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Thursday
Nov242011

Living in the Future: Communicators

by Michael Fisher

“Incoming Transmission!”

Saturday-morning cartoons; 1960s-era comic books; “Wagon Train to the stars … IN SPAAAAACE.” Three very different storytelling vehicles, but helmed by people with shared knowledge of a single, inalienable truth:

Kids love walkie-talkies.

This is because kids don’t know how annoying they can be in restaurants.

 

I’m being totally serious. When I was younger, my friends and I would freak out over two-way radios. Before Star Trek entered the periphery of my awareness, the primary staple of my TV programming was Inspector Gadget, a cartoon about an inept detective whose family does his job for him. And I mostly watched Inspector Gadget to catch a glimpse of his neice Penny’s computer watch. She was always just a keystroke away from two-way video contact with her awesome dog—or really, anyone with a video console. Which, in the best traditions of early-1990s cartoons, was everybody.

Source: Cliquey PizzaSomehow, those three buttons saved Inspector Gadget’s life in every. single. episode.

 

Had I been aware of the communications devices offered by Roddenberry’s universe, odds are that Star Trek would have found its way into my life much sooner. Not long after The Next Generation caught my attention with its stylish, minimalist combadges, late-night reruns of The Original Series introduced me to the iconic Wah Chang communicator: the one that started it all.

Source: Alex Walker StudiosHot.

To fully appreciate the wonder and techno-lust engendered by these devices, recall the state of technology in the early 1990s: portable home phones were just beginning to enter mainstream usage, but most handsets were just antenna’ed-up versions of the same bulky banana-shaped receivers. Range was no more than 40 feet. Where I lived, calls still cost upwards of 10-20 cents a minute.

That’s landlines, remember. Rates on cellular phones sat somewhere between five and eight dollars per minute, and the hardware, well…

Source: Boomer CafeNot.

To a kid my age, then, the telephone was a luxury item that confined you to the indoors, and cost your parents money. There was no “cool factor” to the hardware, and most models didn’t even have a speakerphone. So the notion of using a futuristic-looking gadget to chat with friends, untethered to a house, was as absurdly improbable as it was alluring. “It would be so awesome to have a communicator,” said every Trek-watching kid ever. “It’ll probably never happen, though.”

Slingshot around the Sun to 2011. The last two decades, which I will term The Coolest Explosion Of Awesome Technology Ever, have delivered amazing advances. In many ways, we got our communicators—and then some. In the last decade, we’ve gone from embracing the novelty of a sidewalk phone call (“Nope! I’m not even in a phone booth!”) to devices with features so advanced that the voice calls we once coveted are now passé.

Luckily, there are people whose childhood adoration for handheld subspace communicators survived twenty years of hard, cold life—and not just Trek.fm bloggers, either. Software developers, electronic engineers, and corporate product designers have all responded to the call from Trekkies around the world to “make my cell phone a communicator!” And now that technology has made that very thing possible, two decades of repressed demand has resulted in an explosion of apps, custom props, and, yes—a “Star Trek phone” or two. Let’s take a look at what’s available out there to Trek-ify your mobile life.

 

Apps (Geek Factor 1)

“Star Trek Communicator” for webOS, running on an HP Pre3.

If you’re perfectly happy with your existing mobile phone, and it’s a smartphone running one of the more popular platforms, you’re in luck! There’s an abundance of communicator apps to give your phone the flashing, beeping, hot Moire-spinning action it’s been missing.

Some communicator apps, like those available for the rarer webOS and Windows Phone platforms, function mainly as soundboards: they offer a library of sound clips, usually from The Original Series, that play when buttons on the communicator are pressed. Spock says “fascinating” and McCoy is ornery—you know the drill. Even better: they include an animated antenna lid that obscures the communicator controls when “closed.” A quick flick of the wrist opens the grill with the traditional chirp sound. Another flick closes it.

