These small handheld devices contain exhaustive scanning equipment, library computer data, and make for decent remote controls, to boot.
|Standard tricorders of the 2360's were flip-open models with numerous buttons and a small information screen capable of displaying all sorts of data. The buttons on the left side of the flipdoor appear to each have at least two functions, and given the observed usage the buttons near the screen are multifunctional. A short listing of tricorder capabilities appears below. Suffice it to say that be it meteorological, biological, chemical, geological, astronomical, quantum-physical, or technobabble-al, the tricorder has probably been used to scan it.|
|There were several variants . . . tricorders from earlier in the decade had a small removable handheld scanner contained in the 'head', a concept which continued to be used on the special medical tricorders which also featured an extended head section.With minor modifications, these tricorders continued to be used to the end of the decade.|
|Another tricorder version first seen in 2370 featured a data screen which covered the entire upper half of the unit, with the four buttons normally to the left of the screen absent ("Blood Oath"[DS9-2]). Further, this model appeared to have a cover for the scan head's blinky lights, as they are absent in the shot below but occasionally appeared in other scenes. This may be represent some sort of ruggedized or covert-operations tricorder unit. It is unclear how even the larger-screen version managed to perfom as well as we've seen them perform . . . one would expect that in most scenarios, the eye strain of trying to read those little bitty screens, smaller than the smallest PDA, would cause blindness. The only time we hear of an alternate information display mode is "The Chase"[TNG6], which mentions a holographic emitter diode. In any case, however, the units seem to be more than capable of giving the user the necessary data in a timely manner.|
|The preferred model after 2371 was simply the standard tricorder rendered slimmer and sleeker, featuring a screen of almost twice the area and an angled scan head. This model was used in both the standard and medical tricorder roles, though the latter featured a small removable scan unit on the underside of the head section. (This version of tricorder appeared in the latter seasons of DS9 and the first three TNG films. Interestingly, though, Voyager started out with the earlier small-screen tricorders and, after the first season, obtained the new ones. Something similar happened with the phasers. I suppose we can assume that, in both cases, Voyager had access to a "beta testing" version of the new design and implemented it, or that the patterns were available for the new design already and were scheduled for deployment at a certain time, or after a certain training period, or what-have-you. Of course, the reality is that it was just a flub.)|
|In the late 2370's, a new tricorder appeared alongside the earlier model. This new type almost entirely dispensed with the somewhat anachronistic button-and-screen approach employed on the earlier tricorders, and appears to be far less bulky than the earlier models. A few buttons remain for basic commands, but the primary interface is a large touch-screen not unlike a modern PDA. The unit features a small flip-up scan head, and the same unit serves in the standard and medical roles.|
One couldn't hope to fully catalog all of the capabilities of tricorders. Here is a brief list . . . I'll add more if I find anything interesting.
|Carries active and passive sensors, scans for damn near everything.||
|Passive sweep from Star Trek: Insurrection|
|Capable of reading a planet's core from the surface.||
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
|There was obviously no starship support involved in Sulu's scan: the Enterprise had been destroyed.|
|Capable of performing "quantum dating" to determine the age of an object.||
"The Expanse"[ENT2], "Kir'Shara"[ENT4], "Sword of Kahless"[DSN4], et al.
|Explicitly referred to in ENT, the technique is evidently employed later as well. Dax, for instance, determines the age of the Shroud of the Sword via dating of the bat'leth's metallic compounds on the cloth. She later uses her tricorder to determine the age of the actual sword. This is much like Archer's dating from "The Expanse", though she does not explicitly say she quantum dated it.|
|Capable of long-range lifeform scans.||
|Data checks his tricorder and says there are no indications of lifeforms on the planet. I find it improbable that his tricorder could be used to scan the entire planet for lifeforms, however.|
|Capable of reading extra-atmospheric phenomena.||
|Tuvok used his tricorder to analyze some anomaly-doodad outside the solar system. However, the doodad was visible from the surface in daylight, so it's not likely to have been an active scan . . . just an impressive display of its ability to distinguish things.|
|Can be used to perform a quick sweep of a room for bugs or other listening devices.||
|Yar checked the room before they started discussing their situation.|
|Can determine whether there has been movement through a cave within the past ten hours.||
|Data reported molecular displacement traces.|
|Can detect the residual thermal traces of someone's butt, hours after they were seated, in a sunlit spot, and despite interference from a Borg dampening field that was severely limiting tricorder range and effectiveness. Further, the species of the person could be almost-identified from the thermal traces of their posterior.||
"Descent, Pt. II"[TNG7]
|Worf mentions that a "decay rate" indicates the person was human. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the spot where he was scanning was where Deanna had been, with Picard and Geordi only being near there for a few moments. She's only half-human, so we can presume that the tricorder, though impressive, isn't uber-impressive in this regard under these conditions. After all, I'd imagine it's pretty tough to determine someone's species based on the thermal imprint of their ass. Someone should do a study. ;-)|
|Can determine how many people were running around in a cave within the last two days.||
While searching for a missing away team that had been left behind two
days ago, Chakotay's tricorder helps determine which way the team went.
Tuvok later detects traces of at least five distinct humanoid lifeforms.
Whether the tricorder was using displacement traces or simple Holmes-ian
detection methods is unknown, but either is impressive.
