Star Trek-inspired Tricorder may be a reality by 2015

The X Prize Foundation will award a $10-million prize to whomever creates the heath care device
It's a tricorder
Paramount Television.The Kobal Collection

It is the stuff of sci-fi legend. Star Trek’s Bones McCoy wielding his hand-held “Tricorder” to check a patient’s condition before uttering impatiently, “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker.” Soon enough, doctors, nurses, and patients might have access to a Tricorder of their own. The X Prize Foundation, a non-profit aimed at spurring innovation through competition, recently announced a $10-million prize to the team that manages to create a real medical Tricorder device. It might sound far-fetched, but the X Prize has already proven it can turn science fiction into reality: the Ansari X Prize, in 2004, inspired the first-ever launch of a private spacecraft, SpaceShipOne.

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize (sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation, part of Qualcomm Inc., the mobile technology firm) doesn’t specify what the device should look like or how it should work, but it must weigh five pounds or lighter, and it should be able to capture certain “key health metrics” like blood pressure and respiratory rate, and diagnose 15 diseases (as yet unnamed). The winner will be announced sometime in 2015, and over 100 teams are already participating.

Using prizes as an incentive can boost spending and investment far beyond the actual value of the prizes. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris, winning a $25,000 purse put up by hotelier Raymond Orteig. A total of nine teams competed to cross the Atlantic, cumulatively spending $400,000, and laying the foundation for today’s modern aviation industry. And the Ansari X Prize saw fledgling space companies take off, too: the technology created for SpaceShipOne is now being developed for Virgin Galactic and its commercial suborbital spaceplane SpaceShipTwo.

The U.S.-based X Prize Foundation aims to address what it calls our “grand challenges,” which could range from education initiatives to life sciences and deepspace exploration. As for the medical Tricorder, it is a natural step in the health care industry, says Eileen Bartholomew, vice-president of prize development at X Prize; she compares it to the transition from visiting a bank teller to online banking from home. At the moment, “if you’re alone at 2 a.m. and don’t feel well, you’ve got a mercury thermometer and a telephone, and that’s it,” Bartholomew says. A Tricorder device “isn’t to replace a doctor; it’s to drive a patient to the best point of care,” she continues. It could be used by doctors and nurses, but the goal is to get it in the hands of consumers. “We don’t want this to be usable only by someone with a degree. We want it to be used by many, many people.”