The app is even a social barometer of sorts: If they’re true friends, your buddies will still associate with you in public after you’ve shown it around the room! (Test this feature at your own peril.)

All that’s well and good for we fringe elements of society with our niche mobile platforms, but what about those of you fancy mainstream folk, with your Android phones and Apple i-Devices and your… Molly Ringwald… sunglasses? (Protip: I’m not hip to the mainstream.) Don’t fret, Droids and iPhone-ers! You’re well-served by a CBS-sponsored app that, while not as pretty as the others, adds fun functionality: you can dial out from within the app, thus making the communicator the launching pad for your phone call.

The dialpad could use some work, though.

Even communicators from the 24th century get a little love from app developers, at least on the widget-friendly Android platform. The aptly-named “Combadge” allows you to place any of several communicator icons onto your home screen, where a tap will perform such shortcut functions as pulling up a contact list, a specific contact, or, best of all, activating voice dial. All this after a proper chirp, naturally. Now, if only we could find a way to move them off the phone screen and into a proper lapel pin. While some outfits have taken big steps in this direction, we’re still a little ways off from a truly self-contained cellular-style combadge. In the meantime, though, we’ll always have the Android Market.

It is a crystalline composite of silicon, Beryllium, carbon-70, and Gorilla Glass.

So the communicator is well represented on the app scene. But what about the advanced Trekker, desirous of a more authentic landing party experience? The sleek, smooth-shelled smartphones of today are a far cry from the hardy, full-bodied communicators used by our heroes. And where’s the flip antenna?

Sure, you could fake it with an older clamshell-style phone programmed with some custom ringtones and wallpapers; indeed, that’s how I muddled along for years, and it’s a lot of fun. But it’s not 2004 anymore. Carrying a dumbphone isn’t as practical as it once was. To feel like a genuine wearer of the burgundy velour, you’ll have to graduate to…

 

Mass-Produced Hardware (Geek Factor 3)

Source: Gizmodo

We’ll begin with the weakest of the sauces.

If you do a lot of Skyping from your computer and don’t mind the kind of halfhearted design, the wire sticking out of the bottom, and being forced to hold a communicator up to your head like a regular old phone… then Dream Cheeky has got a deal for you!

The basic idea is this: you plug the communicator into your computer’s USB port and it becomes a telephone handset for all of your VoIP calling needs. It ships with a bunch of sound effects from the show, and it’s priced fairly reasonably for what it is: a last-minute gift for the office holiday party. Remember, these are the same folks who offer the Starship Enterprise Webcam; it’s that kind of kitsch.

For the casual Trek fan, the USB communicator serves its purpose well as a mass-produced toy. Right now it’s sitting at 3.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon (albeit with only two reviews). But the flaws described above—chief among them the dorky USB cable that ties you to your computer—render this effort rather unimpressive. This is not “living in the future.”

Instead, what if you could have a near-replica-quality communicator connected wirelessly to your cellphone, allowing you to make and take calls just like the real UESPA explorer you’ve always fancied yourself? With the expenditure of either a bit more effort, or quite a bit more cash, you can.

 

Custom Hardware (Geek Factor 5)

Source: Makezine

“Now this, Dina … This … is the good stuff.”

The general idea is simple: stuff the important bits of a Bluetooth speakerphone into the casing of a toy communicator. If you’re handy with a soldering iron and cozy with electronics schematics, you can build your very own real-life Star Trek communicator. The folks over at Makezine have a detailed step-by-step tutorial for this purpose, complete with shopping list, circuit diagram, and even some fancy source code for flashing the device’s microprocessor.

Sound a little too involved for you? If you’re not comfortable shopping for items like a “MCP4821 SPI DAC” (one of many like-sounding items on Make’s communicator shopping list), there’s another solution: you can pay someone else to build one for you. This is what aptly-named YouTube user “Bluetoothcommunicato” started doing way back in 2007, right before offering some of the custom-built units for sale on eBay. As of late 2010, he offered either a “standard” or a “deluxe” variant: the former is built using the Art Asylum/Diamond Select communicator toy as a base, while the latter is built on the Star Trek: The Experience comm. The principal difference between the two is metal: the Experience comm uses it in its antenna grill, midplate, and control panel, whereas these are all plastic on most of the AA/DST units.

