This week, a team led by a doctor not named Bones won two and a half million dollars for creating the closest thing to a functioning Star Trek-style “tricorder.”
Pennsylvania-based team Final Frontier Medical Devices, led by Dr. Basil Harris, has won the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, awarded to them not in on the final frontier, but in the heart of Hollywood. The ceremony was the culmination of a five-year mission across dozens of teams to make a device reminiscent of the iconic sci-fi diagnostic tool, a mission supported by Qualcomm with the hopes of rapidly advancing a critically under-innovated yet vital part of medical treatment: taking vitals.
To win the prize money, Final Frontiers Medical Devices had to go where no device had gone before. Any “successful” tricorder would have to be light (under five pounds), user friendly, able to continuously read out five different vital signs, and successfully diagnose at least 12 different medical conditions. Thirty teams spent five years and hundreds of thousands of their own dollars in pursuit of the prize, but in the end, Final Frontiers pushed beyond the other nerdy contenders.
And boldly they went. XPRIZE founder Dr. Peter Diamandis said at the event that to perform the same suite of tasks as the now-realized tricorder, it would take months of visits with at least 15 doctors and cost upwards of $50,000. The winning tricorder could perform the same evaluations in minutes, and the entire device cost less than $1,000 to produce according to Harris and his family, who comprised the rest of the team.
Star Trek is surprisingly prescient when it comes to envisioning futuristic technology. The show had screens before iPads, and communicators before cell phones. But the Harrises’ winning tricorder is the first example of scientists and engineers coming together with the goal of successfully replicating a technology from the show. The team’s success is perhaps the most direct support of Star Trek‘s vision of a better world, a world that solved its problems through the clever and collaborative use of science and technology.
“I’ve always been a Star Trek nerd,” Harris told me after the award ceremony, gesturing towards his device. “This is an incredible feeling.”
Images: CBS; Kyle Hill