Tricorder update #5 – Functional Blocks – working out how it will work

(This article was first emailed on May 4th, 2021 to fans who had registered an interest in finding out more about our Tricorder.)

Our dream of bringing the tricorder to life started with the desire to make an accurate replica, true to the design of the original prop. Thorough research, meticulous 3D design, and carefully choosing materials and finishes goes a long way to making what we hope will be a great prop replica that fans will enjoy owning. However, alongside creating an authentically accurate look and feel, designing in some real-world functionality has always been a key element of the Wand Company philosophy, and in this respect, the tricorder is no different. In terms of the challenges this project presents, the tricorder has taken our skills to a new, higher level, and the result is an immersive experience for the user who wants a fully accurate prop and yet also wants to enjoy using it to access archived logs, and to scan, sense, and record a range of data down on the surface of their home planet. 

In the mid-1960s, when Wah Chang was sketching out his response to Gene Roddenberry’s brief for a handbag-sized scientific instrument prop that Uhura could carry, the technology that would eventually make his concept real had only recently been a strip of germanium on a glass slide on a Texas Instruments prototype bench. Then there was the Coronet Windsor radio – a popular portable device of the day, with a simple, boxy, clean-lined look not unlike that of the tricorder, which donated its speaker grille for this higher use, and proudly boasted just two transistors to provide joy to its happy owners. Only 55 years later the world has moved on somewhat faster than The Original Series writers could have possibly imagined, and enormously powerful computers with billions of transistors, capable of a staggering array of tricorder-style functions, routinely warm the pockets of millions of ordinary people. For us and our compact team, the comparatively simple ARM Cortex-M7 processor package not only fits neatly inside the tricorder hood but, being relatively capable, fast, reliable, and low energy, also has a good fit with our project requirements.

As one might expect, this main processor is housed in the tricorder’s hood behind the 320 x 240 pixel resolution LCD which displays information and real-time data logged from tricorder’s on-board sensors (to be described in full in a later post). The screen also provides the user interface navigation that is necessary to access the tricorder’s many functions using just the three buttons available. Data logged by the sensors is stored in the tricorder’s memory alongside essential firmware and a number of other archive files and interesting pieces of pre-recorded information ready for an eager crew member to explore and enjoy at their leisure. 

A MEMS microphone hidden behind the grille enables the user to record their own audio, which can be usefully stored as individual audio clips available to be replayed later via the in-built speaker.

As well as its environmental sensors, the tricorder also employs a number of internal state sensors to help it function correctly. Two single-action buttons and one five-way jog switch provide seven inputs. Much of the other internal state sensing and subsidiary functions are managed by a second, 8-bit microcontroller tucked next to the moiré’s stepper motor behind the upper of the two doors. The actions of opening the hood or closing the upper door are detected by the movement of magnets, hidden in the hood and door, using two Hall effect sensors, and let the tricorder know when to wake up and stop the moiré motor turning respectively. Data disc insertion is detected by an array of eight latching mechanical switches. At the right-hand end of the disc bank, an optical sensor detects which of the eight different data discs has been loaded into that position, which then determines which of the tricorder’s stored data can be accessed and which sensor functions are ready for use. Finally, the battery management circuit constantly monitors the tricorder’s power level and reports battery charge status. 

The block diagram shows only the main functional blocks and, although they are not to scale or positioned accurately, they are placed to show their approximate physical relationship. Cables connect the three main functional zones, running outside the right-hand aluminium side plate, hidden under the side panel. From the hood, the cables are tracked through a large hole in the centre of the hood pivot bush, allowing the hood to rotate 180˚ from closed to fully open. 

We know you are keen to find out more about how these functional blocks work and exactly what the features are. Over the coming weeks, we will begin to explore the various features and functions with you in more detail, but before that, we need to have a look at how the injection mould tooling that will be used to manufacture the tricorder is made. So until then…

LLAP

Chris

Coming next time

Cutting tools – Making the things that will make the thing

Fans who register with us will be the first to read our news and the progress of this exciting Tricorder development and, later, where and when to purchase it. You can catch up with the story so far here on this blog, but if you haven’t already done so, why not register your interest in the Tricorder – you’ll then receive a personalised registration certificate and early access to these updates (before we publish them on our website).

20 thoughts on “Tricorder update #5 – Functional Blocks – working out how it will work

  1. Brian S

    Thanks for all the new information. You really have a lot to cram into such a tiny space. Great engineering! I’m excited to learn more about the optical sensor for the discs!

    I do have one question though. You indicate the hood will “rotate 180˚ from closed to fully open”. This surprises me a bit. I thought the “fully open” position would be about 90ish degrees as seen on the show, not a full 18. In other words, I thought the screen and buttons would face forward, not face up. Am I misunderstanding something?

