*Beep beep* "Picard to bridge, get us out of here."
Like Dick Tracy's watch, Star Trek's communicator has long been a muse for real-world technology products. The Onyx, a new device from hardware startup OnBeep, might be the closest thing to what Captain Picard wore on his uniform in Star Trek: The Next Generation we've seen yet.
At a base level, the $99 Onyx is a personal communications device that operates within its own network. It pairs to a smartphone via Bluetooth and works whereever your smartphone has data service, whether that be on Wi-Fi or cellular networks. The roughly 2.5-inch round, hockey puck-like device clips to a bag or article of clothing, has a button in the middle for initiating communication, a volume rocker, power switch, and a mute switch. Surrounding the main button is a multicolor LED ring that changes color depending on your availability (blue is available, green is talking, yellow is muted).
The Onyx pairs to other Onyx units in user-controlled groups via its Android or iOS app. There isn't a limit to how many people can participate in a group, though OnBeep says it can get unweildy once you have more than 15 people at a time. All communication within a group can be heard by every member — it's more akin to long distance walkie talkie than a one-to-one communication tool. (Groups of two can be made for more private conversations.)
Talking to others in your group just requires a tap and hold on the Onyx's main button
Talking to others in your group is as simple as pressing and holding the big button on the Onyx and spilling your heart out. It's very similar to a walkie talkie or old push-to-talk Nextels, but without the distance limitations of the walkie talkie or the device constraints of Nextel phones (which don't actually work anymore). The app lets you see who in the group is available and map out their locations.
Though the Onyx bears a striking similarity to Star Trek's fictional communicator, OnBeep CEO Jesse Robbins says that wasn't the primary goal of the product. A firefighter by trade, Robbins wanted to replicate the easy two-way communications that EMT and other first responders use, but in a more consumer friendly way. The Onyx, which was developed in just over a year, is the product of that mission. (Robbins did concede to me that the final hardware design of the Onyx was certainly "inspired" by the Star Trek technology.)
Onyx pairs unlimited range with the ease of a walkie talkie
I was able to test the Onyx first hand, communicating with OnBeep's team in San Francisco from The Verge's offices in New York. The experience of using the Onyx is very much like using a walkie talkie, but without the static, interference, and limited range inherent with walkie talkies. Audio quality was quite good, and OnBeep says it is using a low latency codec that minimizes bandwidth usage. And of course, the Onyx allowed me to talk in real time to someone 3,000 miles away, not just a mere three. The device is compact and lightweight enough that it could be clipped to a belt or shirt pocket and not be uncomfortable or impede movement.
Robbins says there are a number of use cases for the Onyx system, from remote workers that want to easily communicate with the home office, to families trying to keep track of eachother at an amusement park. Professions that used to rely on the real-time communication of Nextels could also find the Onyx to fit their needs, and allow them to use whatever smartphone they want.
But there are countless messaging apps that let us communicate with a group of others with ease and don't have the hardware cost, charging requirements (it lasts about 12 hours of active use), or audio limitations of the Onyx. Crowded. noisy environments such as amusement parks often present challenges for audio communication that messaging apps don't have to worry about. Many messaging services also allow users to send pictures, video, or even simple audio clips to one another, offering a level of versatility not found on the Onyx.
Still, the Onyx could find a niche among those that prioritize voice communication over anything else. OnBeep is selling it from its website starting today in single units and pairs for $99 and $195, respectively, with shipments expected to begin before the end of this year. Included in the purchase price is one year of OnBeep's service, though the company isn't saying how much it will cost beyond that.
Will the walkie talkie make a comeback?
Will the walkie talkie or the "where you at?" chirp make a comeback with the Onyx? It's hard to say, but if OnBeep works with CBS and Paramount to develop a replica communicator that incorporates the Onyx's technology, I'm sure there are quite a few Trekkies that would gladly plunk down $200 for the privilege of tapping a button and saying "Get us out of here."