The Future is Here: The Real-Life Tricorder

medical_tricorderIt was only a matter of time, I guess. But we really should have known that with all the improvements being made in biometrics and biotechnology – giving patients and doctors the means to monitor their vitals, blood pressure, glucose levels and the like with tiny devices – and all the talk of how it looked like something out of science fiction that it wouldn’t be long before someone took it upon themselves to build a device right out of Star Trek.

It’s known as a the Scanadu Scout, a non-invasive medical device that is capable of measuring your vitals simply by being held up to your temple for a mere 10 seconds. The people responsible for its creation are a startup named Scanadu, a group of research and medtech enthusiasts who are based at the NASA Ames Research Center. For the past two years, they have been seeking to create the world’s first handheld medical scanner, and with the production of the Scout, they have their prototype!

scanaduAll told, the device is able to track pulse transit time (to measure blood pressure), temperature, ECG, oximetry, heart rate, and the breathing rate of a patient or subject. A 10 second scan of a person’s temple yields data that has a 99% accuracy rate, which can then be transmitted automatically via Bluetooth to the user’s smartphone, tablet or mobile device.

The device has since been upgraded from its original version and runs at a rate of 32 bits (up from the original 8). And interestingly enough, the Scouts now runs on Micrium, the operation system that NASA uses for Mars sample analysis on the Curiosity rover. The upgrade became necessary when Scanadu co-founder Walter De Brouwer, decided to add an extra feature: the ability to remotely trigger new algorithms and plug in new sensors (like a spectrometer).

medtechOne would think that working with NASA is effecting his thinking. But as Brouwer points out, the more information the machine is capable of collecting, the better is will be at monitoring your health:

If we find new algorithms to find relationships between several readings, we can use more of the sensors than we would first activate. If you know a couple of the variables, you could statistically predict that something is going to happen. The more data we have, the more we can also predict, because we’re using data mining at the same time as statistics.

One of the Scout’s cornerstone algorithms, for example, allows it to read blood pressure without the inflating cuff that we’ve all come to know and find so uncomfortable. In the future, Scanadu could discover an algorithm that connects, age, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate with some other variable, and then be able to make recommendations.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicEveryone who pre-orders a Scout has their data sent to a cloud service, where Scanadu will collect it in a big file for the FDA. Anyone who opts-in will also gain access to the data of other users who have also elected to share their vitals. Brouwer explains that this is part of the products early mission to test the parameters of information sharing and cloud-medical computing:

It’s going to be a consumer product in the future, but right now we are positioning it as a research tool so that it can be used to finalize the design and collect data to eventually gain regulatory approval. In the end, you have to prove how people are going to use the device, how many times a day, and how they are going to react to the information.

In the future, De Brouwer imagines this kind of shared information could be used for population scanning, kind of like Google Flu Trends does, except with data being provided directly from individuals. The focus will also be much more local, with people using the Scout’s stats to able to see if their child, who suddenly has flu symptoms, is alone of ir other kids at their school are also sick. Pandemics and the outbreaks of fatal diseases could also be tracked in the same way and people forewarned.

medical-technologyNaturally, this raises some additional questions. With it now possible to share and communicate medical information so easily between devices, from people to their doctors, and stored within databases of varying accessibility, there is the ongoing issue of privacy. If in fact medical information can be actively shared in real-time or with the touch of a button, how hard will it be for third parties to gain access to them?

The upsides are clear: a society where health information is easily accessible is likely to avoid outbreaks of infectious disease and be able to contain pandemics with greater ease. But on the flip side, hackers are likely to find ways to access and abuse this information, since it will be in a public place where people can get at it. And naturally, there are plenty of people who will feel squeamish or downright terrified about the FDA having access to up-to-the-moment medical info on them.

It’s the age of cloud computing, wireless communications, and information sharing my friends. And much as people feel guarded about their personal information now, this is likely to take on extra dimensions when their personal medical info is added to the mix. Not a simple or comfortable subject.

But while I’ve still got you’re here, no doubt contemplating the future of medicine, take a look at this video of the Scanadu Scout in action:


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