July 31, 2014
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AMAZING ORIGINS | Sci-Fi Origins of Real World Technology

Light-years from Federation space, somewhere beyond the Romulan neutral zone, a Starfleet away team scouts an uncharted world. Local geography, atmospheric composition, electromagnetic activity—there’s a lot they need to know before they can get down to business.

So where do they even start? It’s going to take hours to gather all that data. Right?

Wrong. With a flick of Spock’s wrist and the obligatory blippity-bleeps, it’s all there: detailed info on the terrain, the air, and potentially hazardous radiation. The Starfleet Tricorder can instantly scan and evaluate a huge range of environmentally relevant variables. Oh, wait… the random guy in the red uniform just inexplicably collapsed. No worries—our tricorder tells us exactly what’s wrong: irreversible neural hemorrhaging brought on by parasitic alien fungus.

Time to beam the hell out of there.

I know, I know. You’re waaaay too cool for Star Trek. It’s nerdy. It’s over the top. It features Bill Shatner in tight-fitting sequin-y outfits. Sorry to threaten your dignity with something so shamelessly geeky.

So, by all means… don’t waste any more time… take this opportunity to check your smartphone…

There’s a status update coming in from “your crew.” Better check those “atmospheric conditions” before you “set a rendezvous point” later this afternoon. And while you’re at it… you should probably get a “geographic reconnaissance report” from Google so you know how to get there.

Yep. Your smartphone is pretty much a real-life tricorder. Nerd.

For all its geek-tastic glory, Star Trek got a lot of things right. Kirk and Spock’s portable communicators became our flip phones. The Enterprise’s main view screen became Skype and FaceTime. Even transporter technology is coming to life in the form of 3D printing. And smartphones have become our tricorders—scanning and monitoring our everyday lives with a huge variety of sensors, detectors, transmitters and receivers.

But still, amazing as they are, smartphones don’t have the purpose-built, sciency panache of a Star Trek tricorder. I mean, how are you supposed to measure the magnetic flux emanating from the electric motor under your microwave? Certainly cool information that smartphones just can’t deliver on. Until now.

With the “Scientific Sci-Fi Scanner” app for Android and iOS, you can now treat yourself to a full-fledged tricorder experience from the comfort of your own smartphone. Finally. The app works by feeding a wealth of sensor data into one handy interface, designed to work—and look—like the standard-issue tricorder of the 24th century.

Start the app and you’ll see a bunch of sci-fi-ish buttons surrounding a primary display window. Press a button, you get different data in the window.

Here’s a breakdown of the different modes:

“GPS” plots your position on a 3D globe with latitude, longitude and a digital compass.

“MAG” creates a 3D visualization of the magnetic field currently surrounding your phone.

“GEO” visualizes bizarre metrics like “global chlorophyll distribution” by hijacking info from NASA.

“GYRO” uses gyroscopic sensors to create a 3D model of your phone’s spatial orientation.

“SOLAR” visualizes/animates NASA-sourced info about the Sun. Like proton density (obviously).

“DEVICE” displays detailed technical specs about your phone… software, hardware, etc.

“WEATH” umm… gives you the weather.

Keep in mind, that all this data—while meant as a nerdy novelty—is real. Yes, your phone’s cellular unit can actually measure magnetic fields. And yes, the gyroscopic sensors used to determine screen orientation can precisely detect changes in position.

“But wait… can it diagnose exotic illnesses and catastrophic injuries like in the show?”

Ah, yes—the tricorder’s infamous “medical diagnosis” function. The scourge of countless non-regular cast members… their signature red uniforms, a veritable invitation to untimely death.

“He’s dead, Jim.” McCoy looks up, tricorder in hand, somber longing in his eyes.

Yes, Bones. We know. Stop trying to act surprised.

But yeah… we’re not quite there yet. So you won’t be able to diagnose your little brother’s chicken pox with your phone. Sorry. But that doesn’t mean someone’s not working on it…

In 2008, researchers from Georgia Tech publicly announced a hand-held multi-spectral imaging device, capable of “seeing” inside animal tissues. Similarly, Scandia Laboratories is also researching “lab on a chip” technologies for biological and chemical analysis. Will this stuff make it onto smartphones anytime soon? Probably not. But the technology is there. And then again, who would have thought they’d put cameras on telephones twenty years ago? It’s now the norm.

So, like it or not, your super-cool smartphone is steeped in geekly heritage, dating back to the original Star Trek series of the 1960’s. Kirk and Spock were scanning alien atmospheres with their tricorders long before you were checking the weather on your phone. And now, with the Scientific Sci-Fi Scanner app, you can finally live up to Star Trek’s technological legacy. Almost. It’s not quite up to 24th century standards, but it’s still cool. If you consider ultra-nerdy, techie things cool—which you should.

Get the Scientific Sci-Fi Scanner app:



NOTE: While there are other tricorder apps that offer a more “true to form” Star Trek aesthetic, most do not actually do any real “scanning”—just blips, bleeps and randomly generated techno-babble. Kudos to SSfS for keeping things real.

As a member of Seed’s copywriting team, Matt Donahue marries his love for creative writing with a keen interest in product innovation, technology and science. He’s a graduate of Seton Hill University’s “Popular Fiction” master’s program and writes whenever he can.

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