Many Star Trek fans decorate their fan caves (or personal bridges) with tribbles, models of the Enterprise, autographed images of famous Star Fleet personnel (and the actors that played them). Some place stickers on their monitors to create a more 24th century feel. With the advent of tablet computers, it seems that the 24th century arrived a bit ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the software running on our current devices doesn’t look anything like the iconic interfaces seen in Star Trek The Next Generation.
Don’t be too concerned though, the proprietors of Star Trek’s 24th century, CBS Interactive, has released the second generation of the Star Trek PADD software for Apple’s arcane (by 24th century standards) iPad. CBS packed a lot of images, sounds, and visual goodness into one application. At $4.99 it’s close to a no-brainer for Trek fans, especially those loaded up with holiday iTunes gift cards. If you want to boldly go where every Trek fan wants to go, this is the software for you.
Like many entertainment apps on the iPad, the Star Trek PADD takes a few seconds to load. But once it does load, a full LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) interface, complete with bleeps and buzzes and Majel Barrettt Roddenberry’s iconic computer voice assimilates the iPad.
Don’t set you expectations too high. Although CBS’s Paramount division has made billions of dollars off the Star Trek franchise, this iPad PADD is more a CliffsNotes’ overview of the Trek Universe rather than a Wikipedia-like experience.
There is a lot of information here and it can all be searched. Content is also organized into several categories, including aliens, characters, places, sci/med, cast, and many others. Expect to supplement search with a fair amount of scrolling. I don’t know about you, but I’m not completely competent in my Vulcan, Romulan, or Klingon names which result in close searches, but not always exact ones.
Hardcore Trekkers may be frustrated with the CBS Interactive PADD because it doesn’t consolidate the documentation of the Trek Universe now spread across dozens of books, many of which offer deeper details on topics like the design of the Starship Enterprise, the beloved vessel which is pretty lightly covered in the app.
If even the most ardent fans can get over the lack of deep detail, they will enjoy the ability to augment their Trek knowledge with random facts derived from random searches and arbitrary taps. If you keep in mind that the app is entertainment and not an encyclopedia, you will enjoy the romp through its references.
In version 2.0 of the app, CBS Interactive integrated Siri voice recognition so Star Fleet cadets and fans can achieve a bit more of that Star Trek feel while using the app. Unfortunately, Siri isn’t the Enterprise’s computer so it often misinterprets the input but that isn’t a completely unfamiliar experience for the Enterprise crew.
If left running, the app creates a visual and auditory atmosphere, complete with LCARS readouts as screen savers that augment reality with bridge bleeps and tweeps and accompanied by the low hum of a starship running at warp speed.
It appears that CBS Interactive is committed to regular updates. A tap on the “messages” button reveals new or updated information as it arrives in the database.
I think CBS Interactive needs to engage a more curatorial view of this iPad archive. Although categories exist for ships, characters, and technology along with staff, cast, aliens, and others, the single layer taxonomy doesn’t offer enough granularity. This is most noticeable in Episodes, where all the episodes are just strung together into a single list. It would be much more useful to Trek aficionados if the episodes were organized by show and season, which is a common way to access them on other platforms like Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. The “Ships” category offers another example. It would benefit from categories like Federation Ships, Klingon Ships, Romulan Ships, etc. Fan sites, like the Memory Alpha Wiki already provide this level of categorization.
One of the most noticeable problems with the PADD app comes from its imagery, which is universally of a poor resolution. In thumbnail view, the images are okay. However, tap on them, and they fill the screen with blurry and murky images, especially noticeable on the iPads with Retina display. Even entries from the remastered (hi-def) Original Series episodes and recent movies display very low quality images. Part of this is because the images are loaded inside memory, not downloaded on demand. Loading high-resolution images would make for a rather larger app (apps like Art Authority, which delivers this history of art to the iPad, manages high-resolution images for its art collection). I can accept sometimes sketchy text entries, but CBS is a company built on visual artifacts, and they can do better.
The app would also benefit from a play mode. Although the screen savers are fun in the beginning, they get repetitive. It would be great if a series of buttons tapped in a certain sequence would invoke a simulation mode and take users on an LCARS adventure to the many stations seen throughout the series.
I’d also like to see bigger “search” and “home” buttons, both of which seem rather squeezed in for buttons likely to be tapped frequently.
Finally, CBS has missed a marketing opportunity with this app. Even though the 21st Century has intruded into the Trek Universe through Facebook and Twitter feeds, they haven’t yet incorporated information about the new Out of Darkness movie into the app. With all the buzz about its 9-minute intro preceding Warner Bros.’s The Hobbit, this app would seem like the ideal portal to new franchise information, including access to trailers.
The CBS Interactive PADD doesn’t offer an encyclopedic entry into the Star Trek universe, but it does offer an accessible and fun way to visit that universe from the convenience of an iPad. Newbies will enjoy hours of exploration, and I’m sure at least a few Trek trivia arguments will be settled over this comprehensive, if not overly deep, set of database entries. At $4.99 it will fit into the budget of most Trekkers with an iPad, though it won’t always fulfill their hopes for what it can provide. CBS should continue to expect active feedback from its target audience.
Even after all these years, I regularly find new information in the PADD app. Teri Hatcher, for instance, asked for her name to be removed from the Next Generation episode “The Outrageous Okona” because so much of her acting was cut from the episode. I would ask “who knew?,” but I’m sure my ignorance on this topic would just generate a number of responses challenging my rank as a Star Fleet commodore. Live long and prosper.
A note on the PADD vs. the iPad. The iPad as envisioned by late Apple CEO Steve Jobs arrived in very different form than its fictional inspiration. The fictional PADD was not a universal device, but rather a functionally specific on. If Star Trek TNG were being made today, the designers would rethink that choice and declutter. That said, not only did Star Trek first propose something like the iPad, it also offered an early glimpse at second-screen technology.