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Available soon: Spock's tricorder a-la-Star Trek

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YOUR son wakes up in the middle of the night with a burning fever. It's 2 a.m. and your doctor isn't available. You can risk the line and price of the emergency room or you can wait it out. Neither choice will give you the answers you need now.

In an ideal world, you'd have Mr. Spock's tricorder from the Star Trek universe. A mixture between Wikipedia and an X-ray machine, the device rose to science fiction fame on the show because it could virtually detect anything with just a sensor scan.

That invention's day may be dawning. The X Prize Foundation, which pays huge cash prizes to intrepid inventors, is offering prize purses totaling $12.5 million for the creation of a first-generation tricorder that could be used for medical diagnoses. Nokia and Qualcomm are putting up the money for the contests.

"The tricorder for us was kind of a magical tool," says Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock in the noted 1960s TV series. "I always believed we were doing things and showing things and explaining things that would be part of the future."

During the reign of the Star Trek series, Spock, an alien science officer aboard an Earth starship, carried his tricorder throughout the galaxy. The device captured the imagination of not only science fiction fans, but the general public, because the tricorder was an icon of things to come.

"It's a handheld device that gives you access to so much info," Nimoy says.

"The winner of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize will change the way diagnoses are performed," says Dr. Paul Jacobs, chief executive officer and chairman of Qualcomm. "Importantly, in the developing world, it will enable greater access to health care in areas too remote to have nearby skilled health care professionals."

The winning tricorder won't be too far from the one in the show. Qualcomm's rules require the winning tricorder be able to take vitals, detect a list of 15 diseases and be no more than 2.25 kilograms.

Walter De Brouwer, chief executive officer of Scanadu, a company that plans to enter its palm-size version of the tricorder in both contests, believes science fiction can provide blueprints for real-life products.

"Star Trek has been the inspiration for many inventions -- just look in your pocket and you're probably carrying a 'communicator' -- your cellphone. The iPad was a datapad in the series; the replicator was an inspiration for 3-D printers," De Brouwer says. "Technology has caught up to our imaginations, and we're now able to create tools that once felt out of reach."

Don't expect it to look like Spock's tricorder. Beyond the weight requirement, how the machines look and ultimately operate is entirely up to the contestant. British-based Montague Healthcare relies on a computer to power its creation. Massachusetts-based Nanobiosym will be entering a nano chip you drop bodily fluids onto and then plug in to a mobile device for analysis.

"We are taking the ability to diagnose disease and monitor one's own health outside of a hospital or pathology lab and literally placing it into your own hand," says Dr. Anita Goel, chief executive officer of Nanobiosym.

X Prize CEO Peter Diamandis believes the tricorder invention could lead to a major shift in health care. X Prize looks for gaps in today's markets -- and then challenges inventors to fill the voids, according to Diamandis. He sees big problems with today's health care system.

"We're not here to replace doctors, but I'll tell you it's a matter of making health care more efficient," Diamandis says. "How do we deploy the medical infrastructure more efficiently?"

Although the ultimate product and price are still a couple of years away, Trekkies, technology-buffs and moms can all get excited about the possibility of owning their own tricorder.

"I'm thrilled about it. Anything that makes medicine less invasive, for one thing, I think is wonderful," Nimoy says. "I have no doubt in the near future I'll be autographing medical tricorders."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 B8

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