In the ongoing debate between fans of Star Trek and Star Wars over which sci-fi giant is the superior franchise, a huge point in Star Trek’s favor is the consistency of its fictitious science and technology. While Star Wars throws its audience curveballs like midichlorians and the Holdo Maneuver, Star Trek has kept its scientific lore intact for over half a century.
One of the most curious pieces of futuristic tech in the franchise is the holodeck, a highly advanced virtual reality environment on board the Enterprise where literally anything can happen. Here are 10 questions about the Holodeck, answered.
10 What makes the holographic images feel solid?
The distinction between real-life virtual reality and the one that Enterprise crew members can immerse themselves in using the holodeck is that in real life, we can’t feel VR images to the touch and in the holodeck, they can. The holographic images are solid to the touch, and this is due to something called “holomatter.”
The holomatter usually disintegrates at the end of a holodeck simulation, although it has sometimes been shown to exist outside the confines of the holo-chamber, like when Wesley Crusher emerged from a simulation, visibly wet. Exactly how scientifically accurate the concept of “holomatter” is remains unclear.
9 Why is there an option to turn off the safety protocols?
In every holodeck, there is actually an option to turn off the safety protocols and remove everything that is keeping the user safe. One might wonder why such an option would exist, since surely nothing good can come from turning them off, save for, say, the thrill of being unprotected.
As disappointing as this answer is, it can be explained as a simple plot device. It’s a Chekov’s gun for the Star Trek narrative – if the safety protocols can be turned off, then at some point, someone needs to turn them off – and it allows the writers to escalate the tension.
8 Why are there safety protocols in the first place?
If one was wondering why the holodeck would have an installed option to switch off all the safety protocols, then one might also wonder why a virtual reality simulator needs safety protocols in the first place, but that might just be for the user’s peace of mind. You have to put yourself in the shoes of someone using a holodeck.
This isn’t just very realistic VR – it’s basically an entirely accurate recreation of real life. If you didn’t have the comfort of knowing that there was some kind of safety protocol keeping you out of danger, you might go stir crazy in there.
7 When did the Federation start equipping its ships with holodecks?
Every Federation ship includes at least one holodeck, but the Federation didn’t always equip its ships with holodecks. It was only in around the late 24th century (an era that it feels strange to refer to in the past tense) that they started installing holodecks on their ships.
Depending on the size and purpose of each ship, they might include more than one holodeck, but one is the standard. The USS Discovery is shown to have had holographic technology on board in the 23rd century, but that was a rarity (again, referring to the distant future in the past tense feels odd).
6 Why do Federation starships even need holodecks?
While having a holodeck on board the Enterprise is unquestionably useful in coming up with story ideas, what is its actual purpose on Federation starships and in other Starfleet establishments? Well, it can be used by space-faring Federation crew members for a number of different reasons.
It can be used for training exercises (a little like the Danger Room in X-Men comics), recreations of crime scenes for investigative purposes, and entertainment – because let’s face it, even in the distant future aboard a starship drifting through space, people still need to be entertained. It can also be used for therapeutic reasons, like Tony Stark’s B.A.R.F. tech.
5 How did the holodeck’s simulation of Moriarty gain a consciousness?
While playing a holodeck game based on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Geordi La Forge complained that since Date had read all the Holmes stories, he always knew who the culprit was, so he told the holodeck to create a villain that even Data couldn’t defeat.
La Forge meant he wanted the holodeck to create an adversary for Holmes that Data would not be able to defeat in the game, but since he specified Data, the holodeck created a version of James Moriarty that was self-aware. This was because La Forge told the holodeck to simulate a villain for Data, a real person.
4 What is the holodeck’s full name?
Although it is the most common name for the device, a holodeck is not technically called a holodeck. Its full name is “Holographic Environment Simulator.” Calling it a “holodeck” is like calling a refrigerator a “fridge” or calling a television set a “TV” – it’s just a shorter name for it that’s easier to say and saves the speaker some time.
It’s fair to say that the holodeck wouldn’t be nearly as iconic or memorable in science fiction lore if it was only ever referred to as the “Holographic Environment Simulator.” Of course, the actual technology would still be just as impressive and awe-inspiring.
3 What are the different modes of using the holodeck?
There are two different modes of using the holodeck: one in which the user is actually inside the holodeck, experiencing the VR simulation first-hand, and another in which the user observes a simulation from a viewing platform without actually getting involved.
The latter mode is, by far, the least used one, since the former would obviously be the most fun and immersive. Most users of the holodeck are there to live out their most outlandish or depraved fantasies, so if they had the option to live it over merely watching it from a distance, they would obviously choose to live it.
2 Are there limitations to what the holodeck can simulate?
The only limitation to the holographic technology of the holodeck is the user’s imagination. As long as the imagination is there, the sky’s the limit. Whatever needs to be simulated for a training procedure or an investigation or simply for personal enjoyment, the holodeck has got you covered.
The writers of the Star Trek franchise have used this to terrific effect in terms of storytelling, as the holodeck can be used to visualize what would otherwise be a character’s internal conflict or struggle. Plus, when holodeck technology goes awry, it can lead to some pretty spooky cautionary tales, which is what Star Trek was all about in the beginning.
1 Could technology like the holodeck exist in real life?
Before introducing the holodeck into the Star Trek universe, Gene Roddenberry met with inventor Gene Dolgoff, owner of a holography laboratory, so there is some basis in real science. While holograms have existed in the real world since the late 20th century and virtual reality technology and augmented reality glasses already exist, we don’t have the deeply immersive holodeck technology that Star Trek predicted would be on all of Earth’s starships by the 24th century (although that’s fair enough, because the 24th century is still a long way away).
Scientists have estimated that, if a holodeck could ever exist, without the use of glasses and with the feeling of solid matter on holograph imagery, it’s hundreds of years away.