The Tricorder Might Soon Become a Reality

Teams are competing to develop the Star Trek-inspired medical device

23 September 2014

Photo: Qualcomm

First seen in the Star Trek TV shows and movies, the fabled Tricorder—a handheld gadget that can monitor and diagnose health conditions—has inspired inventors from around the globe to boldly go where no medical device has gone before. At the 36th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in August, 10 teams were named the finalists in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, a contest to develop a working Tricorder. The final three teams will share a prize of US $10 million.

Now at its midway point, the four-year competition could forever change how we diagnose and treat medical conditions, especially in remote regions. First announced in 2012, more than 300 teams entered their designs and the teams have now been winnowed down to those final 10. Similar to the original Tricorder, the top teams all proposed handheld devices that can gather, analyze, and record data to help provide accurate diagnosis and treatment for conditions such as diabetes, pneumonia, and stroke. Now they must build them.

The teams are from Canada, India, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While some of the innovators are already working professionally in a related field, such as biomedical engineering, others are made up of students like the 16-member Aezon team from Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

In an interview with The Institute, Aezon team member Neil Rens says the group’s technology—a consumer-friendly device that is able to diagnose 15 conditions, including anemia, diabetes, and sleep apnea—could help to alleviate some of the burden currently faced by the health care industry.

“In the United States, population growth is outpacing the training of new health care professionals,” he says. “Developing countries face even more challenging circumstances and have startling shortages of clinicians. With a medical Tricorder, diagnosis can take place without the presence of a health care professional, allowing clinicians to focus on treating patients rather than running numerous—and often too many—tests to check for every possible disease.”

To reach this level of the contest, team members have put themselves through something akin to the Kobayashi Maru—a training exercise from Star Trek to test the character of cadets.

“We had to wear many hats,” says Ryan Walters, another member of Aezon. “We all took part in building its circuitry, as well as the modeling, programming, and testing to ensure it is user-friendly.” He said team members constantly switched roles to make sure their system was as effective as possible. Team leader, Tatiana Rypinski, called the competition “an incredible challenge.”

Other top teams include Cloud DX, which is composed of programmers, software architects, and biomedical engineers, based in Mississauga, Ont., Canada, lead by Dr. Sandeep Kohli, a trained flight surgeon with the Canadian Armed Forces. DMI, led by Eugene Y. Chan, founder and chief scientific officer of the DNA Medicine Institute, a Boston-based organization focused on advancing patient care and treating disease through innovation, includes designers, engineers, and scientists. (Learn about all 10 teams on the XPrize website.)

All the inventors still have a long way to go. Each group will now build its device, which will next be entered for consumer testing in May 2015. The next round of judging will take place at the end of 2015 for diagnostic accuracy and consumer experience. The final winners will be named in January 2016.

It only took about 50 years for the vision of the Star Trek Tricorder to become a reality. What other sci-fi staple would you like to see come to fruition? How about Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver?

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