The Star Trek franchise envisioned a universe rife with technologies both awe-inspiring and seemingly too advanced for us to use any time soon. Yet, as the show turns 50 years old next year, many of these futuristic concepts are rapidly crossing from fiction to reality. A universal translator? Skype is on that. A warp drive? NASA’s on that too.
Now the diagnostic tricorder is coming to life, thanks to a competition started by the XPrize Foundation. Launched in 2012, the $10 Million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize challenged groups and companies to develop a device that continuously tracks a person’s vital signs and diagnoses up to 15 health conditions–from anemia and high blood pressure to urinary tract infections and stroke–all from the comfort of a person’s home. The hope is for the winning tricorder to be easy to use, compact, and efficient; it can’t weigh more than five pounds, and it must be able to measure these health conditions within 72 hours.
Grant Campany, senior director for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, spoke at a panel at South By Southwest detailing the competition. He noted that the goal of the tricorder prize is to help solve a major problem facing the world: poor and inefficient access to medical care. Now, when people suffer a medical issue, a doctor’s visit is required to confirm the ailment and then prescribe medication. Depending on where you live, that process can be both complicated and time consuming. But with an at-home diagnostic tool, consumers can know in record time what they’re suffering from, without the need to visit a doctor’s office or emergency room.
Tricorder technology will ultimately help fill the shortage of doctors in both developed and developing countries.
Campany says such technology will ultimately expand the reach and impact of physicians across the globe. “In both the United States and abroad, developed countries and developing countries, there’s a shortage of doctors throughout the world,” Campany tells Popular Science. “There’s a lot of inefficiencies in the system, and these inefficiencies are really impacting patient care, from the point of there’s a lot of needless deaths, and there’s also a lot of needless costs just associated with trying to deliver health care.”
XPrize recently announced the 10 finalist teams whose tricorders will duke it out for the grand prize of $7 million. One of those finalists is a cloud-based system called Vitaliti, developed by Canadian company Cloud DX. The company’s CEO, Robert Kaul, was on hand at SXSW 2015, showcasing Vitaliti and explaining how it gathers sensitive health data.
Unlike Star Trek‘s tricorder, Vitaliti can’t do a simple body scan to figure out what’s wrong with you. But it does give you a comprehensive look at your body’s overall health. The first, and rather unique, part of the Vitaliti system is the continuous vital sign monitor, which drapes somewhat like a necklace around the back of the neck. The monitor contains two electrodes that measure the electrical activity of the heart. Meanwhile, a corresponding ear piece sensor gathers information such as body temperature and oxygen saturation.
All of this information is analyzed and transmitted to the Vitaliti smartphone app, which shows in real time a person’s heart rate variability, blood pressure, calories burned, and more. But that’s just for tracking everyday vitals. Vitaliti also comes equipped with a base station that acts somewhat like a diagnostic tool kit. Inside the base are two unique devices for figuring out what might be making someone ill. One is a breathalyzer/ear monitor that can measure ear infections and even respiratory conditions such as COPD (the lung disease that killed Star Trek‘s Leonard Nimoy). The other is a diagnostic cassette that contains a little lancet for pricking fingers. To learn more about what’s going on in someone’s blood, a person can simply poke his or her finger and put a drop of blood in the cassette.
There, the blood is analyzed by a strip for seven different conditions. The cassette also does a similar analysis for urine samples. “Once the sample’s been taken, you actually put the device inside the base station,” Kaul says. “A camera takes a picture of the result, uploads that to the cloud and analyzes what happens. All this leads to a final diagnosis: You have tuberculosis, you have anemia, you have a UTI.”
As for how Cloud DX plans to break these diagnoses to people? Kaul says Vitaliti will be both informative and gentle with what it learns. The system won’t test for more serious chronic conditions like HIV. But Kaul argues that for many of the other conditions the system can diagnose, people will be thankful to know sooner rather than later what’s happening to them.
“I think if I’m exhibiting symptoms of stroke, the sooner I know I’m having a stroke, and I get help for that, that is one place where early diagnosis absolutely makes an enormous difference,” says Kaul. “If you get anti-stroke medication within an hour of symptoms appearing, you have an extremely high chance of recovering. After that you could become permanently disabled or die.”
“The sooner I know I’m having a stroke, and I get help for that, that is one place where early diagnosis absolutely makes an enormous difference.”
In the future, both Kaul and Campany envision a hybridized health care system, in which people have an at home tricorder like Vitaliti that communicates electronically with the doctor’s office. For example, if someone is feeling symptoms of a urinary tract infection, he or she can test for it at home and then use the tricorder to alert the doctor’s office about the diagnosis. Then, a doctor will review the results and send the patient an electronic prescription. No doctor’s visit required.
Vitaliti, along with the other finalists, will undergo rigorous testing at the University of California San Diego in June. XPrize is putting together 480 testing sessions where the tricorders will do their best to diagnose the ailments of hundreds of patients. To have the tricorders accepted as diagnostic tools by the FDA and other regulatory agencies, they’ll have to demonstrate nearly 100 percent reliability.
The winners of the competition will be announced in January 2016, on Star Trek‘s 50-year anniversary.
Popular Science is at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, bringing you the latest technology and culture news. Follow our complete coverage at popsci.com/sxsw.