Star Trek casually predicted, or pushed nerds into inventing, a lot of modern technology. Why do you think voice assistants are everywhere even though nobody wants to use them? That said, some of its revolutionary technology has seemed out of reach, like the tricorder. Until now, anyway, as 2017 appears to be the year that piece of Star Trek will finally come true.
The $9 million Tricorder X-Prize has been out there for a while, and we’ve even seen some promising prototypes, which have even gotten FDA approval. And there’s a reason the winning team will collect millions; a non-invasive diagnostic device that can read vital signs and find major ailments from a distance would be a revolutionary tool, especially building off of commonplace technology like smartphones and fitness trackers. In theory, long term, these devices could find, say, the early signs of an incipient heart attack and get you to call the hospital, or you could use them to track your vitals every Saturday and collect data over time, instead of going to the doctor once or twice a year to do the same tests.
The X-Prize committee has whittled it down to two contestants. The first is Basil Harris’s DxTer, basically a smartphone with an app and a series of Bluetooth connected tools, and the second is Chung-Kang Peng’s box of modules tied to a smart phone that will let you do everything from home blood tests to vital signs checks. The former is more focused on finding early warning signs, while the latter seems more focused on long-term health, although both collect a lot of data.
There are roadblocks. These are technically medical devices, so the FDA has to approve them, a process that can take years. And they are still tied to expensive personal computers like an iPad Mini, making these more useful, for now, in remote areas without much access to medical care and for people who already own, or can afford, these devices. Still, this is an important step forward, and it seems likely as devices are approved, that will both drive down the cost and likely be subsidized by both governments and insurance companies who would rather you catch that melanoma in your bathroom when it’s still cheap instead of when it’s gotten worse. No matter who collects the prize in 2017, a future where your medical data is in your control isn’t so far away.