A holodeck, in the fictional ‘Star Trek’ universe, is a simulated reality facility located on starships and starbases. It first appeared in the pilot episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ ‘Encounter at Farpoint,’ although a conceptually similar ‘recreation room’ appeared in an episode of ‘Star Trek: the Animated Series’ in 1974. In the timeline of the fictional universe, the concept of a holodeck was first shown to humans in an encounter with the Xyrillian race in the ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ episode ‘Unexpected.’

The holodeck is depicted as an enclosed room in which objects and people are simulated by a combination of transported matter, replicated matter, tractor beams, and shaped force fields onto which holographic images are projected. Most holodeck programs shown in the episodes run in first person ‘subjective mode,’ in which the user actively interacts with the program and its characters. The user may also employ third-person ‘objective mode,’ in which he or she is unseen by program characters.

Matter created on the holodeck (‘holomatter’) requires the holoemitters to remain stable and will quickly disintegrate if it is removed from the holodeck without a mobile emitter to sustain it, although this principle has been overlooked in some episodes. Writer Phil Farrand has often pointed out how in many episodes matter from the holodeck that gets on a real person still exists when the real person exits the holodeck. In ‘Encounter at Farpoint,’ Wesley Crusher falls into a holodeck stream, but is still wet after exiting the holodeck. In ‘The Big Goodbye,’ Picard has lipstick on his cheek after encountering a holodeck simulation of a 20th-century woman. In ‘Elementary, Dear Data,’ Data and Geordi La Forge exit the holodeck with a piece of paper that originated in the holodeck. This could be explained using replicated rather than holographic matter.

In most episodes, the holodeck is controlled by voice commands, though physical controls have been shown in a few episodes. They also include safety protocols to protect the users. Some users may develop an addiction to the holodeck (a condition known as ‘holodiction’), leading to them spending unhealthy amounts of time there and personifying artificial characters. This was demonstrated by the Starfleet human character Reginald Barclay in the ‘Voyager’ episode ‘Pathfinder’ and ‘The Next Generation’ episode ‘Hollow Pursuits.’ Although the holodeck was described in the first season of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ as being fairly new technology (on starships), in the episode ‘Once Upon A Time’ Captain Janeway and Harry Kim mention having used a holodeck as children.

The Star Trek Holodeck was inspired by New York inventor and holographer, Gene Dolgoff, who is also the inventor of the digital projector. His holography laboratory, built in 1964, was the first holography lab in New York City. In 1973, Dolgoff was giving a technical paper on his holographic model of the human brain at a conference in Prague. There he met Melanie Toyofuku, also based in New York, who became a close friend. After spending a great deal of time with Dolgoff learning about his pioneering work in holography, including visiting his lab, Melanie introduced him to her close friend Gene Roddenberry, who was visiting New York with his wife Majel Barrett in late 1973.

Dolgoff spent the day with Roddenberry and his wife showing them many holograms and explaining his theories of ‘matter holograms,’ the holographic nature of the universe, and the holographic nature of the human brain. Dolgoff emphasized the importance holography will play in the future and that if Gene Roddenberry wanted to be accurate he must introduce holography into his Star Trek scripts, including the concept of a holographic ‘room’ for the crew to use for amusement, training, and other purposes. Dolgoff had won 4th prize in the IEEE student paper contest in 1968 in which he described how such a holographic TV system could work (in addition to describing how to use it to provide a machine capable of invisibility).

True to Dolgoff’s vision, Starfleet personnel use holodecks for training, diagnostics, and recreation. Holodecks are used to recreate or simulate settings and events for analysis, such as to explore the forensics and logistics of a crime scene for law enforcement purposes, or for scientific experimentation. In general, the holodeck ‘functions as a cultural repository of narrative possibilities that would normally be excluded from the ship’s own sociohistorical moment’ and ‘allows the Enterprise community to include even that which it excludes by containing the excluded within a proper, controlled place which in no way intrudes upon the everyday space of the ship.’

The Emergency Medical Hologram on ships such as USS Voyager applies holodeck technology to present a single ‘character’ within the otherwise natural environment of the ship’s sick bay. An example of the holodeck’s recreational functions are the ‘holosuites’ that are owned and rented out—often for sexual purposes—by Quark on ‘Deep Space Nine.’ Writing stories and plotlines for the holodeck is an activity pursued by people known as ‘holonovelists.’ It was the chosen profession of Lt. Tom Paris of the USS Voyager, and he pursued it when the ship finally returned from the Delta Quadrant in the show’s finale.

The Holosuites and holodecks utilize two major subsystems: the holographic image and the conversion of matter. The holographic imaging system creates realistic environments and landscapes. The conversion system of matter creates physical objects from the central supply of raw materials from the ship. Under normal conditions, a participant in a holographic simulation should not be able to distinguish a real object from a simulated one.

