One of the greatest things about science fiction, aside from the sexy green-skinned aliens, is that the seemingly magical technology depicted in films and literature often inspires engineers and scientists to develop technologies they would have never imagined. The iconic, genre-defining Star Trek series has been the source of many such sci-fi-inspired developments, as demonstrated by one of this year’s XPRIZE challenges.
The XPRIZE is a technology and engineering competition which pits teams of scientists against one another to develop radically innovate solutions to modern problems. One of this year’s challenges was to develop a working “tricorder” device similar to those used in Star Trek films and other media. In the Star Trek series, Dr. Hank “Bones” McCoy and other medics use these handheld gizmos to diagnose and scan patients for health problems almost instantly.
Using these fictional devices as inspiration, XPRIZE wrote the guidelines for this year’s competition as follows:
The winning team will develop a Tricorder device that will accurately diagnose 13 health conditions (12 diseases and the absence of conditions) and capture five real-time health vital signs, independent of a healthcare worker or facility, and in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience.
Whatever “compelling consumer experience” means, I’m sure it’ll be good for future med-tech profits. XPRIZE and Qualcomm, the sponsor of the “tricorder” competition, have announced that out of forty teams, two have managed to reach the finals by creating devices which appear to have succeeded in making the Star Trek tricorder tech a reality. One team, Dynamical Biomarkers Group (DBG) out of Taiwan, created their device using an HTC smartphone.
The other, Pennsylvania’s own Final Frontier Medical Devices, 3D-printed their own set of minuscule devices which pair with an iPad mini.
These two working tricorders are only the most recent in a string of Star Trek-inspired tech developments. Earlier this year, NASA engineers announced the successful testing of a prototype “tractor beam” which is able to “freeze” objects in mid-air or move them around using only a beam of light. Likewise, a group of engineers at the University of Leicester published a study claiming to have solved the technical requirements necessary to build working photon torpedoes like those fired by the USS Enterprise. It seems life does indeed sometimes imitate art. Just ask these nerds.