Star Trek, perhaps more than any other piece of popular culture, has played a special role in the history, evolution, and design of the technology that powers our daily lives. Offering an optimistic vision of humanity’s future, one mainstay of Star Trek’s onscreen universe is its portrayal of futuristic technologies drawn from the most cutting edge ideas of its contemporary scientists, futurists, and authors.
Now 50 years old and spanning over 700 hours of television, Star Trek has inspired two generations of young scientists and engineers to turn its technological vision into reality. The cell phone, desktop computer, touchscreen interfaces, teleconferencing (Skype), and the iPad – to name but a few – all have strong conceptual and aesthetic roots in Star Trek’s portrayal of the future, often decades before their appearance in the real world. But among the most alluring technologies portrayed within its cannon is the concept of the Star Trek Computer and the effortless, AI-assisted control it gives users over information and their environment. That technology is now finally here, and you can have it in your home today.
Since the late 1980’s, the characters of the Star Trek universe have benefited from the assistance of an AI “virtual assistant” accessible from any place within their ships or homes. Controlled by voice, the computer can be spoken to in conversational language to perform tasks as varied as information retrieval to more dramatic fare like “re-routing emergency power from life support systems.” Voice is its primary interface; it speaks and can be spoken to, with its manual (touchscreen) controls serving only to augment these interactions. It is in every room, and its users interact with it as casually as we would flip on a light switch. But perhaps more crucially, its users have never had to turn on a light switch – they don’t even exist in their future world – because they just ask the computer to turn the lights on for them. The clip below is a fun illustration how Star Trek’s characters would react to our present day computer interfaces.
The Star Trek Computer is not just a means to interact with data; it gives users nearly godlike control over their environment. Walk into a dark room? You have but to command, “Computer, lights!” and behold -- there is light. Bedroom too cold? “Computer, raise the temperature to 73 degrees.” The characters of this world could conceivably live their entire lives without ever touching a button or switch. We see the portrayal of this natural, effortless command of our environment on the television screen and instinctively want it for ourselves. The appeal is self-evident. Yet the decades long quest to realize this Star Trek home in the real world has been complex and challenging, and until recently, excruciatingly slow to advance. But all of that is changing thanks to the converging evolutionary paths of several underlying technologies required to make the Star Trek home a reality. Let’s take a look.
The following are among the key technologies that must reach sufficient sophistication and work together in order to build the Star Trek home:
- Decent AI that can understand our intent with some degree of conversational nuance.
- Good voice recognition that can understand natural language.
- An “everywhere” audio interface that can detect your voice and respond in kind wherever you are in your home without the need for manual interaction.
- Networked appliances, switches, and controls – everything is in constant communication with everything else.
- Interoperable software and protocols that allow all of the above to work together seamlessly, whether directly or through intermediation, as well as interact with other systems outside the local network.
Let’s start with AI: early virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now represent a useful first step toward this AI-assisted future. But they still “live” primarily in your phone (okay, technically they’re in “the cloud”), and until very recently have been limited mostly to information retrieval, e.g. “What’s the score of the Dodgers game?” or “What’s the weather forecast for Saturday?” Useful and cool – yes. But they haven’t transformed the way we live. For that to happen, the AI must be freed from the phone.
Enter Amazon, whose virtual assistant, Alexa, has solved the second and third prerequisites for the Star Trek home: good voice recognition and an impressive “everywhere” audio interface. Launched in late 2014 with the humble looking Echo–a hands-free, voice-controlled virtual assistant and multimedia device–Alexa excels at natural language processing and can detect voice commands from anywhere within a normal-sized room through the unit’s omnidirectional, always-listening microphone. Moreover, Alexa is smart. You can speak to “her” like a person, in normal cadence and tone, and she performs tasks as varied as looking up information on Wikipedia, reading you the news, playing almost any music you desire, checking traffic for your morning commute, hailing an Uber, ordering a Domino’s pizza and, of course, buying products from Amazon.
In 2015, Amazon introduced the Echo Dot which extends Alexa into other rooms of your home through small, inexpensive interface modules, followed by the Echo Tap, a portable and somewhat more limited Echo variant that takes Alexa with you wherever you go. Alexa is also integrated into all of the company’s popular Kindle Fire tablets, making her nearly omnipresent for those willing to buy into Amazon’s product ecosystem. “Everywhere” audio interface? Check.
But the game changer was Amazon’s move to open Alexa to third party app integration, which enabled Alexa to work with products outside of Amazon’s own ecosystem, thus converging with the final two prerequisites for the Star Trek home: interoperable hardware and protocols, and a robust ecosystem of networked devices.
So how do we make our smart devices work together? The smart hub. Samsung’s SmartThings and Wink hubs are among the two most popular examples, and they are the brain of the modern connected home. When you want your smart home to do something (such as turn on a light), you command or program the hub (through its app), and the hub relays that signal out to the right device on your network. The hub also allows devices from different manufacturers (often using different communication protocols) to be controlled through a single interface.
