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How close are we to a tricorder?

The intersection of smartphones and medical technology is increasing the pace of change

Mobile deviceIn the fictional Star Trek universe, a medical tricorder is a small device used by doctors to help diagnose diseases and collect bodily information by simply holding it close to a patient. The advent of smartphones, which are basically hand-held computers, have seen some tremendous strides towards a real tricorder.

Leading these have been Apple's recent technological advances, which are quite frequently compared to science fiction devices. For example, when the iPhone was first announced it was compared to Star Trek's communicators.

Once Apple added the ability for 3rd party accessories to provide input to the iPhone via the dock connector it seemed inevitable that plug-in medical sensors would soon hit the market. In reality it has taken a long time for anything other than blood pressure cuffs to be released, but more recently the range of devices has increased.

In fact, as I write, digital healthcare is proving to be a very prominent part of the massive Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, with lots of health and fitness smartphone-based gadgets being announced. The show saw updates to existing accessories from Fitbit and Withings, and new entrants to the quantified self arena.

One of these came from the company 4iiii, which announced the Viiiiva, a chest strap heart rate monitor with support for many popular fitness apps. The company which, to pinch a line from, obviously likes the letter 'i' even more than Apple, says the Viiiiva is the first ANT+ device to sync to iOS devices without an adapter, and will be available 'soon' for $79. But what are the other key developments in the area and how close we are to making a tricorder a reality?

Monitoring heart rate

A researcher at the University of Sydney's School of Psychology recently created an app that can record and examine slight changes in the heart rate of the wearer during the day. The software incorporates technology that keeps track of the heart rate of athletes as they work out, but it can also monitor emotional workouts such as stress or excitement.

James Heathers, the PhD student from the University's School of Psychology who came up with the idea said that he wanted to make heart rate research more inexpensive, portable and straightforward. "I realised the problem was how to get this very useful data more quickly and cheaply. By providing people with a sensor and then using their smartphone to process the data we are no longer tied down to booking appointments in a university laboratory, and can record dozens of separate data streams at the same time. The sensor, placed on a finger instead of using electrodes on the chest, is so small we can mail it to study participants."

Cardiorespiratory fitness

In a similar way, the new Tinké accessory aims to test cardiorespiratory fitness and stress levels. Its tiny sensor, which is available in black, blue, pink and white, uses optical sensing technologies to capture blood volume changes. In combination with the free Tinké app the Vita index creates a personalised cardiorespiratory score by piecing together data collected from heart rate, blood oxygen level and respiratory rate.

The smartphone thermometer

A further medical application for smartphones may soon be as a thermometer. San Diego's Fraden Corporation has been awarded a patent that may in the future allow a smartphone to be used as an accurate medical diagnosing instrument, even without physical contact.

Currently an oral thermometer can be placed under the tongue, or an ear thermometer can take a temperature by detecting intensity of the invisible infrared light that naturally emanates from a patient's skin. As time has gone on the sensors necessary to do this have got smaller and smaller. 

According to Fraden's patent, its infrared sensor would be positioned inside a smart phone next to the digital camera lens. Then, by positioning the phone about one inch away from the patient's temple the phone both determine whether it was positioned correctly and, if so, instantly – and with clinically accuracy - take the body temperature.


Another medical add-on has been developed by US company MobiSante, whose smartphone-based ultrasound system is made up of a hand-held probe that plugs into a smartphone which then generates and displays the image. As well as portability, it also costs just $7,500 - a fraction of the price of a conventional ultrasound.

Narrow focus accessories

All the items mentioned above only focus on a single area of health. Other specific-use accessories that have come out, or are in development, include a Sanofi's glucose-monitoring device for people with diabetes and a range of optical attachments that turn smartphones into diagnostic quality imaging systems from CellScope. Then there's AliveCor's FDA-approved Heart Monitor

Masimo's pulse oximeter and, amazingly, even a brain scanner, which is in development at the University of Denmark. 

The Tricorder

However, as wonderful and innovative as all these are, the dream of the Star Trek tricorder is of one device to cover all these bases, and more. 

To help spur the development of such a device the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize was set up last year. Financed by the Qualcomm Foundation, the wireless communications technology company's charitable arm has put up $10m in prize money and $10m for the admin of the competition. More than 230 teams from over 30 countries have applied to enter, with the goal being to create a mobile platform that will enable the diagnosis of 15 conditions, including pneumonia, diabetes and sleep apnoea. “Ultimately this is about democratising access to health care around the world,” Peter Diamandis, the head of the X Prize Foundation, told The Economist.

The closest contender so far may be the Scout, which is in development by US-based company Scanadu. Its founder, the Belgium futurist and academic Walter de Brouwer, was moved to act after he became frustrated with the complicated devices that were monitoring the health of his own child during a spell in intensive care.

The Scout is a small device that can measure vital health information on contact. Less than ten seconds after being placed on the left temple it will read your pulse, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, heart rate variability and blood oxygenation. This information is then sent for display to an app on your iPhone or Android phone. It is expected to cost around $150 when it becomes available at the end of 2013, after it gets US government approval. 

The future may be closer than we thought …

Article by
Stuart Gordon

Production and Communications Manager at Life

30th January 2013

From: Healthcare



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