google even codenamed their voice-based service "Majel," in honor of Barrett-Roddenberry.

9. Warp Drive

No one in Star Trek ever sits down and explains how a warp drive works in detail, but we know it has something to do with bending space and traveling faster than the speed of light. Doesn’t seem possible, but NASA has suggested that a warp drive is possible.

10. Phaser


Photo Courtesy Phaser.net

Captain Kirk was pretty handy with a phaser, and he didn’t always set his to stun. Ironically, we’ve been using something similar since the first Iraq War. Known as a dazzler, the directed-energy weapon sends a pulse of electromagnetic radiation to stop someone cold in their tracks.

11. Teleportation

To get from place to place, Captain Kirk and company didn't need an airplane—they didn't even need a space elevator. Instead, they teleported using the U.S.S. Enterprise's transporter (a scenario we all dream about while standing in line at airport security). We've already done some teleportation—specifically, of photons and atoms. These particles don't disappear and reappear, though. According to Forbes, "the information contained in the photon’s quantum state is transmitted from one photon to another through quantum entanglement – without actually travelling the intervening distance." An exact copy appears on the other side, while the original photon is destroyed. According to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, we consist of 15 trillion cells, so we'll need to wait a few centuries before we're teleporting like Kirk. And we'll still have to destroy the original.

12. Hypospray

In the world of Star Trek, there's no need for needles (and thus no trypanophobia)—Bones administered medicine through the skin using painless jet-injected hypospray. Recently, MIT created a similar device that, according to Geek.com, "delivers a drug through the skin at speeds of up to 340 meters per second and in under a millisecond. The amount of drug can be varied, as can how deep it is injected. And as far as the patient is concerned, they shouldn’t feel anything other than the tip of the injector against their skin. That’s because the jet is as thin as a mosquito’s proboscis." It's not the first, but it does have more control than other hyposprays, which means it could actually be a replacement for needles—and that would make visits to the doctor's office with your kids much easier.

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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech
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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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