Science fiction is well known for imagining future technology before it gets here. And this is particularly true for Star Trek.
Some of the gadgets portrayed on Star Trek have since become a reality, including wireless communications and portable flat-screen computers (iPads, essentially). Other technology from the show has yet to happen. But that doesn't mean scientists aren't trying.
In recent decades, researchers have been making surprising gains on all sorts of Star Trek-esque tech. They've developed invisibility cloaking and teleportation — albeit only at very tiny scales so far. They've hooked up people's brains to create actual telepathic experiences. They've been able to give the blind some low-resolution bionic sight. And a few scientists are even doing experiments to achieve the long-shot dream of traveling faster than the speed of light.
Here's a look at how scientists are actively working on the technology of Star Trek. Some of these technologies are far off and may never come to pass. But others, like 3-D printers and bionic eyes, are remarkably close:
1) Invisibility cloaking
In the world of Star Trek, some ships can stealthily cloak themselves to become completely invisible. And in the past decade or so, researchers have actually been making headway with real invisibility cloaking.
These projects have generally involved creating sophisticated materials that can reroute light in various ways to hide objects. These materials can conceal microscopic objects from non-visible light such as microwaves.
Hiding larger objects (like a human or a ship) from smaller-wavelength light, aka visible light, is much trickier. But there have been some advances here, too. Researchers have created materials that should theoretically be able to hide things from visible light. And in June of 2014, researchers demonstrated a technique to completely hide relatively large objects — and even their shadows — as long as the object was in murky water.
And several cloaking attempts with life-size objects have used a technique called "active camouflage" by rigging up cameras. For example, in 2012 Mercedes-Benz released this ad, which combined a camera and a ton of LEDs to basically turn a car into a giant video screen that showed images of what was on the car's other side, making it somewhat seem to disappear (at least from afar). Academic researchers have demonstrated similar projects using people's clothing.
2) 3-D printers (along the lines of Star Trek's replicators)
In the world of Star Trek, a replicator is a device that can creates objects on demand and is most often used for food. The thing that comes closest to it today is probably the 3-D printer. We haven't yet seen anything quite as sophisticated as the replicator, though we're coming closer.
The most common medium for 3-D printers is still plastic, which the printers squeeze out layer by layer to create complex, three-dimensional objects. However, some companies have made 3-D printers that can make food, too. Researchers have been exploring 3-D printing that takes food paste and creates chocolates, pizzas, veggie nuggets, and even ravioli, according to Venessa Wong, over at Bloomberg Businessweek. And both NASA and the Department of Defense have explored 3-D printing food to deliver nutritious meals far away from home.
The catch? You still need to put food into this machine to get food out of it, rather than creating it atom by atom like a Star Trek replicator does. And the process can also be quite slow. So there's still work to be done on this one.
3) Holodecks (advanced virtual reality)
The holodeck on Star Trek is essentially the ultimate virtual-reality room. Everything there looks and feels perfectly real. (So real, in fact, that you could risk being killed by a holodeck person if you turn the safety settings off.)
Several projects that exist today make the holodeck not all that far-fetched. For example, the Oculus Rift headset gives gamers the visual experience of being surrounded by a video game, no matter where they look. How about without goggles? One good example is Michael Jackson's posthumous performance via hologram at the Billboard Music Awards in May of 2014.
But how do you get the experience of being able to walk around your virtual reality without bumping into actual-reality walls? One current method is with an omnidirectional treadmill, such as the experimental CyberCarpet, which lets you endlessly ramble in any direction you choose.
Perhaps the most iconic piece of Star Trek technology is the transporter. That's the "Beam me up, Scotty" device that teleports people from one place to another nearly instantaneously.
Some signs that this might be possible someday are coming from quantum physics. At terrifically small scales, some weird physics emerges. One thing that happens is that two particles can become entangled such that the state of one instantaneously affects the state of another — even if they're very, very far apart. Using this principle, researchers have been able to achieve quantum teleportation, transporting tiny pieces of information instantaneously between locations.
One big problem then comes from scaling this up to teleport entire human bodies. And because quantum entanglement is exceptionally sensitive to perturbations, it's also possible that the physics won't entirely work out on the other end. As Corey Powell put it in a recent Discover magazine column about human teleportation: "The process of reassembling your atoms would inherently scramble the information. At this point, it’s suicide at one end without rebirth at the other. "
5) Faster-than-light travel
The spaceships of Star Trek use warp drive for propulsion, which allows them to warp the fabric of space-time to travel faster than the speed of light — and far, far across the galaxy. This concept is a direct violation of Einstein's theory of special relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and has thus remained purely in the realm of science fiction for decades.
But in 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre published a paper that ran the numbers and came up with a possible model. He proposed that by contracting space in front of your craft and expanding it behind you, you could theoretically create a bubble of space-time that you could surf faster than light. The only hitch was that it would require massive amounts of a theoretically-predicted-but-yet-to-be-directly-observed thing called negative energy.
And in the fall of 2012, NASA engineer Harold "Sonny" White presented further calculations that by changing the shape of the warp field, the need for negative energy would be drastically reduced into something he described to Popular Science as "plausible." And he's taken the work from calculations to actual experiments. He's been testing the concept on a far smaller scale with a tabletop device involving lasers.
That said, White's project definitely has many doubters, including Alcubierre himself. So we really have no idea if this will ever happen.
6) Bionic eyes
Star Trek character Geordi La Forge was born completely blind but can see perfectly fine thanks to a bionic device called a VISOR, which sends visual information into his brain.
This one isn't so far off. In 2013, the FDA approved the first bionic eye in real life — which actually does give some sight to the blind. Called the Argus II, it's an eye implant that passes real-time video information into the brain, albeit with very limited resolution and in grayscale.
It involves a 60-electrode array that gets implanted in the eye to restore some of its function. A camera mounted on a pair of glasses records visual information about the world. This info gets parsed by a small video-processing unit. And then it gets wirelessly transferred to the eye implant, which activates neurons in the back of the eye and sends messages to the brain.
The Argus definitely doesn't bring people anywhere near 20/20 vision. But it provides enough resolution to let people see the outline of a doorway, the movement of a person, or the lines on a crosswalk. Some have even been able to use it to identify letters of the alphabet that are a few centimeters tall. The Argus is currently FDA-approved for people with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that affects more than two million people around the world.
Other projects are also on the horizon. Some notable ones include research based at the University of Tübingen in Germany that has produced an eye implant that directly senses light. In clinical trials, it has allowed at least one patient to read large letters. And other researchers are working on implants that go into the brain rather than the eye.
7) Mind-to-mind communication (telepathy)
Spock and other Vulcan people on Star Trek have an amazing telepathic ability called mind melding. And today, one-way telepathic ability has already been achieved using current technology. Two projects published in 2014 have demonstrated limited telepathic exchanges using electrodes (EEG) to read brainwaves and transcranial-magentic stimulation (TMS) to deliver messages to another person's brain.
In August 2014, an international group led by Starlab Barcelona researchers in Spain used this kind of setup to very, very slowly have someone send a one-word email to someone else. They called it the "realization of the first human brain-to-brain interface."
And then in November of 2014, a team from the University of Washington had two people telepathically play a video game. Only one person could see the game, and he telepathically moved the other person's hand on the controller. It seems like science fiction, but it's real.
An in-depth overview of recent telepathy experiments
A visit to NASA's warp drive lab, written by Konstantin Kakaes for Popular Science
How bionic technology will change what it means to be human