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The Medical Tricorder: How Fiction Inspires Science

You might’ve heard about the medical tricorder from Star Trek. It’s a hand-held scanner used to gather data on a patient and diagnose a medical issue within seconds, ranging from diseases to viruses – it can even check organ functions! The fictional device has inspired scientists worldwide to build a real life medical tricorder.

What it Does

The main functions of the medical tricorder include:

  • Diagnosing diseases

  • Display ongoing personal health metrics

  • Monitor and summarise a person’s health condition

  • Quickly confirm if a person is healthy or not

From Fiction to Reality

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition was announced in 2012; this global competition brought together 230 teams from 30 countries around the world. With an incentive of $10 million for the winning team, the competition spurred innovation worldwide to make the device a reality. The award would be given to the team who could build a device that diagnosed at least fifteen unique medical conditions including a sore throat, sleep apnea and colon cancer, alongside a user-friendly interface.

The technology behind the medical tricorder is extremely complex, as it needs to be able to complete a multitude of tasks in contrast to other simple yet useful devices such as a thermometer. For instance, using microscope technology in the scanner for electronic analysis in conjunction with an ultrasonic probe for imaging would equip this device with various functions. Other possible functions include using electrodes to measure heart rate and sensors to detect antibodies. The possibilities are endless, and undoubtedly, this device will change the medicine forever.

Real Life Medical Tricorders

Currently, there are diagnostic medical apps on the market – most of which utilise the phone’s camera, microphone, GPS and its other sensor capabilities. In addition, there are devices more closely inspired by the medical tricorder, in the sense that they are ‘hand-held scanners’. Some examples include:

  • Scanadu

  • TRIMprob

  • Berkeley Tricorder

  • QuantuMDx Group

  • And a few others!

Over the last decade, technology has boosted productivity in all sorts of friends. Most notable, it’s extremely exciting to see the lengths to which technology can improve medicine over the next few years.


Written by Nichapatr (Petch) Lomtakul


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