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Trailer: 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
Trailer: 'Star Trek Into Darkness': On its way back to Earth, the crew of the Enterprise discovers a one-man weapon of mass destruction, and begins a hunt for him.
Google Glass, on sale in months, shows data on a lens while Geordi's visor gave him data so he could "see." / Google; Geordi (LeVar Burton)
The Scanadu sensor will read temperature and heart functions like Dr. McCoy's medical tricorder. / Kim Kulish, USA TODAY
A 3-D printer like this made models for 'Star Trek' director J.J. Abrams. / Cubify

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“It’s unbelievable,” marvels director J.J. Abrams. “If you had told me when I was a kid that there would ever be something at an office in which I worked that could print out a 3-D spaceship model, I would have never stopped following you around asking you questions about how to get it and where does it come from.”

Abrams is talking about a 3-D printer in his studio in Santa Monica, Calif., one that helped him make his latest movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s a piece of advanced technology that you, too, may soon have.

In fact, it’s another case of Trek and tech colliding.

Since the pop-culture phenomenon premiered 46 years ago (the same year Abrams was born), Star Trek has consistently offered glimpses of our own scientific and technological future. On TV in the 1960s, Captain Kirk used a personal digital assistant, foreshadowing our tablets, and Spock talked to the ship’s computer just as we talk to our smartphones.

And that 3-D printer Abrams used — remember the replicator that produced food and other items on the ’80s-’90s series Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Approaching at warp speed

Though experiments have barely begun on 3-D printers producing food or a cup of Captain Picard’s favorite Earl Grey tea, major companies such as Ford routinely use 3-D printers that cost as much as $500,000 to build prototype parts. An at-home $1,300 model from 3D Systems that began selling to consumers last year makes plastic objects — toys, cups, shoes — smaller than 6 inches square and is so simple kids can use it. Next: 3-D printers that will “very soon be affordable by most standards and will be on people’s desks if they choose,” Abrams says.

Designers of the first portable cellphones credited Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision. “It became the flip phone because they wanted to be like Star Trek,” says Richard Doherty, founder of consulting and research firm The Envisioneering Group. “Kirk would flip that thing open, and everybody would go nuts, right? So Star Trek really does inspire this stuff.”

And the image of Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder has given birth to a $10 million innovation contest, sponsored by Qualcomm, to create a real-world, working version of a device to diagnose major diseases and monitor vital signs at home. More than 250 teams across the globe are trying to make it. Winners will be announced in 2015.

One entrant plans to bring tricorder-like functions to smartphones later this year. The Scanadu sensor is held to the patient’s temple to read temperature and heart function — just as McCoy waves his own tricorder at patients’ foreheads.

Mike Snider, a lifelong Trekkie, covers digital entertainment, including film and games, for USA TODAY.

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