The smart home doesn’t feel very smart if you have to use a dozen separate apps to control it, and the hub solves this problem by allowing different devices, from different manufacturers, using different communication protocols to work more or less seamlessly together within your home. Through a SmartThings hub, you can control your Philips Hue LED bulbs, GE Smart Lighting Dimmers, and Nest thermostat all from one place.
But the strongest connected home networks are based on mesh networks of products using the same wireless protocol. In the late 00’s, companies like Z-Wave and Zigbee developed wireless protocols to enable mesh networking of connected devices. Though Z-Wave and ZigBee do not work together, through each protocol respectively, every compatible device is in communication with every other device on the network. This strengthens and expands the network beyond the reach of a single access point; with a mesh network, the wireless light switch in your garage doesn’t have to be within range of your wireless hub – it just has to be within range of the nearest switch, which will relay its signal back to and from your hub.
We have been promised the smart home – or in more recent vernacular, the “connected home” – by industry and media for nearly two decades, but early iterations have been plagued by high cost, walled garden ecosystems that don’t play well with others, and most importantly the lack of a definitive “killer app” to wow users and make them say “I have to have this.” Without a killer app, the connected home has remained confined to a small but growing crowd of tech enthusiasts and early adopters.
But significant headway has been made in recent years to get the connected home ready for the mainstream. Nearly every consumer electronics and appliance manufacturer is entering the connected home space with products ranging from practical must-haves like wireless light switches, thermostats, and security systems to sillier “because we can” items like connected refrigerators that tweet @you when you need to buy milk. Connected products are here and their adoption is growing, but until recently were limited primarily to smartphone and tablet control interfaces. And let’s face it – do you really want to pull out your phone every time you turn on a light? This is where Alexa converges with the smart home, enabling voice control of many and soon-to-be all of your connected home devices. This is the killer app the smart home has been waiting for; this is the Star Trek home.
Now that all the pieces are here, what do you actually need to upgrade to a Star Trek home? First, you’ll need a hub. As previously mentioned, Samsung’s SmartThings hub is one of the most popular and widely supported options on the market, though other excellent options exist.
Second, you’ll want a connected “smart” version of the devices and controls you use most often in your home. To recreate the Star Trek level of environmental control, the most obvious starting point is your light switches. The light switch is, for most of us, the manual control in our homes that we interact with most, and there is a special satisfaction that comes from commanding, “Alexa, dim the bedroom lights to 20 percent,” and watching your lights instantly and effortlessly respond. Light switches and dimmers are definitely a case of more is better, as commanding just one or two switches by voice, while cool, has limited utility.
Go big on this one if you can, or start out by upgrading your two or three most used switches and build out from there. GE has been the market leader in Z-Wave connected smart switches for almost a decade (a leader in ZigBee switches, too) with a smart switch product line that is the top selling and best reviewed on Amazon. They are easy to install, but if you’re not comfortable with wiring your own switches into the wall it’s a very quick task for any experienced electrician.
Next, spring for a smart thermostat from Nest or Honeywell. Voice-activated control of the temperature in your home is both practical and cool. Imagine you’re lying in bed on a cold winter night. It’s a bit chilly in here, you think to yourself. You simply say, “Alexa, raise the temperature to 74 degrees,” and problem solved. You didn’t even have to get out of bed!
From there, you’ll want some smart outlets or plug-in smart dimmers to control lamps, fans, outdoor landscape lighting, and anything else with a power cord and an on/off switch. Sensors are another element to consider. New connected sensors can trigger actions within your smart home simply by opening a door or detecting motion. Do you want your hallway and living room lights and ceiling fan to automatically turn on when you walk through the front door at night? Just add the Z-Wave Hinge Pin Smart door sensor. Alternately, you could add a portable wireless motion sensor that can be positioned anywhere in your home to trigger a programmed action whenever someone walks past it.
And finally, to truly bring your Star Trek home online, you’ll need Alexa in order to enable voice control, preferably in every room of your house. Start with the standard Echo device in the most used room of your home (typically your living room or bedroom), and extend her presence throughout your home by adding Echo Dots to your other rooms.
More connected products are coming to market every day and the possibilities for the connected home and Internet of Things are endless. While still not the cheapest to implement, the cost of upgrading to a smart home has dropped considerably in recent years to now-affordable prices.
The technology of Star Trek represents the wildest and most ambitious dreams its writers could imagine for a future three centuries from now. Yet, in rapid succession, so many have already come to pass, and in some cases even exceeded the imaginings of some of the most creative minds in television just decades before. With the Star Trek home now finally a reality, it’s time to cross another technology off our Star Trek wish list. Though we still aren’t holding our breath for warp drive anytime soon, even that may one day be a real thing. Here’s hoping.
You now have the recipe for your very own Star Trek home. Make it so.