iPhone vs. Tricorder: Seeing the Future with Blurred Vision

It's interesting to see how the blinders of the present affect our predictions of the future. The Star Trek Tricorder vs. the modern Apple iPhone is a case in point.


I started thinking about this when TMO's Bryan Chaffin pointed me to this add for a "Starfleet TR-590 Mark IX Tricorder." You can pre-order this replica from the Roddenberry Shop for US$499.95.

I am a big fan of Star Trek: The Original Series (although my favorite series is Star Trek: the Next Generation), and when I was younger I always admired the skills of the Starfleet officers and their Tricorders.

What interests me now is that the iPhone (and other smartphones) have become the Tricorders of our times but they look nothing like the futuristic concept for the 23rd century back in 1966. I'll grant that the creative team didn't have a lot of time and money to develop an incomparable vision of the future, but they still did an excellent job with both the hardware and the capturing of our imagination.

Starfleet TR-590 Mark IX Tricorder replica.
Roddenberry Shop

Ans so, I think the comparison of the Tricorder and the modern iPhone, as a vision of the future and the reality, is worth pondering.

What the Tricorder Got Right

The original Star Trek Tricorder was the size of a thick, smallish hardback book and carried with a shoulder strap. In time, it evolved to something more like a thick flip phone. The final version had a small display and some knobs. It was clearly battery powered and designed to display its sensor readings on the small display. (Perhaps a miniature cathode-ray tube?)

That was the general concept, and I think it was a great one. It probably percolated in our collective subconscious as something we'd all want to have someday. And we did it.

What the Tricorder Got Wrong

1. Mechanics. What was notable I think about the Tricorder, however, was the notion that this was a mechanical device to be manipulated and adjusted. When I watch old science fiction movies and techy movies like the James Bond files from the 1960s and 70s, the emphasis is on mechanics. Physical devices, like typewriters, guns and exploding pens do things by virtue of their physical mechanisms. That's all we knew how to do.

Contrast that to an iPhone whose mechanism is moving electrons and touch sensitive controls. The Tricorder is a case, in my mind, of refining the metaphor (mechanics) to the future without a fundamental shift to a non-mechanical way of thinking.

One of the very old but legendary science fiction movies, Forbidden Planet, which even pre-dated Star Trek and was, I have read, an inspiration to Gene Roddenberry, did a remarkable job of abstracting away from mechanics on the starship's bridge.

Forbidden Planet (1956). Image credit: MGM.

There were no keyboards on the bridge, but there was voice input. Great emphasis was on optics and displays of information. Mobile data was stored on what looked like a small rectangle of transparent glass, and the writers had the confidence to presume that data would be stored at the molecular level. (They weren't far off.) But sometimes, for the sake of the show's excitement, you just have to have mechanics. For example, Robbie the Robot.

The point is that seeing the future isn't just about extrapolation. It's about trusting in a vision that contains a fundamental shift in technology even if it looks crazy.

2. Manufacturing. If you'd asked a technical person or science fiction writer in the 1960s if they believed we'd have very fast computers in the future, they'd a agree. They'd even propse that computers would design computers. But what many didn't see coming is the leverage to be obtained by new manufacturing methods.

The Tricorder was a small, relatively think aluminum box. Inside would be, I surmise, parts and sensors. But it pales in comparison to the modern iPhone whose construction is driven by advanced machining of aluminum and sapphire controlled by robots and layered with the fabrication of a very thin liquid crystal display embedded with capacitive sensors.

Machining and miniaturized optics have taken a quantum leap.
Image credit: Apple.

Perhaps even more than the reasonable extrapolation from 10 to a billion transistors is the remarkable manufacturing methods that take us from a chunky-style Tricorder to an iPhone that's less than 8 mm thick and likely getting thinner. We no longer need a lot of physical buttons and dials. (But some are retained for a very good reason.)

3. Software. We've spent the last 50 years developing software leverage. In 1960, people were punching Fortran code on to paper cards and a machine read the holes in the cards. What was overlooked, I think, was not advancements in computer speeds and better languages but rather the ever developing layers of software abstraction.

Today, we take for granted powerful, high-level programming constructs that are based on multiple layers of abstraction, for example, objects. That's all tied to the hardware via APIs. So I think that while we envisioned computers in the 1960s that would be faster and talk to us, we were blind to the power of every increasing layers of software abstraction that would allow a small device like the iPhone to do so much under the hood.

4. Passion. Part of the vision of the future comes from being driven. There's a great story over at AppleInsider about how shocked and in denial BlackBerry (then RIM) executives were when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at Macworld 2007 in San Francisco. They didn't believe it could be done until they took one part and saw the tiny motherboard and huge battery. And these guys were technical contemporaries, not engineers from the 1950s.

It's one thing to try to see the future (and fail), and it's quite another to fail to see what current technology can achieve, if only a company invests in software and hardware engineering development and is driven.

And so everyday individuals, without great corporate backing, have a tough time seeing where technology can go. Often, simple extrapolation and a hopeful view that engineering will take care of the details is all that's brought to bear. On the other hand, Steve Jobs could both envision the iPhone and work astutely (and aggressively) with engineers to build the futuristic iPhone with what they had on hand. Other company executives, like those at BlackBerry/RIM, apparently failed to do either.


The Tricorder vision fascinated and inspired us. It got a lot of things right. But it's fascinating to see how reality turned out with a modern smartphone that was boosted by a change in low-level mechanics, advanced manufacturing, ever more powerful software abstraction and a bold corporate vision. The future of technology is always stranger, more abrupt and less expected than any kind of extrapolation can ever achieve.


Teaser/Tricorder images via Roddenberry Shop.

iPhone images via Apple.