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Star Trek-like open-source tricorder sees magnetic fields and more

Image: Image of tricorder
An open-source science tricorder could help people visualize the world around them.YouTube / Tricorder Project

Know the near-magical handheld analysis gadgets known as "tricorders" that everyone carries in Star Trek? A cognitive science researcher has created a real-world version.

"The open source science tricorders that I've developed are very much a way to help people explore and feed their curiosity for the world," Peter Jansen, who created and built the gadget, told me today in an email.

Jansen recently earned his Ph.D. in in cognitive science from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada where he taught computers to learn language like babies do. He is currently at the University of Arizona working on high-tech sensors.

A person with that level of smarts, apparently, has enough brain power leftover in his spare time to invent tricorders, not to mention the greedlessness to share the blueprint with DIYers who want their own. Instructions are available from his Tricorder Project website.

Like the Trek devices, Jansen’s gadgets will measure the environment, things such as ambient temperature, humidity and magnetic fields, as well as take spatial readings for distance, location and even motion. They won’t, however, identify aliens for you.

The idea is to "help kids learn science at a conceptual level and ground abstract concepts like magnetism or polarization by providing a way to intuitively visualize them long before kids learn their mathematical formalisms," he said. (That's the uber-academic term referring to the logic and structure of math.)

Jansen shows off the devices in the video below.

“My hope is that someday every household and every kid who wants one will have access to this device that they can keep close in a pocket or bag and really pull out when curiosity strikes,” he says in the video.

While Jansen's tricorder is intended to help people visualize invisible aspects of the natural world such as magnetism, he said he is "very interested" in working on a medical tricorder that would qualify for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, a $10 million contest to develop a wireless, handheld device that monitors and diagnoses health conditions.

"Developing a medical tricorder has the opportunity to positively change so many lives," he said. "And I'd love the chance to work on it if the opportunity presented itself -- say through a grant or joining a team."

Plenty of teams are hard at work on the medical tricorder, my colleague Alan Boyle notes in a post about the X Prize contest, calling it "an idea whose time has come.” Check out his post for a roundup of what folks are working on.

-- Via Ars Technica

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website  and follow him on Twitter . For more of our Future of Technology  series, watch the featured video below.