Sci-Fi High Tech Comes To Life The future as imagined in science fiction sometimes becomes a reality. Michael and Denise Okuda, graphic designers for Star Trek, and John Underkoffler, science adviser on Minority Report , talk about envisioning the future.
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Sci-Fi High Tech Comes To Life

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Sci-Fi High Tech Comes To Life

Sci-Fi High Tech Comes To Life

Sci-Fi High Tech Comes To Life

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The future as imagined in science fiction sometimes becomes a reality. Michael and Denise Okuda, graphic designers for Star Trek, and John Underkoffler, science adviser on Minority Report , talk about envisioning the future.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

A couple of years ago, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were giving a talk at a technology conference when someone in the audience asked them to look into the future and tell us what kind of technology we could expect to see in the next five or 10 years.

Mr. BILL GATES (Founder, Microsoft Corp.): Well, I know Steve's going to announce his transporter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVE JOBS (Co-founder, Apple Inc.): I want "Star Trek." Just give me "Star Trek."

Mr. GATES: No, I think short of the transporter, most things you see in science fiction are, in the next decade, the kinds of things you'll see: the virtual presence, the virtual worlds that both represents what's going on in the real world and represents whatever people are interested in, this, you know, movement in space as a way of interacting with the machine.

I think the deep investments that have been made at the research level will pay off with these things in the next 10 years.

FLATOW: Well, Steve didn't get his transporter, but "Star Trek" Captain Picard had a flat, touch-screen, personal access display device, a pad that looks suspiciously like the Apple iPad.

His ship, the Enterprise, was equipped with flat-screen controls that respond to touch, just like the iPhone and the iPad do. And Captain Kirk had those cool communicators, remember? They looked exactly like the flip-phone you might be carrying around with you today.

And what about the motion-sensing computer in "Minority Report" that responded to waves of Tom Cruise hand? That sort of sounds like what Bill Gates was talking about, you know. Bill Gates says wave things around in virtual space.

This hour, we're going to be talking to designers who dreamed up some of those visionary technologies, and if you'd like to talk with them, you're more than welcome. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Also, you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or join the discussion at our website, at

Let me introduce my guests. Michael Okuda has been the lead graphic designer on many of the "Star Trek" TV series. He joins us today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MICHAEL OKUDA (Lead Graphic Designer, "Star Trek"): Thank you.

FLATOW: Denise Okuda was the video supervisor for the "Star Trek" series, and Denise and Michael are also the author of "The Star Trek Encyclopedia." Welcome, Denise.

Ms. DENISE OKUDA (Video Supervisor, "Star Trek"): Thank you.

FLATOW: John Underkoffler is a co-founder and chief scientist at Oblong Industries, and he was the science and technology advisor on the film "Minority Report." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. JOHN UNDERKOFFLER (Co-founder and Chief Scientist, Oblong Industries; Science and Technology Advisor, "Minority Report"): Thank you, and good afternoon, more or less.

FLATOW: Good afternoon, more or less, to you, too. Let me begin with you, John. That stuff with the waving of the hands and all that kind of virtual reality, you have actually brought to fruition that was in the movie.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: We have. And the funny thing is that that effort started well before the movie. We were building that kind of thing at the MIT Media Lab in the mid to late '90s. And it sort of got imported into the film and purified and simplified in a lot of important ways.

But coming out the other side, it seemed really important to continue that work here in the real world, and Oblong Industries builds that technology today.

FLATOW: Michael and Denise, let's talk about "Star Trek" and the technologies that seemed to be 30 years ahead of their time. Tell us about some of the "Star Trek" technologies you worked on. For example, let's talk about the communicators that look just like the flip-phones that we have.

Mr. OKUDA: Well, the amazing thing, of course, is that "Star Trek's" technology, even though it was made with very, very simple props and visual effects, inspired so many people to do, to actually put in the hard work to devise real-world technologies.

When we were starting "Star Trek: The Next Generation," as with virtually every single film and television production, we were constrained for time, constrained for budget. And it wasn't so much about predicting the future but more about what can we do that looks reasonably good on budget that we can get on stage when we need to film. And every once in a while, you're lucky, and people seem to like what you do.

Ms. OKUDA: And the other thing that's really interesting is that we believe that "Star Trek" has made a profound difference in the minds of folks that have grown up watching the series and then decided, well, you know, maybe I can do that, or maybe I could do something like that.

We've been very fortunate to deal with a lot of folks in the real space program, and a lot of them tell us they were influenced as children by watching "Star Trek."

