This has bothered me ever since I noticed it; the viewscreen in The Next Generation shows perceivable depth even when viewed from an angle when, I would imagine, such an angle should start to warp the image (like with TVs in real life).

enter image description here

I simply shrugged all this off as out-of-universe "movie magic", thinking that the creators prioritized aesthetics over logic. But then I watched this fascinating video:

In the video, he implies that this was all intentional; that the viewscreens were meant to showcase some fancy, futuristic 3D/depth-capable screen technology.

Is there really such an in-universe explanation in Star Trek?

  • 14
    You are assuming that the viewscreen is just a TV. I guess it is just reasonable that they advanced technology enough to have a proper 3D screen. – Polygnome Sep 16 at 22:29
  • 11
    @bukwyrm, no, he wouldn't. The screen is not a screen at all; it's a holographic projection. Basically, it is a holodeck built into the front of the bridge. In other words, it is using photons to construct a mini diorama of the other ship inside an area of the bridge. When Picard moves, the image does not change to follow him, but because the Romulan is using a similar device, he sees Picard move, so he turns to keep eye-contact, and Picard does the same. In other words, it's like if the Romulan and his deck were inside an alcove on the Enterprise bridge. – Synetech Sep 17 at 15:24
  • 10
    I don't know why this should bother you. It's advanced holographic tech. Very believable future tech too. – ThePopMachine Sep 17 at 15:43
  • 12
    It's far more complicated to do it this way, compared with the 'flat screen' approach, so it almost certainly was deliberate. – DJClayworth Sep 17 at 18:44
  • 5
    Joined just to mention that someone managed to do something that gives a similar effect 10 years ago using the Nintendo Wii - I've skipped the video to the point just before he shows it in action so you can see the difference youtu.be/Jd3-eiid-Uw?t=2m35s Sure, it isn't exactly the same but interestingly related none the less. – RyanfaeScotland Sep 18 at 11:41

There's no on-screen canon explanation given.

However, the Star Trek: The Next Generation - Technical Manual states

The main viewer display matrix includes omni-holographic display elements and is thus capable of displaying three-dimensional information.

  • 24
    This rather implies that the cheap tactic of disguising a subterfuge (e.g. having taken over a ship) by hiding just out of view of the viewscreen would be easily defeated by someone simply standing to one side such that they can see 'behind' the virtual hole-in-the-wall presented by the bridge bulkhead... – Tom W Sep 17 at 13:20
  • 6
    I can totally believe holographic displays in 22xx. That they can incorporate them with full-color holographic cameras still baffles me though. – John Dvorak Sep 17 at 17:41
  • 2
    @JohnDvorak We sort-of already have them today: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-field_camera – Dai Sep 17 at 20:54
  • 15
    @JohnDvorak : imagine someone from a few decades ago when the largest hard drive was 5 MB and weighted as much as a truck, saying the same thing if you showed him a 512GB micro-SD card. How can you have so much money to throw at a storage 100000 time larger weighting millions of times less, and why would you ever need such a thing? – vsz Sep 18 at 9:53
  • 11
    @JohnDvorak If we grant the holodecks, the viewscreen is really just a holodeck that you look into through a window. – J... Sep 18 at 11:12

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Year of Hell,” there is a scene where the viewscreen is offline due to heavy damage to the ship.

What's interesting in this is that it is not simply black, like a monitor nowadays when offline, but it has a structure that looks exactly like the wall of Voyager's holodeck.

enter image description here

So I guess it achieves the fancy 3D effect by using similar technology to the holodecks. (An other answer has also conjectured the similarity to holodecks, but I don't have enough rep yet to comment on that answer.)

  • 4
    The viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise-E is holographic. It is clearly shown in the movie First Contact, when the Enterprise-E joins the battle against the Borg Cube near Earth. – Sava Sep 17 at 18:47
  • This is a great example of what I said in the other comments. I like that you noticed this too. :) – cgTag Sep 19 at 18:37
  • Here's a clip of what @Sava is talking about: youtu.be/t4DCOpG1oNE?t=32s I believe this scene takes place on Enterprise's battle bridge, which is in a more fortified location than the regular bridge, so it may use different display technology from the viewscreen normally used in the show. – talrnu Sep 19 at 18:42

Great theory, but I suggest another reason they depicted the viewscreens as they did: A 2D image of someone looking straight into the camera appears to be looking straight at the viewer regardless of the viewing angle, and this is unnerving. It's the effect of a portrait that seems to stare at you no matter where you are in the room. This may be why portrait artists often pose the subject looking to the side. It's less creepy. A realistic 2D video conversation might have looked like this, which might even make an audience laugh. enter image description here

  • 5
    That is kinda creepy... – Michael Frank Sep 18 at 22:11
  • 8
    This is a nice out-of-universe explanation, but the question explicitly asks for in-universe information. – jpmc26 Sep 19 at 0:17
  • 11
    Nice illustration, but I think it would look different from that. That image is missing a perspective transform. When properly transformed it should just look like a picture on the wall. – z0r Sep 19 at 0:47
  • 3
    @z0r Even with a perspective transform it still looks like the person is staring at the viewer. The important thing is the centered pupils. – Sneftel Sep 19 at 15:07
  • 1
    This answer would be more satisfying with an image that actually did a perspective transform (even though it doesn't really matter). In the meantime, you can simulate what it would look like by looking at the first image from the question and then looking at your monitor at an angle. – jamesdlin Sep 19 at 23:40

Current viewing panels are "flat" because each pixel is essentially an omnidirectional lighting element. If you could make each pixel emit light in only one direction (like a laser vs. an LED), then you would only be able to see the screen from one angle. If you can further combine that with being able to emit multiple different pixels at the same physical location, but with different "output angles", then you can make a display that appears "3D".

