iPad and Star Trek's PADD Compared: the technical showdown


Did the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation design the iPad over 20 years before Steve Jobs released it? Here we take a look at some o...

Did the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation design the iPad over 20 years before Steve Jobs released it? Here we take a look at some of the design notes for Star Trek's version of the iPad, and see how much has become reality today.

By Karn G. Bulsuk

Star Trek has always been known for its intelligent outlook and its predictions on technology. While the transporter and warp drive are no where to be seen yet, technologies such as the communicator from the original series and data chips have manifested themselves as flip phones and USB drives respectively.

The series also featured a device known as a PADD, or Personal Access Display Device, which was used by the crew of the Enterprise to read reports, communicate and do other things you'd typically see on the Star Trek series. In today's terms, the form and the function of a PADD bears an uncanny resemblance to the iPad.

A book written by the staff during Star Trek's second series heyday back in the 90s titled "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual", covers how the Enterprise-D and the other fictional technology on the show works. One of the sections covers the PADD, and the description seems very familiar to many devices we use today. We'll take a look at some of the extracts to see how much of yesterday's fiction is now today's fact, and just how farsighted the writers of the show were back in the day.
In its primary role aboard a starship, the personal access display device (PADD) is a handheld control and display terminal. Small, easily managed terminals and computers are in daily use throughout Starfleet, as a natural response to crew members' needs to (1) execute hardware functions in avariety of locations, and (2) manipulate visual information and communicate that information to others aboard ship.

Access to the Enterprise computers and other pieces of equipment can be accomplished through the usual control displays and larger terminal screens, of course, but the PADD has become a convenient adjunct to those panels.
It sounds like the manual is describing the post-PC world that some people believe is coming, where we have multiple devices for different purposes. For example, a laptop for real work and processing power, a smartphone for on-the-go portableness, and a tablet to fuse the two devices together without sacrificing portability nor function.
The standard small PADD is 10 x 15 x 1 cm and is constructed from three basic layers of imbedded circuit-composite material. All primary electronics, including multi-layer display screen, are bonded to the casing, a boronitewhisker epoxy.
While the iPad is larger with dimensions of 24 x 18 x 9 cm, the screen is also glued onto the glass to form a tight display, mainly to prevent dust from getting through the cracks.
It almost looks like an iPad...
The display screen, 4.25 times larger than that of a tricorder, allows for the manipulation of control graphics, numerical data, and images by touch. Electrosensitive areas of the casing (colored brown on the standard engineering PADD) are designed for specific data movement and storage functions. They can also be used to personalize the default setup and single-crew member security restriction. An audiopickup sensor permits voice input. The PADD's control functions mimic those of any multi-layer panel, insofar as the security restrictions for individual crew members are concerned.
Touch screen, check. Microphone, check. Security access restrictions, check. Looks like the iPad just fulfilled the basic requirements to be used in Starfleet.
In normal daily use, the power supply remains installed and is induction recharged. A full charge will last sixteen hours...
Although induction charging still hasn't quite taken off, the iPad's rated battery life of 10 hours comes close to achieving what the PADD is rated to do.
Like the tricorder, the PADD can transfer its total memory to the main computers in less than one second if the need arises. The subspace transceiver assembly (STA) is used to maintain data channels between the PADD and the Enterprise computers.
While a subspace transceiver assembly might be a few years off, we do have the 21st century equivalent. We call it Wifi and mobile internet. We also have iCloud. And while transfers certainly take more than a second, we do have the capability to back up an iPad in its entirety directly into the cloud. Might not be as good as the computers on-board the Enterprise, but it gets the job done.
If taken on an away mission, the PADD can also perform uplink/downlink operations and function as a transporter lock-on node. 
The iPad, with its embedded GPS and mobile internet, fits the bill perfectly.
Data transmissions and computing functions can be shared with any other Starfleet device supporting the STA com protocols. As with the personal communicator, transmissions are encrypted for security purposes.
Many apps take advantage of cloud computing for storage and processing. We have this too, while encryption on consumer and military products has been around for years.
Properly configured with the Conn position bridge controls, a crew member can theoretically fly the Enterprise from a PADD while walking down a corridor. While this would be an impractical exercise due to PADD memory limitations and the relatively small display screen, it is an example of the overall multiple-option philosophy established in the Galaxy class starship design objectives by Starfleet's Advanced Starship Design Bureau. This philosophy treats the starship as an integrated organism in which each component can be regarded as a cell in a body directed by a central brain, but with processing capabilities distributed throughout the neural network. Because of this, PADDs and many other handheld data devices are capable of accessing any data file or command program to which the user has authorized access.
This sounds awfully like the cloud, where storage and processing power is distributed to a number of computers and sites to get tasks done. The iPad is tied to iCloud for offsite backup and storage, while many apps also process data on their own servers. It sounds like we've achieved this as well.

So it does look like the iPad has lived up to the visions of the Star Trek crew back in the 90s, which is quite amazing considering how back then, mobile telephones barely existed, the internet was extremely limited and the cloud didn't even register a blip until 2010.

The only thing that didn't quite come true would be the assertion that "If dropped accidentally, even from a height of 35 m, a PADD will remain undamaged.". I haven't quite tried that with an iPad, but have heard that you can total it even if dropped from a 1 m height. Looks like we have a bit further to go to meet the aspirations of the writers.



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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: iPad and Star Trek's PADD Compared: the technical showdown
iPad and Star Trek's PADD Compared: the technical showdown
Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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