Star Trek’s Tricorders–available before decade’s end?

In one of the funniest scenes from 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, our heroes rescue a fellow crew member from the “dark ages” of late 20th Century medicine. The techniques are so bizarre to the ship’s doctor, sent back in time from the 23rd Century, that he compares them to the Spanish Inquisition. In his world, he can obtain an accurate diagnosis simply by waving a box called a “tricorder” over his patients to get instant results. Now, thirty years later, 21st century technologists are close to producing actual tricorders that seniors and others will be able to use to diagnose themselves.


In truth, not unlike Star Trek’s communicator and its resemblance to “flip” phones, we already have devices with many of the features of a tricorder: computer tablets. They are wireless, light-weight, and have intense computational power, so it only made sense for wireless pioneer Qualcomm to sponsor a $10 million competiton through the XPrize to create a portable instant diagnostic device weighing no more than five pounds.

According to the competition’s rules, a tricorder must “accurately diagnose 16 health conditions – 13 required core conditions and a choice of three elective conditions – in addition to capturing five real-time health vital signs, independent of a health care worker or facility, and in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience.”

The REQUIRED conditions and vital signs are:

  • Anemia, Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Diabetes, Hepatitis A, Leukocytosis, Pneumonia, Otitis Media, Sleep Apnea, Stroke, Tuberculosis, Urinary Tract Infection, Absence of condition.
  • Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, Oxygen Saturation, Respiratory Rate, Temperature

The ELECTIVE conditions are:

  • Allergens (airborne), Cholesterol Screen, Food-borne Illness, HIV Screen, Hypertension, Hypothyroidism/Hyperthyroidism, Melanoma, Mononucleosis, Osteoporosis, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Shingles, Strep Throat.

Last week, the Challenge announced its ten finalists, including four teams from the U.S., whose tricorders will be put through consumer tests next year, with the winner to be announced sometime early in 2016. It’s likely that the final device will then need to undergo formal, FDA-approved clinical trials, so 2019 is probably the earliest it could be available. However, the FDA has been providing “regulatory input” since the project’s inception, which may ultimately help speed approval.

Those of you who didn’t need the Star Trek references explained may be interested in another XPrize competition–the chance to win a tricorder autographed by all five Star Trek captains.