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The Diagnostic Healthcare Tool That's Straight Out of Star Trek

Between Star Trek's transporters, replicators, and holodeck, it's frankly astonishing that anyone ever got anything done in that universe. But one of those devices stands out as both incredibly practical and tantalizingly in-reach: the tricorder. Able to diagnose an illness, scan for lifeforms, and analyze the composition of an atmosphere, these handheld gadgets could change the world—if they only existed. But according to the $2.5 million winner of a contest to build a tricorder prototype, we can actually do these 1960s sci-fi gizmos one better.

Final Frontier Medical Devices accepting their $2.5 million prize.
DxTer, Final Frontier Medical Devices' prize-winning invention.

A David And Goliath Showdown

To be clear, Qualcomm's Tricorder XPRIZE Competition was focused mainly on the medical utilities of the fictional device. There's not exactly a pressing need to test planetary atmospheres or uncover alien life forms...yet. Instead, the contest called for "tricorders" that would allow the user to quickly and accurately self-diagnose health problems. Competitors included a team of 50 doctors, scientists, and programmers backed financially by HTC and the Taiwanese government, and a Canadian start-up partnering with such organizations as the Stanford Center for Magnetic Nanotechnology and S.T.A.R. Analytical Services. But although they came up with brilliant solutions to the problem of self-diagnosis, neither of those teams won. Who did instead? A rag-tag, self-funded team of seven friends and family members.

Final Frontier Medical Devices (zero points for guessing where the name comes from) is the competitive arm of Basil Leaf Technologies, led by emergency-room doctor Basil Harris and his network-engineer brother George Harris. But that's not where the family effort ends. Gus Harris, a urologist and electrical engineer, and health-policy expert Julia Harris are members of the team as well. Nearly all the work on the "tricorder" was done on Basil Harris's kitchen table. Maybe that small scale was just what they needed to come up with a convenient design that could be used in the home.

The Harris brothers pose in Star Trek uniforms with prop tricorders.

Boldy Doing What No Machine Has Done Before

So how does Final Frontier's device—called DxTer—work? Basically, it's a shoebox-sized kit full of diagnostic sensors that sync with an iPad. But what really set DxTer apart was its artificial intelligence component, which has learned to synthesize symptoms into 34 common diagnoses. Once they have a diagnosis, users have the option to keep their healthcare providers plugged in to DxTer's analysis. That means that, unlike other diagnostic tools, DxTer is able to not only track your symptoms, but also walk you through them to give you a better understanding of your health situation. Sounds to us like the next step is inventing a warp drive.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas May 3, 2017

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