    Reply
  2. Chris Barnardo Post author

    It will have a detent position that will stop it when the screen is facing forwards, so it can be used and displayed like that. However, in the show occasionally it was occasionally turned to face upwards and so our replica will follow this function too.

    Reply
  3. Aureliano Sanchez-Arango

    Hi Chris,

    Can you talk about the function and purpose of the SD card in the hood? Is that going to be user-swappable? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Brad Manning

      I think the SD card in the hood is just internal memory for the functional operations that need flash memory. It seems that the data discs could be real, with micro SD inside or something. It’s an awesome thought considering how far fetched the notion of memory discs was in 1966.

      Reply
  4. Chris Barnardo Post author

    No real plans for that just yet, think of it more as a future proof/possibility that we might want to explore if we have the bandwidth.

    Reply
    1. Aureliano Sanchez-Arango

      Fair enough. My vote (and that of other fans I’ve chatted with on the boards) is to put the Edith Keeler tricorder video on there from City on the Edge of Forever. I believe this would constitute, to use the technical term, “mondo coolness.”

      Reply
  5. Brian S

    I have an important question. I just got the latest email Update, and it shows “Coming Next Time: Data Discs” and shows a photo with dayglo colors for each of the discs. Are these colors locked in, because they don’t look or feel ‘canon’. In other words, they don’t feel like the more pastel-ish/muted palette we usually see for things like the rocker switches or the microtape data blocks we always saw on TOS. It just seems to clash, not complement, the colors one usually finds in the TOS Starfleet world. I would include some images to show what I mean, but I can’t include any in the comments here. I did post some on The RPF forum in the thread entitled “The Wand Company TOS Tricorder is coming!” just to show what I mean. And I noted there that the displayed color choice is both jarring and makes the Tricorder seem more like a child’s toy rather than something that would be found ‘in universe’. Put simply, this feels a bit like the mistake made with the original “Discovery” logo display.

    It just doesn’t feel TOS to me.

    Are these indeed the colors for the final product? Or are they open to community input, as was done with catching the issue with the logo etc?

    Reply
  6. Brian S

    I ask the above questions now, rather than waiting the month or so til the Data Disc Update is posted, just in case the colors are *not* locked yet, but might be close to being locked. I didn’t want to take the chance of missing any opportunity to have input on them if possible.

    Reply
    1. Chris Barnardo Post author

      They are not locked in and they continue to be under review and will do so after we have had the first shots made which will enable us to get a better idea of how they relate to the Tricorder and how they function with the internal sensor. Renders are tricky and in this case, the ‘What’s coming next’ teaser image was a quick render was done that didn’t properly reflect the true colours we are currently considering. I thought the main fan interest and response would be to the words written on the discs that hint at the tricorder’s functions. In doing that I mentally bypassed the importance of the colours in this particular image, especially the yellow of the STATUS disc which is much too bright. This an image of the colour chips we are currently considering, although the colours may well be more muted and certainly will be tuned as we move forward through the final stages of the production process.

      null

      In terms of community input, we love getting feedback, but in the end, we have to decide which features and capabilities to fit in the products we develop which are always a result of a pragmatic balance between what we want to do, what we can do, what we can afford to do and what the product value proposition can bear in terms of development and production cost.

      Reply
      1. Brian S

        Chris – THANK you for that information! And it is good to know they are not yet locked. There are already discussions raging about the colors on a couple forums. Almost everyone agrees they are not from the Starfleet color palette. As one put it, they look like “Crayola” crayon colors. Even the ones you provide above seem more like they are chosen from the primary colors of the basic color wheel, and not the more subtle color variations used in TOS for Starfleet.

        Now some are not concerned about the colors at all. But others, myself included, believe the colors chosen take away from the “replica” feeling of the Tricorder. I, personally, feel the dayglo colors jar one out-of-universe – the way painting the ends of “blasters” bright orange does for Star Wars or the like – thereby making the product seem more like a toy than a replica. Now, this might not have been *as* great an issue but for the fact that your Tricorder is nicely designed in such a way that one must always use – and see – them in order to access different functions of the Tricorder. And that is just going to remove from the verisimilitude of the replica – similar to the problem with the logo.

        Now, there *are* some Starfleet specific color palette precedents for data storage and for function use from TOS, which one could use to stay within ‘canon’. Two come to my mind. And both use a more subtle set of colors:

        The first is the thin rectangular “microtape” or “record tape” cards (that are shaped similarly to the color cards you are using in your above photo). As you know, they were used on board the Enterprise for a variety of functions similar to the way you are planning on using them in the Tricorder. You can visit the Star Trek Memory Alpha site for “Record Tape” and they even provide a list of just some of the types of tapes that were referenced on the show. Your printed listings on each disc would fit right in with them. 🙂 Unfortunately, I don’t know how to embed photos in a reply here – and there don’t seem to be very many good sources on the colors that were actually used, except a tiny handful of screen shots from the show.

