Friday, June 17, 2011

An X-Prize for a Tricorder. And hurray for Qualcomm.

Earlier this year, I speculated on the prospect of a Tricorder as an ultimate vision for digitalizing healthcare records, improving healthcare outcomes, and moving patients nearer to the level of medical equality with doctors.  (That's not a rap on doctors, merely an observation that more high quality information is better than less.)

Admittedly, the Tricorder was a fictional invention, from "Star Trek," but as with so many other inventions, it has to be imagined before it can be invented.  Indeed, to go back and look at the original Tricorder, from nearly half-a-century ago is to be reminded that personal electronics have actually gone further by today than people back in the 60s thought they would by the 23rd century.   The ubiquitous iPhone is, in fact, the beginning of a Tricorder process; it just needs a lot more apps.

And so if the imagination part of the challenge is in gear, we can now note that new things often must be incented before they can be invented.

If that's true, then we just took a big step forward, thanks to Qualcomm.   As Brian Dolan writes in MobiHealthNews reports:

Marty Cooper, the inventor of the modern cell phone, has on occasion credited the fictional TOS Communicator device, featured in the 1960s television series Star Trek, as inspiration for the mobile phone. While the mobile phone has served as the de facto platform for most mobile health services today, yet another device from the very same popular science fiction series could inspire a new generation of inventors: The Tricorder.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in a “visioneering” meeting set up by the X Prize Foundation, which is working to set up a new X Prize that would incentivize the development of a device similar to the handheld diagnostic device featured in Star Trek. Qualcomm has already agreed to fund the development phase of the Tricorder X Prize (the name may change), but a prize sponsor for the competition (one of the prizes is a $10 million check) has yet to sign on.

For those unfamiliar, the X Prize Foundation has set up a number of “audacious” yet “achievable” competitions over the years, including private space flight; self-driving cars; affordable genome sequencing. A Tricorder-like device is right up there.

“What we’re trying to do is develop a mobile solution that can diagnose patients, better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians,” Michael Timmons, X Prize Foundation spokesman, told NPR in an interview this week. “So essentially what it would do is enable anyone, pretty much at any location, to quickly and successfully assess health conditions.”

Qualcomm Vice President Don Jones provided NPR with his vision for the type of system this competition might inspire:

s, software, kind of innovative approaches to collecting data and information to make it really, really easy to make a diagnosis. And do it in a way that’s relatively inexpensive, lightweight, small, portable,” Jones said. “And as minimally invasive as possible.”
“Come up with sensor

If it comes to fruition, the Tricorder X Prize competition will become a key catalyst for mobile health devices and services. Actually, after spending the last day and a half with two dozen healthcare “visioneers” discussing the potential future for health devices and services, I am certain it already has.

We can't yet know if this X-Prize effort will be successful.  But what we do know is that once the human imagination is unleashed, the results will astound the skeptics and the cynics and the naysayers. 


  1. Diagnosis seems to be all about pattern recognition based on sensory input. The dermatologist looks at your skin and decides on what category your skin fits into. The ophthalmologist measures pressure in the eye ball and fits your levels into the glaucoma scale. So the sensors are key.

    But what can we envision that will allow a complete scan of the clothed body or measure easily pressure in the eyeball (without the technician that now is involved) and also be kept within a framework of privacy protection? Miniaturization will come,over time, but the privacy concerns will simply grow. And the controls for those privacy concerns may negate much of the value added by miniaturization. It may be faster and easier to have the knowledgeable medical person scan your skin than to have to check out the machine that could do it as well.

  2. Thoughts like this dude, are those needed in a company. Innovate and work hard that's all.

  3. Great article. I appreciate your writing skills. They are excellent. The knowledge of the subject is pretty good. Thanks for the awesome work.