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The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize: An Invention Competition

Updated on October 3, 2012

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is the most ingenious competition you’ve probably never heard of.

In January 2012 the kickoff of a $10 million new innovation contest was made at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The focus—a device able to apprehend an individual’s essential health metrics and diagnose a set of 15 diseases. This is no small challenge.

The competition was developed by the X PRIZE Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the development of breakthrough technology for increased quality of life. The organization is known for its several incentivized Grand Challenges, which it conducts in four prize groups: Education & Global Development, Energy & Environment; Life Sciences; and Ocean & Deep Space Exploration.

The X Prize is further supported by the Qualcomm Foundation, the philanthropic arm of telecommunications giant Qualcomm, that aims to strengthen communities worldwide through math and science education; the creation of sustainable communities; and a focus on cultural enrichment.

What is a Tricorder?

The only thing left to explain is the tricorder, and this is where things get interesting.

If you ever watched Star Trek you may recall a handheld device that was often used for many types of data collection and analysis. This was the tricorder. The device (or devices because there were three) could practically do anything, including map areas and examine the starship. The term itself refers to its three functions for geology, meteorology, and biology.

Herein we discover the seminal idea in the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. The goal is to invent such a device to allow a consumer to gain direct medical care without the need of a professional.

Unfortunately, the need for this invention is great. Daily and far too regularly countless millions have no access to quality healthcare due to lack money and insurance and even time. The tricorder would allow consumers to manage their own health independent of doctors and push the envelope for improved medical care.

Excellent Tricorder Prize Video

Tricorder Teams

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, launched in January 2012, is open for 3½ years and will close in 2016. Although the competition is based in the U.S.and targeted at U.S. customers, it is open to teams globally. Teams from more than 22 countries are already represented.

The competition will be conducted in two Rounds, a Qualifying Round and a Final Round. Ten teams will advance from the Qualifying Round to the Final Round that will feature a diagnostic contest on 15-30 consumers and their subsequent evaluations of the experience. A winner will be determined out of the Top 5 remaining teams.


The Tricorder Challenge

In addition to diagnosis, these teams are saddled with developing a device that can monitor and provide real-time vitals and notify consumers if something is wrong with their health.

The task is challenging but not impossible. Tricorders are in existence today in many scientific domains, including NASA. In fact, software exists for smartphones. So it’s not a matter of technology to support the creation of an intelligent device but rather harnessing all the tools for a single authentic and competent medical tricorder.

Artificial intelligence is definitely at work in this innovation—how else do you describe a machine that makes diagnoses? The tricorder is intended to be wireless using sensors that can be placed on or near the body or in the general vicinity of a person, a choice left to the respective teams. Although wireless is the goal, there are no restrictions on non-wireless or invasive designs, although these will most likely be unpopular with users.

The only stated limitation on the entry form is a five-pound weight limit. Further, designs must include a way for consumers to store and share information, which is required to be accessible remotely via the Internet.

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Challenges to Tricorder Success

What will be interesting to follow is the reaction of the medical community to the tricorder. Surely there will be professionals that support the device and those that will be against it.

To be fair, there should be concern from doctors and researchers if they are indeed caring. They possess informed opinions about topics at which they are experts and that concern people's well-being. After all, a robot would be replacing them! Hopefully, no backlash would occur due to resistance to change and innovation in the field.

Probably the most stringent opposition will come from the government. A tricorder device will surely be designed and created, but it must still be officially tested and obtain approval for use. Yet this is the path to new technology; and those of us who live in societies with high standards of living should feel good about our safety on many fronts because it is resultant of rigorous public health concerns.

The Future Has Arrived

The development of this tricorder is a big deal when you consider the big names on the X Prize board of trustees—people like James Cameron, Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, Will Wright, and Larry Page, among other astronauts, entrepreneurs, and elite persons. There is much vision and innovation backing the success of this medical invention, as with every X Prize.

It will also be a big deal to the winning team: in the tune of $10 million.

The end picture, however, is better healthcare—and better health—for all, basics that cannot be debated any longer. I applaud the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize and look forward to its results.


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    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 6 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      What an awesome time in which we live! I think its time has come as well. I'm also happy to see innovation for a real need. Thanks, DrBJ!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      This is an excellent summation about the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, ithabise. I read about it in a Forbes Magazine article. There is technology in place now that could help further the invention of the tricorder device. It's future may soon be now.