FLATOW: And when you look at a picture of Captain Picard with his pad, his "Star Trek" pad, it looks incredibly like the iPad. Is it really just an inspiration for the iPad?

Mr. OKUDA: Well, we actually haven't spoken with any of the iPad team. I'd certainly like to think that it was a factor. Back in the early days of the next of "Star Trek: Next Generation," when we were setting up all these things, Rick Sternbach designed the original pad prop, and he and I used to joke that with the right software, you could do a lot more than just reading documents. You really could fly the ship.

So what we tried to do is think, well, if you have this technology, what can you do with it? And we hope that that carried into the show and maybe into the real world.

FLATOW: And on that same program, you had all the controls, without any knobs or anything, that turned into basically the functionality, we see the same kind on the iPhone and the iPad. It's just, like, software-generated instead of having a hard button there.

Mr. OKUDA: Well, my job as graphic designer was to design the control panels. And frankly, trying to come up with something futuristic was certainly on the list of things to do, but it wasn't necessarily the most important thing.

We had to do something that was cost-effective, that was schedule-effective, and I figured out, gee, the best, least-expensive approach would be to use simple, backlit graphics, which I can make look very cool with the graphic design.

And someone said, well, there's wide there's nothing sticking out. There's no physical features. And just, I thought about it, and I said, well, maybe it's because it's software-defined.

And just a few days later, one of the actors came up to me and said: I'm really nervous about hitting the right buttons. What if I hit the wrong button? And I thought of that answer. I said, hey, don't worry about it. It's software-defined. The person sitting in that console last week pushed this button to fire the phaser, but when you sit there, you customize it to your profile, and that button fires the phaser.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: They really took this seriously. That's delightful to see. That was art imitating life.

Mr. OKUDA: Well, our producer and our actors, they certainly tried to treat the show with respect, and I think that shows on the product.

FLATOW: John Underkoffler, let's talk about what you call G-speak. All that waving that we saw that goes on in "Minority Report," you've taken that and actually turned it into a real computer design.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: We have, that's true.

FLATOW: And in what way, what usage do you put it to? I mean, in that, if I remember correctly, he was sifting through all kinds of databases and looking for comparisons. Is that basically what you're doing in yours, or is yours a lot more versatile?

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: Well, it's inherently more versatile. I mean, we've built a G-speak to be the next generation of general-purpose computing, the interface to all of that.

And indeed, as you said, in the film, the purpose that the Tom Cruise character, the Anderson character put it to was a kind of forensic analysis task. He was sifting, as you said, through tens of thousands of video images and stills and all the fragments of dreams that the precogs in that film were kind of providing to him so that he could, you know, predict the scene of the crime that had not yet happened.

For us, that same technique, that same sort of body-centered interaction technique is the key to the future of human-machine interface, the key to being able to interact with and manipulate vast amounts of data, whatever the task may be.

FLATOW: And in yours, there are no wires. In your technology, you don't touch anything. You have these specially made gloves on, and you stand in front of a screen.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: That's right, no wires at all. And it's actually important to be able to step back from the screen. We live in a world where, increasingly, there are screens all over the place, on every surface. They're not necessarily connected to the same computers, and you need to be able to access them. And that means, to us, that you have to be able to point to them, and they in turn have to be able to understand what you mean by pointing and react accordingly.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Michael(ph) in Austin, Texas. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MICHAEL: I work for the Department of Defense. And I can tell you that over 20 years ago, there was a project at the Redstone Arsenal to build a less-than-lethal weapon based on "Star Trek" phasers.

FLATOW: How did that work out?

MICHAEL: Not very well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: And as a matter of fact, it was during that period that there was also another group doing experimentation with laser weapons, and the majority of the funding went there instead.

FLATOW: Did it have a stun setting on it?

MICHAEL: Yes, it did. They wanted something that would incapacitate the individual in, theoretically, a wartime situation, but would not kill them. And they worked on it for at least two years that I know of, and then the project was abandoned because the funding was going to the new laser weapons.

FLATOW: All right. Interesting. Thanks for calling, Michael.

MICHAEL: My pleasure.

FLATOW: It does seem like, you know, for a lot of people let me talk to Michael and Denise - that "Star Trek" really set people to thinking. In other words, the artists involved, and I'm speaking of you folks and the other people who created the props and whatever, were seen to be the improvisers and the predictors of what was to come. You did the thought process for a lot of people.

Mr. OKUDA: Well, I don't know that we necessarily predict things and certainly nothing like the people who build actual hardware. But Matt Jeffries, the man who designed the original Enterprise, was hired as a consultant to some DOD projects. And Herman Zimmerman, who was our production designer on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," was hired by a DARPA contractor to build an experimental command center, which was very closely based on the Enterprise bridge, right down to the plexi-covered control panels.

