On the eve of the rumored announcement of an Apple Tablet, I started thinking about similar devices in Star Trek. In Trek lingo they are referred to as PADDs. For a show made in the 60s and 80s it’s interesting to see how their conception changed over time. In the original show the earliest padds were pretty basic, like clip-boards that the crew could carry around — making notations with a stylus. In The Next Generation and later shows the padds had touch screens, hard buttons, and an occasional stylus. They were designed in the early days of the internet, and before wireless networking — so there was little consistency of whether a pad was the keeper of the information, or if it was networked. Padds often seemed to be special purpose devices, so users had various versions of them.
They were said to run an operating system called LCARS — which was used on all interfaces in the show. The look and feel of LCARS was designed by Michael Okuda. Michael’s brief, from show creator Gene Roddenberry, was “that the instrument panels not have a great deal of activity on them. This minimalized look was designed to give a sense that the technology was much more advanced than in the original Star Trek.” (source.) It’s this abstraction that helped the padds fit into the show without needing too much detail or explanation.
Over time some of the interfaces got more complex and literal. It was geeky fun to try to look for UI details. At the time, they felt like a very cohesive system — like a real part of the Star Trek universe.
The tablets definitely caught people’s attention. There are screensavers, games, mockups, a theme to turn your Nokia phone into a padd — all sorts of ways for people to pretend they’re real. Unfortunately, because the original design brief was for an abstract UI, these interfaces loose much of the magic due to the details they’re forced to include.
All images from: Memory-alpha.org. (c) Paramount Pictures and/or CBS Studios.