Foremost, it won’t be as large or bulky as the Hollywood version, nor will it resemble an old-fashioned radio or small portable television. Thus, it is likely to be missing a shoulder strap as well as the three-section configuration that featured a pivoting upper portion (housing the display readout and controls), a compartmentalized mid-section (mainly data chip storage), and an adaptable lower portion (for handheld sensor transport).
Consequently, the medical tricorder debuting sometime this year will probably look more like the 24th-century Hero Mk XI model Captain Picard and his cohorts used in the 2002 film “Star Trek: Nemesis”—a flat, compact device with a large touchscreen interface and small, thin flip-top scanner.
It won’t have the same name, of course, but the gadget—or part of it, at least—will look fairly similar to Stardate 56844.9’s rendition. The likeness actually will depend on the winning design in Qualcomm’s much-hyped $10 million Tricorder XPRIZE competition, which is set to conclude sometime this quarter after a five-year run complicated by participant dropouts/mergers, technological glitches, and rule changes. Contest organizers planned to award the $6 million grand prize and $2 million second-place showing last year to coincide with Star Trek’s golden anniversary, but problems with the finalists’ decision-making software forced a deadline extension.
Surmounting all the contest’s hurdles was Dynamic Biomarkers Group of Zhongli City, Taiwan; and Paoli, Pa.-based Basil Leaf Technologies LLC, competing under the team name Final Frontier Medical Devices (the alias is aptly derived from the “Star Trek” television series opening monologue). Both teams’ inventions are undergoing extensive consumer testing at the University of California-San Diego to determine ease of use and diagnostic accuracy. Under contest rules, the tricorder device must weigh less than five pounds and be capable of diagnosing at least 13 different disorders, including: anemia, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, leukocytosis, pneumonia, otitis media, sleep apnea, and urinary tract infection. In addition, the product must detect three elective health conditions from a set consisting of HIV screening, hypertension, melanoma, shingles, and strep throat.
XPRIZE Foundation contests are designed to trigger significant leaps in technological innovation. The non-profit group’s past competitions included the Ansari XPRIZE to build a reusable private spacecraft, the Progressive Insurance effort to design a 100 mile-per-gallon vehicle, the Global Learning initiative to create open-source scalable software solutions for basic skills-related learning, and the Shell Ocean Discovery challenge to develop deep sea navigation/mapping innovations. Like its predecessors, the Tricorder contest stretches the limits of human imagination, spurring extraordinary achievements from ordinary science. Its focus, however, is not the technology itself but rather the problem it attempts to solve: remote access to healthcare.
“There are a lot of people who need very basic medical care,” said Chung-Kang Peng, a Harvard Medical School professor and team leader of Dynamic Biomarkers Group. “You don’t need to do very fancy technology, just some very basic technology that people can use at home. We are actually developing technology to help the [Taiwan] government reduce their universal healthcare insurance costs. The system we developed is compact and it’s constantly changing. Our technology combines the thinking of Western medicine and Chinese medicine.”
That blend begat a device that features a vital sensor, blood/urine strips, a smart scope, and a Butterfly handset used for diagnoses. Modules feed data to the phone via Bluetooth, or through the on-board camera (necessary for the blood and urine strips). Once collected, the information is uploaded to Amazon’s service for analysis, as the phone lacks the ability to complete the testing.
Basil Leaf’s invention, dubbed DxtER (an amalgamation of “diagnosis,” “tricorder,” and “E.R.”), uses algorithms and custom-designed non-invasive sensors to collect data about patients’ vital signs, body chemistry, and biological functions. Each sensor, according to the company, can function independently of the integrated DxtER system. The device pulls together data from users’ personal and family medical histories, and physical exams along with multiple sensors to diagnose various conditions. Company founder Basil Harris equates DxtER’s function to that of an emergency room physician.
“Our [device] is unique. It’s recreating what I do in the E.R.,” Harris, M.D., Ph.D., FACEP, explained in a video on the XPRIZE website. He has been an emergency room physician for 12 years at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pa. “The majority of patients that are coming into the E.R. are just looking for a diagnosis, looking for medical advice. They are people who don’t have anywhere else to turn. If they had this at home, they could get that information when they require it, and it would really help them make better decisions about their health. The era of putting blind trust in the medical profession—just listening to what they [doctors] say—is over. [DxtER] is a system that actually works. It’s getting to a diagnosis. It’s part of the new revolution of medical informatics.”
Live long and prosper.