FLATOW: Wow. John, you say that computers today don't understand three-dimensional space. What do you mean by that?

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: Well, fundamentally, when you use a computer, one of today's computers, the ideas that it conveys are trapped within the screen, and it's a kind of an abstract graphical space.

What we insist has to happen is that the computer has to understand that its monitors, its screens and the people that are operating them actually live in the real world. They live in rooms. They live with real-world geometry.

And those people, incidentally, are also experts at manipulating that real world. So for us, the computer has to behave the same way as physical objects and physical interactions in that real world.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and, when we come back, give you a lot more time to talk with Michael and Denise Okuda and John Underkoffler. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you are thinking about "Star Trek" or the "Minority Report" or you're doing virtual reality like John does, give us a call, 1-800-989-8255. Or you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be back right after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about technology in science fiction with Michael and Denise Okuda of "Star Trek" fame, John Underkoffler, who is chief scientist at Oblong Industries, was the science advisor on the film "Minority Report." Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Denise, do you think that science and art are learning from each other these days? Do they go in cycles where one watches the other for a while and learn something?

Ms. OKUDA: Absolutely. I think that art and science can live together happily, and one inspires the other. Like I mentioned before, we had been involved in the real space program. Michael designed several of the logos for Project Constellation and also the mission patch for STS-125.

And a lot of the folks that we met, they talked about the work on "Star Trek" influencing their lives and went to the artist, the graphic designer, Michael Okuda, to bring their part of the space program to life again, blending art and science together.

Mr. OKUDA: Now, that being said, obviously art and technology have very different parameters, and they do feed off of each other. We have, we in television and film, have far fewer limitations in terms of what we can suggest for what we put on screen.

You know, we can create a user interface by just a piece of Plexiglas and a piece of backlit art. But then again, people involved in real-world technology, they have tools and insights that we can only learn from.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: On the other, if I may, Michael.


Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: I think that when that process, when the design process, whether it's sort of on the outside or on the technology side, is really, really virtuously undertaken, the two efforts really approach each other.

I mean, if you take seriously enough that, you know, interface design problem, let's say, then you actually start solving real-world problems, and that's what we found we were doing in "Minority Report."

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Bob(ph) in Montgomery, Alabama. Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): How are you, Ira? I love your show. I try to be in the car every Friday to listen to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thank you.

BOB: My question is about addressable paper, a Mylar-like substance that stayed in your home, and then you woke up, and it had the news on it. I guess the best movie example would be the "Harry Potter," - stuff you see in the "Harry Potter" movies. But addressable paper was something they were talking about several years ago. And I'm in the publishing business, so I'm making hard copies, magazines. So that would be interesting for me.

Mr. OKUDA: "Earth: Final Conflict" did that with some of their hand props. I thought it was an interesting approach, and it would have been nice for them to take it a couple of steps further.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: You know, and that stuff is real today. There's a company called E Ink that makes the display that's in a couple of the readers, the Amazon Kindle and so forth.

And we, you know, we showed a kind of prototype version of that in "Minority Report," but it's come true much faster than anyone could have imagined.

BOB: Great.

FLATOW: I'm reading a printout from the Internet from Geek System. It says: LG producing color and flexible e-paper displays. And they're talking about, you know, 19-inch flexible e-paper that displays, that just - they filed a patent for. And they say it's just like the newspaper in the "Minority Report," so...

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: It's hard to beat paper.

BOB: That's great. Well, I won't be putting this in the bottom of the birdcage, that's for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: And of course, we're waiting for the day when you can wallpaper with that stuff.

FLATOW: Yes, yes. What about the need to have tactile feeling. You know, there are two kinds of people who use cell phones or telephones: the ones that have to have the little buttons that click and the ones that say, you know, I'm okay with the flat screen on those.

Mr. OKUDA: When I first came up with the flat-screen controls for "Star Trek: The Next Generation," people I think correctly criticized it because there were no tactile indications, and certainly you didn't get a sense of pushing the button.

And almost out of desperation, I said, well, that's because there's a transducer built into it so that where you push it, you can feel a subsonic click. And people seemed to think it made sense.

And in fact, nowadays, if you look at the iPhones and a lot of similar products, they do give you an audible click, which is not quite as good as tactile feedback. But if you learn on that system, it seems to work.

FLATOW: Let's go to Casey(ph) in Denver. Hi, Casey.

CASEY (Caller): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CASEY: Can you hear me?

