Thursday, 13 December 2012

LCARS, Tablet Computers, and the Undying Spirit of Star Trek

This is a time when tablet computers are beginning to bite into the sales of both desktop and laptop computers. It is also a time when CBS Enterprises is forgoing some easy income and surefire advertising by not licensing a tablet interface that was first seen in 1987 on the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. This interface is called LCARS, which stands for "Library Computer Access/Retrieval System." It uses bold, curving lines, sometimes holding buttons, to separate the screen into functional areas. It was sometimes shown on large screens, similar to computer monitors, like this:

(Thank you Wikipedia). It was, at other times, on 7" tablet computers called PADDs (Personal Access Display Device).

Let us put the year in a little perspective. The year 1989 is about 11 years before Microsoft tried selling tablet computers. It is 21 years before Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. Nevertheless, these Star Trek PADDs are not the first appearance of tablet computers either in real life or fiction. The Acorn Newspad of 1997 has that honour in real life, but it was inspired by the tablets on the spacecraft Discovery in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This scene, in fact, was used in court to contest Apple's design patents for the iPad.

Unlike the tablets in 2001, the Star Trek PADDs have a unique, easily-distinguished user interface that is unlike anything being offered by tablet manufacturers. Accordingly, all of the large manufacturers--Apple, Google, even RIM and Microsoft--would have no interest in making an LCARS tablet; they have invested too much in convincing us that theirs is the better way. However, would Asus or some other, smaller manufacturer of Android-powered fondleslabs be interested in releasing one? They would receive, in return, a galaxy of free publicity, possible tie-ins to the upcoming Star Trek movies, and the undying love of geeks and nerds.

The tablet would almost market itself. PADD would be the best name for it, of course but, if that were not possible, it could be the "Data," named after the genial mechanical man in the Star Trek series.

Majel Barrett, the voice of the Star Trek computers, unfortunately died in 2008, but the tablet could speak in the voice of Brent Spiner, who played Data. It could have an option to only respond to voice commands and queries if you say, in a Scottish accent, "Computer!" or "Hello, Computer."

There would be something very appropriate to this product because many other flights of fancy, especially from Star Trek, have inspired real-world products. (cell phones, anyone? but most particularly this one; the Space Shuttle Enterprise?) and emerging technologies (cloaking device, tractor beam, warp drive, shields, tricorder, transporter).

But it will not happen unless CBS says yes. Then, once that is out, the LCARS interface can begin to make the 24th-century computing experience available even now in the 21st century. Yes, even put LCARS in cars.

I think that Lieutenant-Commander Jadzia Dax speaks for many of us when she says, "I love classic 23rd century design!"

Incidental fact: the team that created the on-line Star Trek movie Of Gods and Men, including many who were involved in the Star Trek tv shows, have recently completed a Kickstarter effort to raise money for a new Star Trek show. They will produce a pilot episode called Star Trek: Renegades. If CBS does not want to purchase the show, the team will release the pilot on a non-profit basis and carry on making shows through donations. They say, "we have a five year story arc planned."

Of Gods and Men is an interesting movie, of interest to anyone who enjoyed any of the various Star Trek series over the years, but especially those who watched the original series (1966-1969).

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