        The second ‘canon’ set of colors is even more intriguing though – especially since it is ALSO uses a set of EIGHT different colors that were *always* seen together when on board the Enterprise. These are the set of eight “rocker switches” one sees built into almost every control panel on the ship – from the bridge to personal quarters and everywhere inbetween. What is interesting is that they access ship functions, just like the discs you are creating – AND – the standardized number of them is the *same* on the switches as in the tricorder, lending a certain synchronicity to *their* colors and *your* choice to use colors for the discs! In fact, TWC could actually *expand* canon by utilizing the same (or similar) colors for both (like you did by using the hexagon shapes found in the Enterprise as structural support in the tricorder as well).

        There were very slight variations in color in different places, but most on the bridge seem to have shared the same color format. I’m going to try to provide couple different links to one image of the rocker switches on the helm to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

        https://megA.nZ/file/kMo2RY5A#XKCZI7ekX9CSj9gn4nwlrgDUMEDSlCiDccGnSo69wzY

        (Let me know if you have any troubles accessing the image)

        If it is possible to use these eight colors (or a variation on their theme), I think these would make a wonderful, canon-driven in-universe choice of colors for the eight different data discs in your Tricorder. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Chris Barnardo Post author

          Great, thanks for the reference, I was able to access the images. We have been looking at these switches and the data record tape memory blocks from the start of the project. Actually, when you stand back from it, TOS has a very’1960s hip’ and vibrant colour palette. Every scene throbs with strong lighting and weirdly juxtaposed saturated colours. We have been looking at all the colours in the show and as fans ourselves we are keen to get it looking right. The main thing we find when developing something that is held so dear by so many dedicated and expert fans is that everyone has something they feel very passionately about and sometimes it is not possible to accommodate the range of needs, either just the sheer range of tech and needs is too much for us or the needs actually conflict… Still, everyone thinks that their particular need or speciality desire/knowledge is more important than any other, or as many have written to us… IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING… without which, apparently we will have failed and have a dud on our hands, a toy or perhaps worse, something that despite very carefully working on it for two or three years will not be worthy… or for some reason that we are ignoring what every fan knows, and somehow blindly creating something offensive… understand that we are all real fans here too. Personally, I love Trek and even wrote and submitted a script for Voyager. But product development is a tricky path to tread. In doing what we are doing, we know that we will inevitably upset some people by not including their favourite function or feature. As I said, the colours of the discs are under review and will continue to be reviewed and tuned in until we are happy that they meet our brief of making a product that is, as close as we can make it, like a real product from the universe and one that works in the best way that we can make it work… feedback in this respect to help us improve it is awesomely useful and 100% welcomed and it is certainly something that we will want build into our thinking where we can so that we can make a better product.

          Reply
          1. Brian S

            Thanks for the response Chris. You are always VERY generous with your time and your passion. It is *greatly* appreciated. 🙂

            And you are correct, TOS indeed has a very vibrant color palette. My only point is that the lighting had a color palette which was different from prop colors which was different from wardrobe colors. And even among prop colors or wardrobe, there were different palettes – unique to the different settings and civilizations being represented. So, for instance, the bridge of the Enterprise was visually distinctive and separate from other races’ bridges. Naturally, lighting played a part in this. And the color choices of the furniture and equipment played a part in this – with Starfleet having a unique color palette in regard to their equipment. I know I am not telling you something new here. My hope was simply that the Tricorder would remain within that distinctive color palette, rather than jumping to the “vibrant” context of some *other* species, setting, or civilization within (or outside of) the original series.

            Thus I am grateful for your response. And I am happy to hear the colors of the discs are still under review, and that you welcome such feedback from your customers/fans. 🙂

            You guys rock!

  7. Doug

    Chris,

    I don’t know how far along you are with deciding on sensor locations, but I’d like to chime in with a couple of things I’ve learned in the past few years adding sensors to tricorder-style devices. Perhaps they will be of value.

    Environmental – On my first project, I put the temp, pressure, and humidity sensors deep inside the body. It worked out OK for the pressure, but the temp was badly affected by surrounding circuitry – basically, I could only read the internal temp of the device, not environmental temp. Likewise, the humidity sensor was extremely slow to adapt because it lacked airflow. In subsequent projects I made sure to locate them far from circuits and batteries, and in a location with good air exchange. It required a couple of discreet holes and a long run of wire but I2C is very reliable.

    Magnetic – MEMS magnetometers are little miracles of sensitivity – but the downside is that they are easily skewed by local magnetic sources, especially motors and speakers .As a result I’ve avoided motors, speakers and magnets,, but that’s not possible for you. Locating the sensor at the furthest possible distance is the best remedy.

