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More “Star Trek” Tech In Real Life: The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize

An American team of scientists and engineers just won the five-year-old, $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize.

More “Star Trek” Tech In Real Life: The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize
Zachary Quinto plays Spock in Star Trek Beyond, 2016. [Photo: couresty of Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios Inc.]

The relationship between Star Trek and real-world science is long and distinguished (how many NASA engineers have claimed to owe their careers to the adventures of Captain Kirk and crew?). And just as Star Trek’s Communicator inspired the flip phone, and its mobile computer PADD influenced the iPad, now comes a Tricorder-like diagnostic device.

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Five years after it launched, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize has awarded an American team of scientists and engineers a $2.6 million first-place award and a Taiwanese team a $1 million second-place prize for developing consumer mobile devices that non-invasively diagnose 13 medical conditions without assistance from health professionals. An initial 312 teams entered.

Final Frontier Medical Devices [Photo: courtesy of XPRIZE]
The American team is Pennsylvania-based Final Frontier Medical Devices, helmed by ER physician Basil Harris and his network engineer brother, George, who named their machine DxtER (pronounced “Dexter”). Runner-up is Taiwan’s Dynamical Biomarkers Group, led by Harvard Medical School associate professor Chung-Kang Peng and supported by HTC Research. As finalists, the teams also earned $1 million in preliminary prizes last year.

“Creating technology breakthroughs in an industry as complex as healthcare is quite a milestone,” says Qualcomm executive chairman Paul Jacobs. “What these teams accomplished is a great stepping stone to making mobile health care a viable option across the world.”

Dynamical Biomarkers Group. [Photo: courtesy of Dynamical Biomarkers]

Removing the Doctor

Accuracy and ease of use determined the winning design after six months of testing by nearly 400 consumers focusing on diagnostic, vital signs, and user experience at the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute at the University of California, San Diego.

DxtER, Final Frontier Medical Devices’ tricorder prototype [Photo: courtesy of XPRIZE]
“The devices are clunkier and not as magic based as the Star Trek version,” says Final Frontier’s Harris. “Sometimes it requires a blood or urine sample. You’re scratching the surface, but still making contact with a person. There are only so many ways get to a certain diagnosis, so the hardest part was taking the doctor out of the equation.”

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The devices partially cull the list of possible diagnoses through a medical questionnaire, then guide the user through more tests before offering a final determination and course of action. Both employ reconfigured existing technology such as finger meters, imaging, and wireless sensors to measure five vital signs, and diagnose 10 core conditions and three elective ones.

Artificial intelligence enables the systems to learn and increasingly tailor them to users.

Star Trek Medical Tricorder’s [Photo: courtesy of CBS Studios Inc.]
Both measure blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, temperature, anemia, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, leukocytosis (elevated white blood cell count), pneumonia, otitis media (middle ear inflammation), sleep apnea, urinary tract infection, and absence of a condition.

For the elective conditions, Final Frontier’s device tackles pertussis (whooping cough), hypertension, and mononucleosis, while Dynamical Biomarkers addressed melanoma, shingles, and hypertension. Final Frontier’s device uses data analysis from actual patients, while Dynamical’s pairs diagnostic algorithms with analytical methodology controlled through a smartphone app.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group’s tricorder prototype [Photo: courtesy of XPRIZE]

Betterment of Humanity

The XPrize Foundation is a 21-year-old Los Angeles nonprofit run by executive chairman Peter Diamandis and CEO Marcus Shingles that runs incentivized competitions to foster innovation that helps humanity. There are 16 past and present competitions, with another 13 in active development.

The first and best-known of the contests, The Ansari XPrize, was a $10 million award for a reliable, reusable, privately financed manned spaceship. Breakthroughs from this competition lead to a private space industry worth over $2 billion. The Paul Allen-backed Mohave Aerospace Ventures won it in 2004, and Richard Branson licensed the technology to create Virgin Galactic. It’s most recent competition, Avatar XPrize, launched in December.

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Consumer testing with Final Frontier’s Tricorder-inspired device. [Photo: courtesy of XPRIZE]
The Tricorder competition launched in 2012 as a way to stimulate innovation in consumer diagnostic technologies, and facilitated by advances artificial intelligence, wireless sensing, imaging, lab-on-a-chip, and molecular biology.

Contest rules dictated the device weigh less than five pounds and be user-friendly. Teams had to trade-off weight with functionality, processing power, battery life, screen resolution, AI engine location, diagnostic capability, and cost.

“It was a rigorous process,” says Tricorder XPrize lead Grant Campany, who oversaw competition operations and testing. “The devices were dropped off and given to testers to operate without help from medical professionals.”

Further Development

The remaining prize purse will fund continued development, consumer testing, and commercialization of Tricorder prototypes, with FDA support and $1.6 million from The Roddenberry Foundation towards adapting the devices for the developing world.

“Now is the hard part,” says Harris. “We’ve passed the structure of the XPrize competition. Now we have to get the devices through the regulatory bodies.”

Adds Peng: “No matter which team wins the grand prize, we’ll both continue on. We’re also interested in collaborating with each other and all the entrants.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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