Treknology Today

Friday, March 18, 2005

Communication is the Key: 2-The ComBadge

The main difference between the communicators on The Original Series and The Next Generation is that communications became more personal. Rather than a type of mobile phone that you only carry when you are away from the ship, the TNG combadge as it became known was omnipresent. It was always worn and it meant that crew members were always available, always on call, their every moment recorded.

What is a Combadge and what does it do? A Dermal Sensor Controller (DSC) verifies that the tap that activates it matches the unique Bioelectrical field and temperature profile of its' owner. The Subspace Transceiver Assembly (STA) turns the users' words into a digital burst which is transmitted (after encryption) to the closest of many short-range Radio Frequency transcievers installed about the ship. These relay the signal, using the main computer as it's routing control, to the desired target. The whole thing is powered by a tiny Sarium Krellide crystal battery, which has a 2 week average charge life. Of course the Comm Badge goes far beyond communications, they are in fact an interface between the wearer and the computer network. Other common uses are ...
  • through the Universal translator of the main computer, the user can communicate in any known tongue and (with enough data) a high percentage of new ones.

  • as a remote sensor to determine the major health parameters (biosigns) of the user eg. heartbeat, temperature etc.

  • To command the ships computer system by voice control.

  • to ascertain the location of the com badge user.

  • to serve as a transporter lock.

In a previous article on the ComBadge I did in 2002 there is certainly nothing that encompassed all these functions, and it is arguable if it could be done with such a small piece of hardware for a long time to come. In three years, the situation has changed considerably, however we are still not quite there ...

As I said in the last Treknology Today, It has often been noted that the Personal Communicator of The Original Series, was a foretaste of our modern mobile phone networks. One major difference has always been, though, that Trek Communicators have always had an audio input in that our favourite Science officer would say "Spock to Kirk’ rather than punch in Captain Kirk’s phone number. This function, Voice Dialling, is now an option on many mobile phones.

In Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which took place in 2271), we saw the half-way point between the communicator and the ComBadge with a smaller communicator worn on the wrist. This too has been reflected in reality by the release by Samsung of a mobile phone/wristwatch.

Perhaps the most visible example of ComBadge type communications on the market right now is the ubiquitous Bluetooth earphone/microphone headsets that use short range radio to make it possible for the user to have ‘hands free’ use of their mobile phones. Just as we have seen someone put bluetooth electronics into a TOS communicator (last issue) I am just waiting for someone to cram them into a replica Combadge!

Most Star Trek fans will probably be aware of the Vocera Badge. Released in 2002 they now have over 120 installations, some systems with over 2000 badges. Unlike the Trek ComBadge which is personalized to operate for only one person, the Vocera badge can be used by anyone after they have logged on and thus can be shared across shifts. It represents a coordinated coms system with the ability to call someone on the system by name, function or group, locate an individual, and is integrated with internal and external telephone networks, email, voicemail and more!

The idea of the Comm Badge goes far beyond simple voice communications. They are in fact an interface between the wearer and a computer network. This too is being reflected in new developments as the individual is becoming more and more ‘plugged into’ local wireless computer networks.

In my last survey, I noted various "Smart Badges" such as CharmBadge by Charmed Technology, Inc which gather information for the user and exchange information with other wearers. The idea is slowly but surely gaining ground both with new development, such as that done by Professor Gerald Q. "Chip" Maguire Jr. and Mat Hans, Ph.D. , and new commercially available products such as the nTag, Laser Registration and SmartGuide. All of these basically revolve around exhibition and convention usage but the possibilities are endless. I particularly liked the idea of the Evacuation Monitoring and Accountability System, or EMAS which uses RFID to log users in and out of a building by reflecting a radio beam off smart badge.

At the recent CeBIT Exhibition at Hanover, a new Siemens device based on Bluetooth goes a step further. It uses a "dictionary" of 30,000 recognised words & predefined commands as the input control device for a home network server which converts the words into commands for the different systems which are hooked up to it. Besides talking to others around the house, the wearer could control doors (air conditioning, lights?) or use the phone or internet

Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs have even gone so far as to name one of their projects the ComBadge, saying it is a "two-way voice messaging device with a simple spoken user interface." This project focusses on creating a communications device that is very simple & natural to use … to appeal to … the market where cell phone penetration is lowest, including children, the elderly, and the less-wealthy in the world."

Interestingly though it talks about the possibility of "delivering voice messages to machines in addition to people … Initially, we are looking at using ComBadge to control household devices and as a voice portal to traffic, weather, appointments, and stock quotes. An important new research area being investigated is using ComBadge in a mesh-connected environment in which no infrastructure is required. In such a system, a voice message is delivered to a destination ComBadge by forwarding the message through other intermediary ComBadges."

The Comm Badge represents an unobtrusive interface between man and machine. I see it as the forerunner of "wearable technology", where computer circuitry is embedded in clothing or, as in this case, jewellery.

The alternative is cybernetic implanting, to turn ourselves into Cyborgs - viable but not nearly as attractive an option to my mind.


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