The top advantage of this approach to real-life Trekdom: it’s as close as you can get to “the real thing.” The unit is paired wirelessly with your cellphone, which can be up to 30 feet away. When a call comes in, your phone stays in your pocket while you pull the communicator off your Velcro-lined belt (or from your other pocket, if you wanna be dull about it) and flip it open. Depending on which model you have, you either press a concealed button to answer the call, or the microprocessor “opens the frequency” for you.

Voila. You are now talking to your friend/lover/commanding officer through a 23rd-century-era Starfleet communicator! Actually, depending on how much money you dropped on your new gadget, it’s probably your credit card company wondering when you’ll get around to dropping that payment in the mail—but hey, it was worth it, right?

… right?

Not good enough? Well hey, if a Bluetooth communicator doesn’t wave your flag around, you’re going to have to risk crossing the threshold into…

 

Prototype Hardware (Geek Level 10—Infinite Geekdom)

Nokia: good for more than just interrupting your Beastie Boys song.

Why are you here? You shouldn’t have read this far unless the only thing that will satisfy you is a genuine, self-contained communicator: a mobile phone finished in Star Trek livery. Your refusal to compromise is admirable, but there’s a problem: such a thing has never been released. Not even during the heyday of the flip phone, when even the non-Trekking public was making clever “beam me up, Scotty” jokes as they whipped out their StarTACs and RAZRs. No company ever siezed the opportunity to create a genuine Star Trek-themed mobile device.

To be fair, though, there were a few attempts.

 

“Star Trek” In Name Only

In 2006 HTC, then a little-known Taiwanese cellphone manufacturer, had a phone on the market called the iMate Smartflip. Perhaps sensing how incredibly mundane the name was, they rebranded it the “HTC Star Trek” on its U.S. release. The problem: the only thing the device had in common with its namesake’s communicator was a hinge.

“RING! I mean, uh, chirpitty-chirp! Captain Battlestar to Darth … uhm, Janeway…
You know what, screw it: I’m just a flip phone. Your mom’s calling.”

The phone was offered for sale for quite a while on AT&T’s network, indicating it sold reasonably well, but beyond its hastily tacked-on name, it was never positioned as a true “communicator phone.” Nor could it have been. It’s since moved on to that great junkyard of misnamed products in the sky, but these can still be found on eBay if you’re in the market for a five-year-old smartphone.

 

A Bold Vision from Sona Mobile

Even before HTC started hawking the above pile of mediocrity, things were looking hopeful. In mid-2005, a small company called Sona Mobile promised a Windows Mobile-based flip smartphone that would have been a sort of hybrid original series/Next-Gen device.

The casing (which never got past the design phase, it seems) would have resembled the Wah Chang configuration from TOS. Based on the initial renders on the teaser ads for the product, Sona may have been intending to base it on the then-powerful Motorola MPx220, but there’s no way to be certain.

The software would have received an LCARS-like skin over the Windows Mobile interface, appealing to the 1987-and-later Trek fans in the prospective customer base. The operating system was also to incorporate a new “Sona Mobile Platform” that would offer Trek-themed games, screensavers, and other media, delivered on-demand. In those days, well before the rise of the on-device App Store, it was quite an ambitious notion.

I would have sold my car for this phone.

Ultimately, it turned out the notion was too ambitious. After a number of delays that pushed the release back months, then years, Prop Buzz reported that the company did not have the investor support needed to continue with the project. The figures cited on the linked article put the cost of manufacturing 25,000 units at $3 million, which apparently Sona Mobile did not have. As the years passed and the underlying Windows Mobile operating system slipped into obsolescence, the prospect of the phone’s release grew increasingly unlikely.