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead, a little bit. You're breaking up a bit. We'll see how long we can stay with you.

CASEY: How about now?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

CASEY: Okay. I was watching an old "Twilight Zone" episode a couple weeks ago that aired in 1963, and this traveler pulls in to get gas in some out-of-the-way village, and his dog jumps out and is hassling the local cat. And the cat's owner pulled out a box and a wand and points it at the dog, and it disappears and is reconstituted in the backyard. So there's your first transporter. And they transport people around like that, too.

And then additionally, a replicator. If you put a piece of paper in a slot, and it produces whatever you want: a gun, a dish, meal, whatever. That was I think three years before "Star Trek" debuted on TV.

FLATOW: Yeah, these are not new ideas. They go way back, don't they?

Mr. OKUDA: They do. And, you know, there's always been a kind of loose feedback cycle between science fiction and speculative narratives on the one hand and science and technology on the other.

I think what's really interesting is that today, that feedback loop is getting tighter and more explicit. No longer are the technologists and the artists sort of eyeing each other with interest but some dubiousness. Now, there are actual opportunities for collaboration, for genuinely productive collaboration.

FLATOW: John, as someone who does virtual reality, and we've gotten lots of tweets and questions about this, I'll ask this to you first: How close are we to the holodeck?

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: The holodeck is something that we can keep working toward. It turns out that the hardest part of that is the three-dimensional display.

There are companies like Zebra Imaging in Austin, Texas, that are kind of pushing at the very forefront of that effort. But fundamentally, the problem is an information one. It takes an enormous amount of information to create that much authentic, high-fidelity visual stimulus.

FLATOW: And I guess other people also, you know, talking about Geordie's vision interface.

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: That one we could do a lot sooner. In fact, we can do that sort of thing today. There are researchers like Thad Starner(ph) at Georgia Tech who live their lives, literally, inside those kinds of displays. And those are interesting social experiments.

For us, the most interesting thing is not to sort of subsume the human, the user inside a virtual world but to kind of force the computer out into the real world, to force it to take its place among the objects, among the spatial reality of everyday life.

FLATOW: Let me ask this to all of you. We have a couple of minutes left. Thirty years from now, what will we be looking back on and saying that something that exists then or in the future was inspired by something today? Are you all working on something, or do you have any ideas about that? Let me ask Michael and Denise first.

Mr. OKUDA: Well, we actually, last year, we were working on a science fiction pilot that didn't make it. And we were trying to envision a technology that made great use of - extensive use of e-paper-based not just displays but desktops and panels and walls.

And as these kinds of technologies, and not necessarily e-paper, become less expensive, larger, more versatile, I think we're going to see a tremendous explosion of media and of systems that respond to our presence and to our needs.

FLATOW: Let me ask you as sort of a corollary to that: What exists today of high tech that was not envisioned back then? That so, you know, we never saw this coming. It's sort of gee, why didn't we think of that?

Ms. OKUDA: The first thing that comes to mind that was life-changing is the Internet. I mean, talk about "Star Trek" being in the early '60s, there was no Internet, and the social networking alone is a leap forward. To me, I think that that's pretty life-changing.

Mr. OKUDA: Yeah, if you look at "Star Trek's" computers from the original series and even from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," clearly they knew it was going to be important. Clearly, we tried to make it look as cool as possible. But did anyone anticipate the astonishing power of network computing? No.

FLATOW: But you anticipated just speaking to your computer.

Mr. OKUDA: Which isn't really all that here yet.

FLATOW: Yeah, but...

Mr. OKUDA: But it will be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But it will be. And also, I guess quantum mechanics. Were there a lot of quantum mechanics involved in either quantum computing or communication?

Mr. UNDERKOFFLER: Yeah, no one really foresaw that. But we're so early in the real-world days of that kind of research that no one's entirely sure where it's going, either. So we'll have to wait and see on that one.

FLATOW: All right. And we'll check we'll all meet back here in about 30, 35 years. What do you say?

Ms. OKUDA: Sounds good to us.

Mr. OKUDA: It's a date.

Ms. OKUDA: Hopefully talking to you from Mars.

FLATOW: Oh, that's a whole other topic. We'll have to have you back for that. Thank you, Denise.

Denise Okuda was the video supervisor for "Star Trek" and Michael Okuda was the lead graphics designer, and they're authors of "The Star Trek Encyclopedia." John Underkoffler is a co-founder and chief scientist at Oblong Industries and a science adviser on the film "Minority Report." And I encourage you to go to and you'll get to see an interesting video of just what they do.

Thank you for being with us.

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