The basics for this sort of thing have actually been around for some time, using a technique called lenticular printing. More recently, there has been work into making interactive displays using the same principles. Presumably, Star Trek is just using an advanced version of something that works on the same idea.

Other answers mentioned holodeck technology. I would guess that the walls of the holodeck are doing something like I described, and thus it makes sense to say that the viewscreen is using "holodeck technology".

  • That sounds an awful lot like a phased-array radar like Aegis. – Harper Sep 17 at 19:41
  • 2
    @Harper - It's not quite the same thing, phased-array radar use radio wave phase interactions to control the beam - there's an array of antennas that all emit in the same direction, but by changing the phase of each emitter, the beam can be shaped to go in different directions. What this post is describing is much simpler and just uses different emitters pointing in different directions. So the effect may be similar, the technology is completely different. – Johnny Sep 17 at 23:57
  • 2
    Integral Imaging has been around as a concept since 1908 - every so often a TV/Monitor company will show an example - still quite a way to go, but it's a case of shrinking/improving existing technology, rather than inventing something completely new – Chronocidal Sep 18 at 9:51
  • 1
    @Chronocidal, exactly! The "how" of the question is easy to answer; we've known for a long time. We just don't have a practical implementation yet. Obviously, by TNG era, they do. – Matthew Sep 18 at 17:05

A second interesting observation is that the viewscreen potentially presents a 180 degree FOV's worth of information. Even though this is not visible to someone looking right at the screen from a distance, if you put your cheek right up against the "glass" of the screen you can seemingly see the very corners of the other side's bridge.

Below: The blue door, and the control panel with two levers is only visible from the viewer's POV, not the captain's.

enter image description here

I think it is obvious from that that at the bare minimum, there is a camera(s) on the other end which has a full hemisphere of viewfield, possibly a full sphere.

The easiest way of inmplementing the screen, then, is to build a bowl-shaped alcove or recess into the wall of the bridge, and have the (curved) screen lie along this surface. That could also produce the illusion of the screen "always facing you", using an old low-tech trick:

enter image description here

Given ST's tech level, I would expect there to be an array of scanners and sensors all around the bridge, able to provide a view from any angle at will, and even compose a 3D representation of the scene.

On the receiving end, you could use the same technology as in holodecks to reconstruct the scene in a very lifelike matter.

One thing that always concerned me is the security implications of showing foreign military personnel an image of your starship's bridge. Especially with ST's tech, it shouldn't be hard to edit the video stream online and insert a generic bridge background scene behind the captain. Perhaps this is already happening in the usual case: You could imagine that the comms equipment defaults to transmitting the of the speaker, and the receiving equipment automatically fills in the missing background with a standard scene.

  • ...but then, the receiving equipment could also just be sophisticated enough to deconstruct the fake bridge and substitute an image of the real bridge. :-D But seriously, excellent point. – Doug R. Sep 20 at 17:47
  • Well, in one of the episodes features them talking to a Ferengi captain, and the background is just plain white: It seems that such technology is available, but the opportunity to show of your highly competent bridge-crew is typically more highly valued. – Chronocidal Sep 21 at 15:34

As far as I can remember, they never gave any kind of explanation in-universe for how the viewscreens work.

  • 2
    The one example is, as mentioned above, Star Trek First Contact. It's explicitly shown that the viewscreen is a blank wall and when Picard orders it activated, the view appears out of nowhere. That implies hologram tech. – Keith Morrison Sep 19 at 15:09

A pretty simple speculative in-universe explanation is that it uses roughly the same technology as the holodeck. It's already a technology that exists on the Enterprise, and the viewscreen wouldn't have to really be as complicated since nobody has to interact with it physically.

I'm not aware of any explanation that's been given in-universe, though.

  • 2
    ... don't you mean in-universe? – RedCaio Sep 18 at 2:17
  • Out of universe explanation with in-universe elements then? – Wayne Werner Sep 18 at 13:15
  • 1
    In-universe means that the explanation assumes the universe's reality. Out-of-universe is an explanation that acknowledges the universe is entirely made up by people, such as writers, directors, producers, actors, etc. Out-of-universe explanations are usually ones that center on the concerns of these people (budget, time, technique, appeal, etc.). Your answer is in-universe; it assumes the holographic technology is real. You may be looking for the word "speculative," indicating that there's no in-universe proof of your idea. Unsubstantiated speculation is discouraged on this site, though. – jpmc26 Sep 19 at 0:20
  • 1
    @jpmc26 good to know - my understanding (based solely on QA that I've read here) is that in-universe meant that it was actually explained in the universe at some point or another, using in-universe elements. #TIL :) – Wayne Werner Sep 19 at 13:41
  • 1
    @WayneWerner the term for that is canon. – Dan Henderson Sep 21 at 17:32

We already have this technology. Since 1901.

With lenticular lenses, the angle of the viewer determines what image is seen. So far, we're exploiting it within limited range, to feed left eye something different than right eye, eg. in Nintendo 3DS. One of the reasons we don't do it to the extent shown in Star Trek is that it's very cumbersome to get enough images taken at all angles in order to feed such screen. Fo me more puzzling is where are the cameras all around the bridge : )

  • Given the kind of sensor technology they have in the show, I doubt there's anything like a camera being used - it's just as likely to be visible-light sensors embedded in multiple locations around the bridge working together to provide a 3D representation of the room. Encounter At Farpoint shows Riker reviewing away team footage, but there were no cameras visible on the mission... presumably their tricorders can gather enough data for the computer to generate a view of events that looks suspiciously like the TV footage. – Matthew Walton Sep 21 at 15:24

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.