• 01.14.14

Building A Global Health Sensing Network From Star Trek-Inspired Devices

This futuristic tricorder gadget measures health and environmental data almost instantly. What would happen if everyone in the world had one?

Building A Global Health Sensing Network From Star Trek-Inspired Devices

The $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is an effort to make science fiction a reality. It takes the imaginary concept of the medical tricorder–the futuristic diagnostic device used on Star Trek–and aims to get it into the field, where it can conduct diagnostic tests for a minimum of 15 real-life conditions. It’s a case of life imitating art.


Launched in 2012, the challenge has attracted 33 teams so far. We’ve covered a couple of the ideas here, including the Scanadu scanner and the Senstore. The University of California, San Diego, has another leading contender, a project called OASIS.

Led by Albert Yu-Min Lin and Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, co-directors of the Distributed Health Lab, the UCSD team has built a prototype that tests for both health and environmental problems. One part of the tubular device uses disposable strips to assess liquids like blood and saliva, giving readings to help diagnose diabetes, HIV, hepatitis C, and common complaints like the flu and whooping cough. It can also assess river and seawater for contamination. The top part is for vital signs measurements: core body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, heart rate variability, and so on. Of course, the Tricorder connects with a smartphone so data can be shared and analyzed. Eventually, the pair hope to create a wide citizen-sensing network to better understand relationships between the environment and people’s health.

See more in the video below.

Aronoff-Spencer and Yu-Min Lin are currently looking for $50,000 on Indiegogo to do more development. They hope to send out at least 1,000 devices this year, starting with projects they have planned on the San Diego-Tijuana border, the Yukon River, and in Mongolia, Haiti, and Mozambique. For example, in Mongolia, they will look at how nomadic tribes are affected by large-scale mining and contamination in rivers with heavy metals.

By 2017, they want to distribute up to 1 million tricorders, both to professional analysts and families, creating a widely distributed citizen science network. “The old way used to be that you needed to be the biggest guy in the room and have lots of money to do this,” says Aronoff-Spencer. “The new paradigm is people power and technologies that enable citizens to work together.”

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE announces a shortlist of 10 teams this May. The top three teams–which get $7 million, $2 million, and $1 million respectively for first, second, and third place–are selected in 2015.


“Health and environmental data has gotten siloed. The only way to change that is if people create data themselves and choose to share it. It’s not the big health care company sharing it. It’s you and me,” says Aronoff-Spencer.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.