Fantasy Science Pt. 20: How Do STAR TREK’s Holodecks Work?
Force fields. Holography. Augmented reality. Have you heard terms like these flying around the science fiction sections of the film/TV world? Have you ever wondered just how accurately these films portray real science? Well, my friends, today is your lucky day: this column, Fantasy Science & Coffee, aims to bridge the gap between science and science fiction in films and popular culture. My hope is to explain things in a fun way – like we’re chatting over coffee.
You may be thinking: who is this person, why does she think she can explain science, and why the heck would I want to have coffee with her? Well, I’m Radha, a researcher in India, who recently submitted a PhD thesis in theoretical quantum physics. I quite like hot beverages. I’ll also pay.
In this twentieth part of the series published on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, we are going to look at how Star Trek’s iconic holodecks work!
Holodecks in Star Trek
If you’re an avid reader of fiction, you likely enjoy the feeling of diving into a different world to get away from real life. In Star Trek, this is literally possible with holodeck technology. It’s one of my favourite narrative tools in the Trek universe, because there’s so much story potential: it can be used for recreational storylines, for serious training through realistic simulations, or even for alien encounters such as those with photonic beings in Voyager.
Holodecks are used to create very realistic environments that one can interact with tangibly. Here’s a clip from The Next Generation in which Data introduces Commander Riker to the holodeck:
In order to generate these complete, fictional worlds, holodecks make use of programs. Human holograms can be programmed to be as complex as real humans, responding to people based on their programmed characteristics. Creating these programs is an art, akin to present day publishing; one of the coolest concepts in Voyager is the holonovel.
Captain Kathryn Janeway, in order to deal with the stress of being a captain, often turns to the holodeck to unwind. In a few episodes, she takes part in a holonovel, in which she becomes a Jane Eyre-esue governess for a rich man with two children.
Later in the Voyager series, Lieutenant Tom Paris creates the Scottish township of Fair Haven, as a place for the crew to unwind. He prides himself on the detail he put into everything, including the holographic townsfolk.
What makes the holodeck truly remarkable is that despite being a moderately sized room, two people do not have to visit the same place in the fictional world. If Tom Paris wants to visit Fair Haven’s seaside, and Harry Kim wants to explore the castle on the hills near the village, they can do so simultaneously. They can be kilometers apart, but do not run into each other, nor the room’s walls. They cannot, however, access two different holodeck programs simultaneously; only one is allowed to run at a time.
What makes the show creators’ holodeck idea even more remarkable, is that there’s a very realistic explanation behind holodecks: its science is explained in the Voyager Technical Manual.
The technology is based on two concepts: 1) holographic imagery with force fields to project illusions for the human participant, and 2) replicator technology (the matter conversion subsystem) to convert energy to matter so that participants can actually feel the things they touch.
Brief Overview: Force Fields
Let’s take a look at the first concept. One can think of a force field as a map of how a force acts on a particle at each point within a certain space. For instance, the force fields generated by the holodeck are confined to within its walls, thus they do not have any influence beyond that room.
A force field is represented by curved or warped lines, to show just how the force acts along those paths. As an example, look at the magnetic field lines around a theoretical magnet (on the left). The arrows indicate the direction along which the force acts for each point on that path.
We can physically see this with iron fillings scattered over a real magnet (on the right). The magnetic field acts on them and arranges them in a way that we can actually see the field lines!
How Holodecks Work
Now that we have force fields down pat, let’s look at how the holodeck creates a tangible environment. This image, taken from Voyager’s technical manual, provides a nice explanation about how holodeck technology works:
The force fields, along with the replicator technology, constantly adapt to give a human participant the feeling of moving through space, without her actually moving very far, in much the same way a treadmill does. Rather than the participant moving around the room, the imagery provided by the holographic projectors warp to give her the visuals she expects to see, and the ground under her feet continuously replicates to make her feel like she’s walking.
A good example of this constant adaptation is when B’Elanna Torres goes skydiving in the Voyager episode “Extreme Risk”. When she jumps, the force fields compensate, giving her the feel of rapid free fall of hundreds of kilometers.
She prematurely ends the program before hitting the ‘ground’. It’s seen that she had been hovering a few feet above the floor of the holodeck all along. The holodeck safety controls soften her landing.
Real Life Tech
While we are far from being able to create tangible objects the way Star Trek’s replicator technology does, interesting strides have been made towards immersive virtual experiences. You may be familiar with the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset. Another really cool technology is that of augmented reality, which Pokemon Go players are familiar with, since a particular mode allows Pokemon to appear as though they are in one’s own surroundings. One of my favourites is Quartz’s iPhone app. I low key hung out with the Lunar Rover recently thanks to this app!
The extent of today’s technology, and the interesting strides in research and development are a tad long to be addressed here, so I’ll save those for a later date. Instead, I’ve linked below to a few interesting resources you may like to explore.
Before you leave, however, I have a question for the bibliophiles out there: which novel would you love to see converted to a holonovel?
More to Explore
The Telegraph: Amazon to ‘revolutionise’ shopping with ‘virtual changing room’ app (2019)
Harper’s Bazaar: Cher’s iconic computerised wardrobe could soon become a reality (2019)
Variety: A First Look at Light Field Lab’s Futuristic Holographic Display (2018)
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.