In the March 2012 issue of The PCB Magazine, I wrote “How William Shatner Changed the PCB World.” Two short years later, I wrote a follow-up in the December 2014 issue called “Star Trek Inspires Medical Technology for 2015” with a global competition to develop a modern tricorder for the medical industry. My obsession with all things Star Trek continues with an update on the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE Contest. In April 2017, the top prize winner was named and awarded a $2.5 million prize.
Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE Contest
Over 50 years after Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy of the Starship Enterprise first used a fictional tricorder to scan patients for ailments and anomalies, real-world medical science is turning that science fiction into reality. More than 300 teams from around the world competed in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE Contest—a Star Trek-inspired challenge—that first launched in January 2012. The goal was to incentivize the development of innovative technologies capable of accurately monitoring a set of medical conditions independent of a healthcare professional or facility.
There were three rules for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE Contest:
1. Diagnose a set of 13 prescribed medical conditions
2. Continuously measure five prescribed vital signs
3. Have a positive consumer experience
“The theme of Star Trek is really about what the future is going to be like and the kind of technology we’re going to see,” said Erik Viirre, technical and medical director of the competition. The interesting takeaway of this competition is that creating a handheld medical laboratory could give us insight into what the next generation of cellphone capabilities might include!
A total of 300 teams entered and were thoroughly vetted and reduced to 34 registered teams in the competition, which was further reduced to seven teams with two emerging to compete in the final round. These two finalists were the Taiwanese Dynamical Biomarkers Group and Final Frontier Medical Devices (gotta love the name!) out of the United States.
Dynamical Biomarkers Group of Zhongli City, Taiwan, included a team of physicians, physicists, scientists, engineers, and designers charged. Dr. Chung-Kang Peng of Harvard Medical School founded the team in 2013 and was co-led by Dr. Edward Chang from HTC Corporation’s research and healthcare division (a mobile technology company). Their DeepQ tricorder device included four main components: smartphone, vital signs monitoring set, scope set, and blood/urine/breath tests. All subsystems connect to a smartphone app.
The Final Frontier Medical Devices team from Paoli, Pennsylvania, was led by the founders of Basil Leaf Technologies—brothers Dr. Basil Harris, an emergency room physician, and George Harris, a network engineer. They created a portable, consumer-friendly device—DxtER (pronounced “Dexter”)—capable of collecting and interpreting large amounts of diagnostic data giving real-time insight into 22 medical conditions.
“It is an impressive achievement for these two teams to advance to the consumer testing stage of the competition with their devices,” said Grant Campany, prize lead for the competition, “This stage not only takes us one step closer to transforming a sci-fi vision into a real-world impact, but more importantly, we are another important step closer to bringing a very user-friendly device to consumers around the globe, allowing them to proactively manage their own health in a way that has never been done before.”
And the prize goes to…Final Frontier Medical Devices (Figure 1)! After four years of development, their AI-based engine learned to diagnose medical conditions by integrating information from clinical emergency medicine with data analysis from actual patients. DxtER includes a group of non-invasive sensors designed to collect data about vital signs, body chemistries, and biological functions, which is then synthesized in the device’s diagnostic engine to make a quick and accurate assessment (Figure 2).
While Bones and his medical crew were the users of tricorder technology in Star Trek, the purpose of this contest is to develop medical diagnostic devices that the average person can use to improve their health. Today, most of us have used some kind of wearable device to monitor our steps, exercise, heart rate, etc. However, as an eight-year-old watching Star Trek with my dad and younger brother in the late 1960s, this wearable technology would have been thought to be crazy. If I have learned anything by being in a technological industry for four decades, it’s that something is only crazy until someone does it!
It should be noted that the original Star Trek series that has inspired 50 years of innovation only ran for three seasons! If I didn’t double-check it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. This just goes to show that there is no time constraint for game-changing innovation. I’m not sure Bones could ever see a time when a computer could be held in our hands:
Captain Kirk: “Well, Bones, do the new medical facilities meet with your approval?”
Bones McCoy: “They do not. It’s like working in a damn computer center!”
This column originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of PCB007 Magazine.
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