Star Trek’s Tricorder Sought by X-Prize Scientists and Medical Pioneers

Posted on January 27, 2015


Say what you like about Science Fiction – it’s not everybody’s cup of teleportation – but one thing you cannot accuse the genre of is a lack of imagination. Seriously talented scientists look to sci-fi ideas for inspiration and the Tricorder is one of them.

Star Trek, the original 1960s series, could hardly be called an awe-inspiring vision of the future. Shaky sets, tight pants and Bill Shatner’s ham-tastic leadership of the five year mission to boldly go where no man had gone before were a fun fantasy rather than a blueprint for 22nd century space exploration. But the futuristic concepts of faster than light travel (warp drive), teleportation and a device that can get vital signs and diagnose medical problems (tricorder) are all there.

Small wonder then that two hugely ambitious and competitive projects have been set up to design and make the tricorder reality (warp speed and beaming up or down may have to wait) – the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and Google X’s tricorder team. Andrew Conrad is head of Google X Life Sciences and a distinguished molecular biologist who thinks nanotechnology harnessed to a tricorder device can help to detect disease early and treat it quickly.

Power Pills
In an interview with Steven Levy on Medium’s Backchannel stream he breaks down how chemically painted nanoparticles ingested in a pill form could rove through the body’s bloodstream picking up signs of disease – proteins emitted by cancer for example – and relaying that information to a diagnostic handheld device. Nanoparticle work has been ongoing for at least a decade now so it is past proof of concept and Conrad sounds like a happy and confident medic having the time of his life making the future happen soon.

“We know that much of this works,” he says. “We’ve become very good at nanoparticle decorating, we’ve become very good at concentrating them and understanding how they behave in magnetic fields. There’s still a million crazy things that happen with people, and there’s a long journey to put medicines into people, and it has to be done in the open because we’re going to do experiments — people will be wearing these devices at our Baseline Study. But I think we have years to go, not decades.”

Scanadu's Scout hand-held scanner

Scanadu’s Scout hand-held scanner

Ten Million Reasons
US telecoms and superconductor company Qualcomm has created the $10 million Tricorder XPrize to design a medical tricorder and announced its 10 finalists drawn from teams around the world. Visitors to the webesite are encouraged to ‘get their Trek on’ and there is even a competition to upload a photo and win a tricorder signed by all the Enterprise’s captains.

Okay, it’s a bit of fun, but there are serious contenders in Qualcomm’s competition including Scanadu, lauded by the tech press back in 2012 for its palm-sized Scout device. Teams from the US, UK, India, Taiwan, Canada and Slovenia are all working towards creating the universal diagnostic system.

Medtech 2014
Some of the most exciting projects and innovations announced in 2014 are gathered together on Medgadget’s summary of the year. Highlights include a woman who was given a 3D printed skull and other printed body parts such as vertebral implants and 3D techniques used in face reconstruction. One of the most amazing feats is of double amputee Les Baugh being fitted with thought-controlled arms and the video from John Hopkins University showing Les’ story and the ground-breaking prosthetic technology is wonderful.