William Shatner, the famous actor best known for his role as Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series, has visited NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley to research sci-fi novels he’s writing. NASA, too, has found inspiration from Star Trek for all sorts of technology, from ion propulsion to neural networks.
In fact, Shatner used to carry the Motorola StarTAC phone, which inventor Martin Cooper had modeled after the Star Trek communicator. Shatner reportedly would whip out the StarTAC from his pocket and flip open the cover in a single motion, just like Captain Kirk.
Shatner, of course, was playing to his fans as they watched, mouths agape, in awe.
But the storied relationship between tech gadgets and sci-fi is more than just show. This week the relationship took center stage when Samsung turned to sci-fi movies for its defense against Apple’s claims that Samsung’s Galaxy Tab infringes on iPad patents.
Not-so-long ago in a galaxy, well, right here, an epic battle is being waged between Samsung and Apple in the great tablet space. Apple claims Samsung copied its iPad design for Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. Samsung counters that the design was already out in the universe—namely, as a prop in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Here’s a still shot from the movie showing two astronauts talking over a rectangular device with a large display screen:
I’m not sure why Samsung would choose a 1968 Stanley Kubrick film to make its case. More modern-day examples are everywhere. Trekkies often point out that Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation often used a device that looks like an iPad.
Here’s the steely captain, played by Patrick Stewart, uncharacteristically messing up his desk with an array of iPad lookalikes in the 1998 movie Star Trek: Insurrection:
(Isn’t the iPad supposed to reduce clutter?)
Truth is, Apple CEO Steve Jobs probably found his design inspiration not from sci-fi movies but from calligraphy classes and the psychedelic drug LSD. Jobs had famously confided to author John Markoff that “taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” But that’s another story.
Back to tech gadgets and sci-fi: Shatner sought real technology at NASA Ames Research Center to inspire his creative science fiction ideas. Yet it’s pretty clear from the above images that tech gadgets often follow in the footsteps of sci-fi writers.
I wanted to ask the good captain what he thought about this close encounter, but he did not respond to requests for an interview. My guess is that techies and sci-fi writers make a perfect partnership because they share similar sensibilities.
Techies are more creative than most people give them credit for. After all, techies are the ones who build some of the most awe-inspiring video games. Techies are also the ones who play them.
Case-in-point: Games such as Fallout don’t have shoddy graphics or crude artificial intelligence because “top game developers know their work will be scrutinized by trained eyes,” George Jones, former editorial director of GamePro, told me a few years ago for a story called Why Techies Love Games – and Why It’s Good They Do. “You can’t fool them.”
Both techies and sci-fi writers are always pushing the envelope of what’s possible. And when it comes to technology, anything is. Here’s a short list of sci-fi movies and real technology that go together (along with my favorite quotes, just for kicks):
Star Wars: Bionic Hand
Favorite quote: “It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they’re not much bigger than two meters.” –Luke Skywalker
Terminator: Military Drones
Favorite quote: “Why didn’t you bring any weapons, something more advanced? Don’t you have, uh… ray guns? Show me a piece of future technology.” –Dr. Silberman
Blade Runner: Artificial Intelligence
Favorite quote: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” –Batty
Minority Report: Gesture-based interface
Favorite quote: “Now, put the gun down, John. I don’t hear a red ball.” –Danny Witwer
Matrix: Network Mapper
Favorite quote: “I used to eat there. Really good noodles.” –Neo
Galaxy Quest: ERP (i.e. out-of-this-world software makers and clueless end-users)
Favorite quote: “I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m just ‘Crewman Number Six.’ I’m expendable. I’m the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I’ve gotta get outta here.” –Guy Fleegman
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.