The holodeck also generates impressive recreations of humanoid and other forms of life by means of precisely-shaped force fields covered by holographic imagery, with the effect that they seem solid to the touch. They are made to move by use of tractor beams, resulting in highly articulated and computer-controlled ‘puppets’ which are exceptionally realistic, showing nearly equal behavior to that exhibited by living beings, depending, of course, on the limits of the software involved. However, the replication-based material transport system is obviously unable to reproduce a living being.

Solid, inanimate objects on the holodeck—items such as a book, a rock, or an apple—are composed of matter arranged by the replication system and, when deemed appropriate by the computer system, can be interacted with or even consumed. Objects created by replication of matter are physically real and can indeed be removed from the holodeck, noting only that they will no longer be under the control of the computer once removed from the simulation. However, objects created on the holodeck that are purely images can not be removed from the simulated environment, even if they seem to have a physical reality due to the force fields. In order for a given item to be removed from the environment of the holodeck, a person would need to be holding the object as he/she leaves.

The basic mechanism behind the holodeck is the omnidirectional holo-diode (HDO). The HDO comprises two types of micro-miniature devices that project a variety of special force field. The density of HDOS in a holographic surface is 400 per square centimeter. Entire walls are covered with HDOS, manufactured in an inexpensive process of printing circuits on a roll. Besides the ability to project stereoscopic color images, HDOS manipulate the force fields in three dimensions to allow visitors to ‘feel’ objects that are not really there. This tactile stimulus provides the appropriate response one would expect from a rock on the ground or a tree growing in a forest. The only factors limiting the number and types of object are given by the computer memory and time to retrieve or calculate the beginning pattern of an object, either real or imaginary.

‘Star Trek’ has a number of interesting ‘holodeck’ episodes that very roughly point towards interesting philosophical and sociological issues of virtual realities. The first episode featuring a holodeck was ‘The Practical Joker,’ an animated episode in which it was called a ‘recreation room.’ Due to interference with the ship’s computers, several crew members were trapped in it until the engineering crew managed to force open the doors. There were several more incidents of crew being trapped or injured by holodeck malfunctions in later episodes. One resulted in the shooting of the ship’s historian on board Enterprise.

In the episode ‘A Fistful of Datas,’ Lt. Worf, his son Alexander, and Counselor Troi were trapped in a 19th-century American West adventure with the safety protocols disabled when a computer experiment involving Lt. Cmdr. Data went awry. Worf received a minor gunshot wound when the computer began remaking all the characters as replicas of Data. However he was able to safely play out the story, and the trio was able to leave the holodeck. Jean-Luc Picard experiences an upgraded holodeck in ‘The Big Goodbye,’ in which he portrays the detective Dixon Hill, a boyhood hero of the captain’s. This episode establishes the power and function of the holodeck. A malfunction leads to Data, Jean-Luc, and Beverly Crusher being trapped on the holodeck. Picard portrayed the character again in ‘Star Trek: First Contact.’

The disabling of a holodeck’s safety protocols was used as a tactical advantage in ‘Star Trek: First Contact,’ when under attack from the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard disables the security protocols and grabs a holographic tommy gun, shooting and killing two Borg drones. The holodeck was used as a plot device to explore metaphysical questions, in such episodes as ‘Elementary, Dear Data’ and ‘Ship in a Bottle,’ in which a holodeck character becomes self-aware and contemplates the nature of his identity and continued existence.

In ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ (a spin off about a Federation starship stranded in the far reaches of space) the holodeck was used extensively because a crew isolated from their homes required more frequent diversion, the holographic Doctor could, in the early seasons, be located only in the Sick Bay or one of the holodecks, and one of the main characters, Tom Paris, was by nature and calling a writer (holonovelist). When Captain Janeway gives holo-technology to the hunter-race the Hirogen after they take over Voyager for an extended period of time and use the ship’s holodecks (safety protocols off) to hunt down the members of the Voyager crew in (what they consider) intriguing holographic environments. Episode ‘Flesh and Blood’ reveals that the Hirogen’s improvements (designed to create more challenging holographic prey) have essentially created a new race of photonic beings.

In Episode ‘Nothing Human’ a holographic version of a real-life war criminal (whose unethical research helps save a crew-member’s life) is held responsible for the crimes of the Cardassian he was modeled upon. A holonovel ‘Photons Be Free’ authored by the holographic ship’s doctor (‘Author, Author’) raises the issue of whether the Doctor is a person and has any legal rights, and ends showing dozens of copies of the Doctor mining dilithium by hand for the federation, essentially as slaves. Voyager added an additional safety feature to the holodeck. Several holodeck environments are shown to include a hidden computer terminal that allows access to the holodeck controls as well as other ship systems, such as the transporters.

Ray Bradbury was perhaps the first science fiction author to envision a simulated environment similar to the holodeck. His 1951 book of short stories, ‘The Illustrated Man,’ includes a story called ‘The Veldt,’ in which a children’s nursery can create material objects based on thought. In 1965, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland stated: ‘The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal.’


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