To Boldly Go-ogle

Technology and science fiction have a relationship that is both practical and whimsical. The works of Jules Verne influenced the first rocket scientists. Those scientists then influenced writers like Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek. People who grew up watching Star Trek (or being exposed to other sci-fi of the day in books, film, and radio) entered the workplace and tried to capture the vision of the future by advancing what the resources we have today.

Cell phones (and more directly to Trek, flip phones), tablet computers, holographic projectors, lasers, different type metal alloys – the list can go on and on – have all been brought to the real world after being dreamed in fiction.

One of the most anticipated creations of 2013 is Google Glass. By now the story of the enhanced glasses is almost commonplace. Competitors have even launched a continuation of the mobile device revolution, in anticipation of wearable computing being the next hot trend.

What will Google Glass be able to do? Right now we don’t really know. Based on the limited demos Google has put into the public eye, it should have picture-taking functionality, some degree of voice recognition, GPS awareness, and an internet connection, either built in or through a link to a mobile phone. What strikes me now is not the actual abilities of Google Glass but the big leap that the technology is taking over what has appeared in sci-fi. This is not an exhaustive list, but a look at a segment of the genre that has a special place in my heart: Star Trek.

As something of the standard bearer of sci-fi for almost half a century, Star Trek has shown us many fantastic devices (warp drives, transporters, holodecks, cloaking devices) that can be only hinted at with a modern understanding of technology and physics. Others, like the PADD, personal communicators, and computers that can respond to voice commands, have arrived hundreds of years early without a tremendous drop in capability from their fictional relatives. Even needle-free shots at the doctor’s office are just over the horizon, and there are already medications that can be administered through a patch and glues that replace stitches.

One of the most memorable scenes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was when Dr. McCoy gave Captain Kirk a pair of reading glasses. Simple, functional, reading glasses. The 1982 vision of 2282 (that’s a new easter egg for me) was the same way things had been done for centuries.

In the context of the movie, the glasses were a symbol that the crew was aging. Kirk, the brash, young captain from the 1960s TV show was now an elder statesman in Starfleet. Because of the impact of Kirk’s aging and stepping back from the day-to-day Starfleet action we don’t know for sure if classic glasses are all that the future has to offer, but it seems like the common solution.

That’s just fine though because Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place nearly a century later. During the time of Captain Picard, replicators are in nearly every room of the ship, holodecks could bring any scenario to life with full interactivity, and one of the bridge officers was an android. At this point, nearly a century later, we should expect that wearable computers, in the form of smart glasses, if they exist, have taken the same technological leap.

However, in The Game, Commander Riker returns from a vacation on Risa with headsets for the crew to play a 24th century video game. The graphics were more Virtual Boy than virtual reality. Geordi LaForge wore a VISOR, but for normal humans, the game headsets were seen as a nifty piece of technology. We’ll forget that the headsets also administered a form of mind control in this analysis.

Deep Space Nine took place at essentially the same time as The Next Generation and tackled the smart glasses yet again. For Captain Sisko and his crew, the glasses acted as a HUD (heads up display) while controlling an alien ship. Again, this is surprisingly limited and also somewhat unnecessary given that they were onboard the ship, full of diagrams, screens, and computer interfaces.

As a collection of science fiction TV shows many episodes consisted of a basic plot of: detect planet or ship, beam to the planet/ship to investigate, and either return to the ship or continue to solve the issues of the day. Every mission brought along the all-powerful Tricorder, a handheld scanner, but not a set of standard-issue glasses providing scanning capabilities, video and photographic functions, communications when the crew splits up. It could be a map, guide book, translator and more! Word Lens, an app for both iOS and Android devices, already lets someone hold a camera up to a sign or text and read the word in their native tongue instead of the language it was printed in.

With an expected developer release of Google Glass in 2013 we should know more about the capabilities of Google’s device within months, but no matter what Glass can do at launch and in the coming years, it will put Star Trek’s vision of the future to shame. Score one for the 21st century.

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