(Update: "Demon"[VOY4] suggests that Holmesian methods might not be the case, given Chakotay's ribbing of the tricorder-equipped Seven for not noticing footprints.)
|Provides audible warning when someone appears in a room but within the shadows.||
Star Trek: Nemesis
|Data's tricorder gave an "ugly bastard alert" when a Reman appeared during the scene in which we meet Shinzon. The exact context of the alert is unclear . . . was the tricorder simply noting a new scan target, or was that an intentional security feature? Either way, it's all good.|
|Able to determine the operation of and manipulate electronic devices.||
|Archer's scanner was able to cause a modern-day ATM machine to distribute a wad of cash. He was also able to quickly determine which vehicles had alarms and which didn't, though for some reason he didn't try to disable the alarms on any of the vehicles that had them.|
|Can disrupt powerful electromagnetic fields.||
|Wes uses his tricorder to disrupt and defeat an electromagnetic Sentry capable of killing drunken aliens and sealing their bodies in electrically-deposited fibers. You'd think a car alarm would be a piece of cake.|
|Capable of disrupting certain types of forcefield.||
|Beverly, with a little help from Picard, opens a hole in the forcefield at the Kes-Prytt border. Special devices known as field destabilizers, seen as part of a runabout's standard (or replicatable) supplies in "The Sword of Kahless"[DS9-4], are also used for such endeavors. The tricorder served as the remote control of the units.|
|The medical tricorder, at least, has a simple hologram projector.||
|When the DNA program completed, it reconfigured the holoemitter diode and projected the image and speech. Simple holography would be quite useful versus those itty bitty screens.|
|Waterproof to a depth of at least several dozen feet.||
Star Trek: Insurrection
|Data plays with the fishes as his tricorder happily scans away.|
|Capable of starting fires with a beam from the scan head, implying the production of temperatures on the order of 250 degrees Celsius.||
Pathways, p. 202
|Tom Paris and friends collected wood and pinecones, placed them into a fireplace, and then proceeded to "ignite the mass with the intense beam of a tricorder." Paper ignites at ~233°C, whereas wood generally requires 300°C.|
|Can emit the lifesigns of another race, based only on DNA readings obtained from a 1,400 year old piece of cloth.||
"The Sword of Kahless"[DSN4]
|Dax used Hur'q DNA readings from the Shroud of the Sword, setting her tricorder to emit the lifesigns that would be emitted by a Hur'q . . . who had long been extinct. This spoofed a Hur'q security sensor.|
|Capable of masking a person's infrared signature.||"Macrocosm"[VOY3]||The Doctor reports that the macrovirii are attracted to IR radiation, and suggests that Janeway set her tricorder to emit a "thermal scattering signal" so that she's more difficult to target. No, I don't know how it worked.|
|Tricorders can be linked together for additional processor power or in a security link.||
|Tricorders can also be used to link with the ship and provide remote control of ship functions.||
Star Trek: Nemesis
|In the image of the new Nemesis tricorders, you can see Geordi preparing to turn off one of the corridor forcefields.|
|Can be used as an automatic distress beacon.||
"That Which Survives"[TOS3]
Despite all of the above points, tricorders are not omnipotent. We've seen them fooled, spoofed, and incapable of getting firm readings on multiple occasions, generally due to some sort of technobabble interference field. The Gorn even locked on to Spock's tricorder scans in "Arena"[TOS], producing a feedback that resulted in the tricorder's destruction. In "The Siege of AR-558"[DS9-7], we learn that on the front lines of a battlefield both sides sometimes use their scanning devices to jam the sensors of the other side, meaning that tricorders were rendered virtually useless.
Nevertheless, they constitute extraordinary tools, and a vast improvement over the equipment of modern forces.
Just as a side note for kicks, we've also seen some pretty spiffy binoculars. The ones below come from Star Trek V, and though they appear to be quite nifty they're also awful for nighttime operations. That red glow is a dead giveaway of one's position, and an unforgivable design flaw. (For example, the United States military has spent a great deal of money on techniques to lessen the reflective properties of the lenses in their binoculars and scopes. I doubt they'll be adding lights to them anytime soon.)
Then again, the various night-vision devices of both Starfleet and the alien hunters of "Rogue Planet"[ENT1] were similarly goofy-glowy, so at least there is some continuity in that regard (even if it is bad).
Some more normal binoculars from over a hundred years prior were seen in "The Shipment"[ENT3]. Below, we see them (with brightness/contrast enhancement) in use by Archer, with a side view for scale.
Though looking normal from the outside, the view as seen in the episode was strangely digitized in a manner akin to the view out of the night-vision monocle. This suggests that the binoculars might be capable of things other than basic zooming.
Fortunately, the red glow of the ST5 binoculars didn't last. Below, we see Starfleet binoculars employed in "The Outcast"[TNG5]. They are similar in design to the binoculars of several decades prior, but slimmer and without the red outer glow.
The devices shrunk quite a bit over the next seven years, resulting in these small binoculars employed by Picard in Insurrection.
(The older units were still employed in the same year, however, and are seen in use on AR-558.)
One obvious question would be why binoculars would be used at all. A tricorder should be able to readily provide a zoomed-in view of anything, providing more data than a visual scan as it does so. But, whereas a tricorder can put out trackable signals, be jammed, et cetera, binoculars are a very simple passive sensor device.
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