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'Trek' tricorder could win $10 million

The development of a
The development of aNASA file

A real-life diagnostic device that does something akin to what the tricorder did on "Star Trek" just might earn its developers $10 million prize. And yes, the proposed competition is actually being called the Tricorder X Prize. It's just one more example of life imitating "Trek." In the words of Mr. Spock: Fascinating!

The objective of the project, currently being explored by the X Prize Foundation and Qualcomm, is not just to create one more cool gadget for "Trek" fans ... although the idea of a hand-held, automated medical diagnostic device is pretty cool. The objective is to extend the reach of health information and services to billions more people in the world.

"We believe this is a fundamental step in helping people become true 'health consumers' who can have as much say in assessing and accessing health care as they would any other service or product," Don Jones, vice president of wireless health strategy and market development at Qualcomm Labs, said in this week's announcement about the project. "Qualcomm believes the value of this X Prize is also in changing the cost structure and focus of health care. By having consumers take the initial actions to obtain health assessment data, the use and the quality of physicians' time is improved."

The competition is modeled on earlier incentive programs such as the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight, or the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize for super-efficient road vehicles. The basic idea is to encourage the development of mobile devices that can diagnose patients at least as well as a panel of board-certified physicians.

"The goal obviously is to drive a lot of innovation toward this narrow goal of easy-to-use, low-cost, minimally invasive, rapid, portable and scalable diagnosis," Jones told me during a follow-up interview.

Over the next few months, Qualcomm and the X Prize Foundation will be working together to flesh out the rules and requirements for the Tricorder X Prize. Jones emphasized that this is just the "design phase" for the venture. Qualcomm isn't yet committed to putting up any prize money, but it does have "the option of funding part or all of the prize," he said.

If the design phase is successful, the competition would begin in early 2012.

So what's in it for Qualcomm, a company that focuses on wireless network technology? "Qualcomm has a wireless health effort, we've had it for some time, and we believe there is a real interest to tie together the world of sensors and the world of informatics," Jones told me. "We're very interested in connecting more items to the cellular-powered Internet, and this is a category of items. Perhaps many categories of items will come out of this."

There are already a goodly number of mobile medical devices out there, including some pretty fancy hand-held ultrasound imagers. Three years ago, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated a portable medical scanner that could be hooked up to a mobile phone to create a tricorder-like diagnostic system. But Jones said he thought the device that won the Tricorder X Prize would have to hit a higher level of sophistication — in effect, telling users on the spot whether they should go see a professional.

The tricorder might have to check not only ultrasound readings, but heart rate, respiration, perspiration, salivation and other health indicators. "It's fairly clear that a prizewinner is going to have to figure out how to integrate multiple sensing technologies, using multiple databases," Jones said.

Can one device do it all ... and make those cool "Star Trek" noises as well? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, and stay tuned for future episodes.

More about 'Trek' medical tech:

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