Finally, on March 30, 2009, the first real hope of a modern-day communicator died for good, as Sona Mobile “filed a voluntary petition for liquidation” in the US Bankruptcy Court of Las Vegas. By this time, the iPhone and like devices had already driven the industry away from the clamshell design toward larger, monolithic slab devices. The hope for a real communicator was all but dead.

 

Nokia’s Folly

Oh, those cunning Finns.

The only way to properly report on this rarest of all communicators is to have the current owner tell the story himself. As that man is me, I believe I can arrange that.

One night in July of 2010 I was hiding from the summer heat by the A/C, passing time on eBay, when I got the idea to search for the phrase “Star Trek Communicator Phone.” I’d done other variations on this search many times before, usually hoping against hope that the Sona Mobile device had seen at least a limited release and I’d be able to snag one. But I’d never met with any success—until this night.

It was the first listing that popped up, and it was something I’d never seen before: the title was STAR TREK REAL PROTOTYPE CELLPHONE COLLECTIBLE. And the title delivered.

What was being offered was one of only fourteen prototypes developed internally at Nokia, the Finnish phone giant, evidently to evaluate the possibility of a promotional tie-in with the 2009 J.J. Abrams film. Ultimately Nokia decided on a much lamer idea, though, and the prototypes were all that remained of the abortive effort. Now an ex-Nokia employee whose NDA had just expired was offering his up for sale, and I knew I had to have it.

Before you ask: Yes, I ended up winning the auction. No, I won’t say for how much. Yes, because it’s embarrassing. No, it’s not for sale. And no, I don’t regret it… one bit.

Would you?

At its heart, the device is a spruced-up refresh of the Nokia N76, a Symbian-based smartphone initially released back in 2007. Hardware customizations include a faux silver midplate seam, heavy brass faceplate for the “antenna grill” (with custom-colored LEDs underneath), a futuristic keypad design with Moire-style d-pad, a TOS movies-era Starfleet insignia on the back, and an engraved plan view of the Enterprise-A on the rubber USB cover.

An AA/DST comm alongside the Nokia comm:
the cheapest unit available next to the most-expensive one.

Nokia seems to have put some thought into this, as the software has also received some tweaks. These include custom wallpapers from all generations of Trek (including an animated Moire pattern), custom ringtones, and, of course, the obligatory TOS chirp sound when the flip is opened.

The phone does indeed work: I’ve used it on both T-Mobile and AT&T here in the U.S., and it makes and takes calls and SMS messages just fine. The browser is also fully functional, and the speakerphone is just loud enough to play landing-party member.

But it’s not something you’d want to use every day - or really, any day but Halloween. It’s very obviously a prototype: texting isn’t practical because the keys have no tactile feedback, the power button needs to be pressed with a fingernail, and the volume controls can’t be accessed without removing the battery cover. Speaking of the battery: it needs to be charged externally, as the charging port doesn’t function.

You dumb, but you pretty.

So, in the harsh light of the post-flip-phone world, the closest we’ve come to reproducing the classic communicator in today’s tech is a five-year-old smartphone in Beta form, only a handful of which were ever built, made available only once on eBay at a cost rivaling that of a mid-range laptop. Somehow, by 2011, I thought we’d do a little better.

But let’s not lose hope. The marketing world shows no lack of appetite for new tie-in opportunities, and Star Trek is a multi-billion dollar property with a loyal fan base that’s been clamoring for a “real communicator” for decades. Companies like Nokia and Dream Cheeky, and individual tinkerers turning out custom props in their garages, are obviously interested in claiming their piece of the pie. If there’s enough of a market, you can bet some of those creative minds will make a large-scale release happen. The only question is whether they can do it before the communicator’s already-weakened cultural significance evaporates completely.

In the meantime, we’ll keep monitoring all frequencies for more communicator prototypes, unreleased replicas, and custom builds, while hoping for more… but still grateful to be Living in the Future.

See what I did there?

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