Star Trek-style 'tricorder' invention offered $10m prize

By Chris Vallance
BBC News

Image caption,
Without the tricorder The Enterprise crew would have struggled to boldly go

A $10m (£6.5m) prize is on offer to whoever can create a Star Trek-like medical "tricorder".

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize has challenged researchers to build a tool capable of capturing "key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases".

It needs to be light enough for would-be Dr McCoys to carry - a maximum weight of 5lb (2.2kg).

The prize was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

According to the official Star Trek technical manual, a tricorder is a portable "sensing, computing and data communications device".

The kit captured the imagination of the show's millions of viewers when it was first used in the cult series' first broadcast in 1966.

In the show, which was set in the 23rd Century, the crew's doctor was able to use the tricorder to diagnose an illness simply by scanning a person's body.

Science fact

The award organisers hope the huge prize may inspire a present-day engineer to figure out the sci-fi gadget's secret, and "make 23rd Century science fiction a 21st Century medical reality".

"I'm probably the first guy who's here in Vegas who would be happy to lose $10m," said X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis.

While the tricorder is obviously the stuff of science fiction, other X Prizes have become science fact.

In 2004, the Ansari X Prize for a privately funded reusable spacecraft was awarded to the team behindSpaceShipOne.

Much of the technology they developed was subsequently utilised byVirgin Galactic.

Prof Jeremy Nicholson, head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, told the BBC there are already medical devices which detect chemical signs of illness to assist diagnosis.

However, he warned that bringing this technology together into one tricorder-sized piece of equipment would be a very daunting challenge.

"The most likely sort of technology would be something that detects metabolites," Prof Nicholson said.

"What we use in our laboratory is big - the size of a Mini. The challenge is sticking it all into one device."

Medical use

Prof Nicholson thought "grand challenges" like the tricorder prize helped stimulate innovation, and are "good fun".

But he doubted the Qualcomm Foundation would be awarding the prize any time soon.

"The challenges are: What is it you detect, what are the samples you can get and how do you put it all together in one gizmo?

"I don't think there'll be many people getting that prize in the near future."

Even if the device could be made, he continued, testing and obtaining approval for medical use might take much longer.

However, for Mr Diamandis the mere fact the prize exists could transform healthcare.

"It's not a single point solution. What we're looking for is to launch a new industry," he said.

"The tricorder that was used by Spock and Bones inspires a vision of what healthcare will be like in the future.

"It will be wireless, mobile and minimally- or non-invasive.

"It may use digital imaging, it may be sequencing your DNA on the spot to tell you if you are allergic to something you just ate."

That may seem like an impossibly ambitious set of goals, but fortunately, for those trying to win the prize, one feature of the Star Trek tricorder is not needed.

"We don't have a requirement that it makes the same noise," Mr Diamandis said.

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