X Prize Competition Could Make 'Tricorder' A Reality

Many Star Trek gadgets have made the journey from science fiction to real life. Arun Rath talks to Grant Campany about the X Prize Foundation's competition to bring the medical tricorder to life.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Thanks for listening. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Star Trek geeks, like me, delight in talking about the technological advances predicted on the show - cell phones, tablet computers, 3D printing, Google Glass, medical telemetry. There's a new push to bring another device from the USS Enterprise to the mainstream - the medical tricorder. That's the gadget Doctor McCoy would use to diagnose anyone who got sick. He'd scan it over them as it made its signature sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRICORDER)

RATH: The X Prize Foundation launched the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition in 2012, challenging teams of scientists all over the world to design an instrument able to capture vital signs and diagnose 15 diseases. The finalists were announced this week. Grant Campany is a senior directory with the X Prize Foundation.

GRANT CAMPANY: There's the need for a health system that really is responsive to the needs of the population. And a lot of these diseases and conditions that we're talking about result from many different variables - from the environment, your genetics and your own behavior. What we don't have is an effective means to measure all of these things and to take these data points simultaneously and over a period of time. And these devices will be engineered ultimately to do that.

RATH: Over 300 teams initially registered to compete for the $10 million prize. Now it's down to 10.

CAMPANY: The teams that actually are in the top 10 had to submit a large amount of data to explain to us and to judges how they were going to go about diagnosing things from anemia, urinary tract infection, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, stroke, as well as monitor five vital signs continuously for 72 hours. So it's a pretty audacious goal.

RATH: The finalists are from all over the world - from the U.S., Taiwan, Slovenia, India, Canada. And they're all taking different approaches to the challenge.

CAMPANY: They're looking at a myriad of technologies - things that measure the volatile compounds in your breath, things that measure your pulse, using sources of light and even photo optics. So you can imagine having sensors in your clothes, applications that monitor how many steps you take, how much you're exercising. We don't put any restrictions on what these teams do.

RATH: There's one big difference between the vision for the X Prize tricorder and Star Trek. On Star Trek, medical professionals, like Doctor Pulaski, use the equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION)

DIANA MULDAUR: (As Dr. Pulaski) How are you?

MARINA SIRTIS: (As Deanna Troi) Well, when I first called you, I was feeling intense pain.

RATH: But the focus of the X Prize tricorder competition is to put the technology in the hands of the consumer. That's right, you get to be Doctor McCoy. Here's a clip from a promo video for one of the products in the works from a U.S. team called Scanadu.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What if instead of fearing the worst when you notice something out of the ordinary, you could identify the condition yourself?

RATH: And this one's from a UK-based team called Zensor.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Detected arrhythmias and rate breaches are transmitted over standard Wi-Fi with all vital signs monitored and recorded 24/7.

RATH: But Grant Campany says they're not trying to replace your family doctor.

CAMPANY: I think it's a tool for physicians. I think what we're seeing, not only in this country but around the world, is that there's a tremendous shortage of doctors. We need to have innovation that allows us to have more tools and empowerment for consumers.

RATH: The 10 Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize finalists have until April to design, develop and deliver up to 30 working tricorder devices. After that, consumer testers will take the devices home and evaluate them. Judges make the final decision in January 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAR TREK THEME)

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