With the recent passing of television and scifi legend Leonard Nimoy, I wanted to post something as a tribute. But, in some ways, I feel like the Internet has provided far more in that realm, with much more touching sentiment than I could. Instead, I’ll do something that is related to Nimoy’s most iconic character, Spock.
There are a few events in real-world history where science was inspired by the fictional worlds of science fiction. The U.S. space shuttle Enterprise, for example. It was originally to be named the Constitution, but was renamed to the Enterprise by President Ford, possibly due to a letter-writing campaign by a dedicated group of Star Trek fans. So, while the shuttle itself may not have been inspired by science fiction, its name was.
However, there is another significant piece of Star Trek lore that is inspiring technology itself, right now: The Tricorder.
Back in the 1960’s, well before I was born, Star Trek amazed television audiences with tales of space ships and phasers and transporters. The show contained a veritable buffet of far-out ideas and technologies. But few of them were so utterly ubiquitous as Spock’s own trusty Tricorder. Whenever Kirk and spock went on an away mission, he never left the ship without it.
When I was a kid, Star Trek: The Next Generation continued that sense of wonder. And still, the tricorder was just as present.
Now, to be fair, the Tricorder came in two flavors: Medical and Science. And while they appeared to be similar, they each had very specific purposes. The science model focused on energy signatures and the current environment, whereas the medical model was specifically about diagnosing and treating a living being.
The Tricorder is a very specific example of science fiction inspiring reality. In fact, it’s happening twice, at the same time with the same device (more or less). Two separate paths are being taken to create a real-world Tricorder, one for science and one for medical.
The Science Tricorder, is being developed through something called The Tricorder Project (tricorderproject.org). Started by Peter Jansen (PhD), The Tricorder Project has produced several prototype devices capable of some very basic, yet useful, features, including ambient temperature, magnetic field sensor, humidity, color/rgbc sensor, air pressure, non-contact infra-red thermometer, light meter, GPS receiver, ultrasonic range finder, and directional accelerometer. While these features may not seem terribly applicable in most people’s everyday life, they would be pretty useful and critical to an away mission.
However, Jansen’s purpose is more about education that planetary exploration. According to the website, his goal is to make a device that is cheap and accessible so that “everyday experiences will become opportunities to learn and develop an intuitive understanding and deep fluency with the science of our everyday world.” Currently, he is on a 5th mode prototype. His site only mentions the first four, but his Youtube channel has a video highlighting his newest project, an Arducorder, a Tricorder-like device the size of a small cellphone that is based/is compatible with the DIY open-source computer devices.
While the Science Tricorder’s development is very garage-engineer, the Medical Tricorder is not. (This is not to say that garage-engineer is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I consider it a tremendous feat when someone like Peter Jansen takes on something like the Tricorder and accomplishes so much with so little.)
No stranger to reaching for the stars (just about literally), the XPRIZE Foundation announced their XPRIZE Tricorder competition in October of 2012. Sponsored by the semiconductor supergiant Qualcomm, the competition currently consists of ten teams, all working on their own hand-held medical device.
Unlike Jensen’s project, the XPRIZE Tricorder will have to meet very specific guidelines. To be eligible to win, the devices will have to be able to accurately diagnose 16 different medical conditions as well as provide readings of 5 vital health signs. The winner will be the device that scores the highest in judging in the accuracy of it’s diagnoses.
It’s no secret that healthcare is a huge issue for, not just the U.S., but the world. It’s expensive and time consuming. It can even be confusing. But according to project’s website, “The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a $10 million global competition to stimulate innovation and integration of precision diagnostic technologies, helping consumers make their own reliable health diagnoses anywhere, anytime.”
One has to wonder how we are able to have devices, consumer devices, that provide crazy-advanced computing power as well as video and audio communication, and yet something that can save lives or educate us about the world around is so elusive. To be honest? I think the Tricorder, both the Medical and Science versions, are an idea that is long past due.
This is definitely one instance where reality inspired by science fiction is a very good thing.