    EMF Radiation – The motor, power convertor(s) and microprocessor can all cause interference. I don’t see any metal detector indicated but my 555-based oscillator circuit caused major problems and had to be switched off with a tiny relay to run the EMF sensors.

    I wish you best of luck with your project, and of course I’m going to buy one! I have the communicator and “phaser rock”, and they truly rock.

    Reply
    1. Chris Barnardo Post author

      Doug, thanks for your time and advice. Actually, we are quite a long way down the development route and the sensors are designed and their locations have now been fixed. However, we did consider all those issues, and although we are a small team we have a good amount of experience in this area and have worked on projects before where getting the best performance out of a range of carefully placed electronics sensors and devices was critical in the success of a project, so we knew what to expect. One of the challenges of developing this sort of tech solution for an existing prop geometry is not only fitting everything in but fitting it within the design volume that was never practically designed to function in the real world.

      Reply
  8. Jonah

    I, like Brian, above, prefer the more muted colors he mentioned — visual consistency between prop equipment, from phasers to tricorders to desktop viewers to microtapes, etc. I don’t feel NEAR as strongly, but it’s definitely there. For me, it’s also partly the visual continuity between eras. Those rocker switches he mentioned have a few colors, but are half shades of gray. I have always liked that as a bit of utterly unplanned foreshadowing of the palette we’d get in The Motion Picture.

    I also find the functions intriguing (even if I’d shuffle them around to other colors). Comparing the sample rendering to the rocker switches, you’re actually most of the way there. Six of the eight discs are pretty close to the right colors — Archive, Audio, Atmospheric, Radiation, Status, and Planetary (if you knocked down the intensity of the green, red, medium blue, and yellow a little, and made the lighter blue a bit grayer). Orientation and Logs would need to be changed to white and medium gray. Which is pretty minor. Since I know you guys are fans and know your lore and have been immersing yourselves in the research the way many of us non-TWC-employees have for years, how much brainsweat are you giving to coordination of color and function?

    My hot take (just to add more grist to your mill — you may have thought of this already, you may not): Go with the sequence and colors from the TOS rocker switches. Function and color are pointing the way to what the uniform and departmental colors would signify in TMP and beyond…

    – Red for Training/Reference data (referencing the red that would be the Academy color from TWOK on) — Orientation?
    – Yellow for Operations data (library computer, communications, etc.) — Status?
    – Light blue for Science data (the good old GEO/MET/BIO on the TNG tricorders would have evolved from this) — Planetary?
    – White for Command data (presaging the Command division color of the films) — Logs?
    – Kelly green for Medical data (the departmental color throughout the films) — Radiation?
    – Light gray for Security data (this was the departmental color for Security in TMP) — Atmospheric?
    – Medium blue-gray for Military data (The Starfleet Marines in The Final Frontier had royal blue as a departmental color — this is a good “muted” interpretation) — Audio?
    – Dark gray for Intelligence data (Black was the HQ division color given to Starfleet Intelligence, and “muted” or “pastel” black is dark gray) — Archive?

    I don’t know that the concept functions are a direct one-to-one match, but I like the idea that different discs would come with certain kinds of data already on them, and be intended to have the unit internally sort incoming data onto the appropriate disc. I’m also curious about the functions you’ve come up with — some seem oddly specific (why not the capacity to record audio on all?) or curiously spread out (Planetary, Atmospheric, and Radiation seem like they’d all fit under “Sciences”). I don’t know what sort of input-output mechanic you’re looking at for the discs, or what their capacity or software architecture will be. Orientation and Archive wouldn’t fit on one? There is so much I’m looking forward to in the next update. All these thoughts and questions are in MY hope that these questions won’t go unaddressed. 😉 I cannot wait for these, regardless.

    Reply
  9. JM

    Chris, hats off to you and the whole Wand team for completing the landing party set with such an ambitious vision for the tricorder.
    These blog posts are like catnip.

    I agree with Brian S that the panel switches would make great choices for the disc colors.
    Or the closest practical equivalents you can source.
    Feels like a sophisticated palette for a sophisticated device!

    Also looking forward to understanding how the disc ejection mechanism will work.
    Looks to me like you can push on a disc and have it pop out, swinging the top gate up and away so you can fully remove the disc.

    Re the SD card, if the digital media displayed on the tricorder is customizable, your site could become a trading post for custom tricorder graphics and animation.
    Just saying… :-]

    Reply
    1. Brian S

      “Re the SD card, if the digital media displayed on the tricorder is customizable,, your site could become a trading post for custom tricorder graphics and animation.”

      I am hoping a capacity like this is being built, so that the community can come together as you suggest and customize what is available for viewing on the screen. 🙂

      Reply

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