First Prototype of a Working Tricorder Unveiled at SXSW

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Photo: Eliza Strickland

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to take off all my clothes,” said Robert Kaul, president and CEO of Cloud DX, as he unbuttoned his shirt in front of a crowd at SXSW Interactive last week.

Kaul was showing off the components of his entry in the Tricorder Xprize, the $10-million competition that requires teams to develop a sci-fi medical scanner worthy of Star Trek. Each device must be able to diagnose 15 different medical conditions and monitor vital signs for 72 hours.

Cloud DX was ready to unveil its prototype at SXSW, but all ten finalist teams must be nearly done tinkering with their devices. They’re required to turn in their entries on 1 June in preparation for a six-month round of consumer testing.

The XPrize is partnering with the medical center at the University of California, San Diego on that consumer testing, since it requires recruiting more than 400 people with a variety of medical conditions. Grant Campany, director of the Tricorder XPrize, said he’s looking forward to getting those devices into hands of real patients. “This will be a practical demonstration of what the future of medicine will be like,” said Campany at that same SXSW talk, “so we can scale it up after competition.”

Around his neck, Kaul revealed a sort of electronic collar that forms one component of the Cloud DX system; the other pieces of hardware sat on a table before him. In a one-on-one with Spectrum just before the talk, Kaul gave me a closer look at his Tricorder prototype, which has four pieces:

The collar with attached earpiece, which together provide nearly continuous vital signs monotoring. Kaul said it’s comfortable enough to sleep in (he’s tried it), but he acknowledged that the XPrize doesn’t require that it be waterproof, so users will take it off when they shower. This component measures blood pressure, respiration, electrocardiogram (ECG), pulse rate, blood oxygen saturation, and core body temperature.

Cloud DX is selling this collar + earpiece component separately under the product name Vitaliti, maketing it directly to consumers as an advanced fitness tracker (the device also counts steps and calories). In its first consumer iteration some of the medical information the device is recording will be hidden from consumers, because the company doesn’t yet have approval from the FDA to sell Vitaliti as a medical device. If the company does get that approval, Kaul said it can make that info available to existing users “by flipping a switch.” 

The base station, about the size of a coffee can, which holds a paired smartphone or tablet to act as a display. That phone or tablet walks the user through a series of questions to determine which diagnostic test is required, and also sends data to the cloud for analysis. 

The universal diagnostic stick (on right in the photo), which conducts lab tests for conditions like diabetes, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and more. The stick contains a tiny needle which draws a drop of blood from the user’s finger, and it then wicks that blood through a test strip (much the way a home pregnancy test wicks urine through a tester). The user inserts the stick into the base station, where the test results are recorded.

A combination scanning wand (on left) “that Dr. McCoy would be proud of,” Kaul said. This lipstick-sized device contains a camera that can be waved over the skin to examine skin lesions or wounds. The wand also serves as an ear-examining tool called an otoscope, which provides a magnified view of the eardrum, and as a spirometer, which a user breathes into to measure the volume of air exhaled. The scanning wand slots neatly into the base station.

There are plenty of real-world concerns that could prevent this sci-fi gadget, and its tricorder brethren, from becoming consumer products. Will the FDA approve Cloud DX’s device? Will the data be reliable, or will errors leave Cloud DX open to charges of malpractice? If  consumers bring in their DIY lab test results, will doctors trust that information or insist on doing the tests all over again in the traditional (slow, expensive) way? Might the device provide too much data to hypochondriacs, providing fodder for daily crises? 

Stay tuned for the answers to all these questions in a future episode of “Tricorder: The Next Generation.” 

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The Human OS

IEEE Spectrum’s biomedical blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.

 
Senior Associate Editor
Eliza Strickland
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Emily Waltz
 
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Megan Scudellari
 

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