Tricoders

Star Trek “tricorders” and the Doctor’s infamous sonic screwdriver are now within reach, and the real world implications are staggering. A research team at the University of Missouri (MU) has developed a radiation source the size of a stick of gum capable of producing more than 100,000 volts of electricity from only 10 volts of electrical input.

Currently, the X-ray machines in doctor’s offices, airport security terminals, and elsewhere are massive, expensive, and power-hungry. Scott Kovaleski, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU and the study’s lead researcher, claims his new technology could one day be used to take dental X-rays from inside patents’ mouths, create portable scanners for clinics in developing nations, and even outfit spacecraft like the Mars Curiosity rover with X-ray capabilities.

Kovaleski’s tiny radiation source is a crystal made of lithium niobate, a material used to make some cell phone parts. Its incredible energy conversion is made possible by piezoelectricity—electricity created by physically squeezing or pressing the crystal. It sounds like science fiction, but it’ll be here in the near future.

"In approximately three years, we could have a prototype hand-held X-ray scanner using our invention,” Kovaleski said in a press release. “The cell-phone-sized device could improve medical services in remote and impoverished regions and reduce health care expenses everywhere."

Accessing Your Personal “HealthFeed”

Three years is a long time to wait, but at the end of 2013 researchers at the NASA Ames Research Center in California will unveil another sort of “tricorder”: a trio of inexpensive, portable devices to help patients monitor their vital signs at home.

The Scanadu SCOUT is a sleek device about the size of a deck of cards that when pressed to your temple for 10 seconds reads your pulse transit time, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, heart rate variability, and blood oxygen level. It sends this information to your smartphone where it can be stored and tracked over time, and the device is projected to cost less that $150.

The other two Scanadu products, ScanaFlo and ScanaFlu, contain paper swatches that when urinated on, in the case of ScanaFlo, can detect pregnancy complications, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, kidney failure, and urinary tract infections. When spit on, the ScanaFlu can detect strep A, influenza A and B, adenovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Again, the information is processed through your smartphone, giving you quick access to data previously available only from a lab in what the company calls a “healthfeed.”

“Consumers don’t have the tools they need to monitor their health and make informed decisions about when they’re actually sick and need to see a doctor,” Walter de Brouwer, founder and CEO of Scanadu, said in a press release. “We want to empower consumers to take control of their health and give them direct access to their personal healthfeed.”

The Scanadu team plans to enter their devices in the prestigious Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition, which is endorsed by all five captains from the Star Trek TV series. The top prize of $10 million will go to the team whose device most accurately diagnoses 15 conditions across 30 individuals and presents the information in a user-friendly format.

These "tricorders," though inspiring and perhaps even revolutionary, can never replace a doctor’s expertise. But they will mean big changes for battlefield medics, security personnel in airports, and exhausted parents who just want to know whether their child has a cold or something more. The future is here, and can help us all follow Spock's mantra: “live long and prosper.”