Dammit, Jim!

Dr. McCoy isn’t the only one with a tricorder

By Karen Sherlock

Everyone knows what a Star Trek tricorder is, but what's all that other paraphernalia on the table? Is that a scrubby pad? [Alamy]
Everyone knows what a Star Trek tricorder is, but what’s all that other paraphernalia on the table? Is that a scrubby pad? [Alamy]
Star Trek fans, get ready for sci-fi to collide with reality. Three UAlberta alumni are part of a team that has created a real-life “tricorder” to track the body’s vital signs and diagnose 16 medical conditions.

The team is vying for $10 million in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize contest, up against some tough competition from other finalists, including industry giants Scanadu in the United States and HTC in Taiwan.

The Vitaliti, as it’s called, was created by Cloud Diagnostics, or Cloud DX, based in Toronto and New York. Robert Kaul, ’90 BSc, is co-founder and CEO of the company, and his brother Anthony Kaul, ’95 BCom, is chief operating officer. Joel Yatscoff, ’03 BDes, is product designer on the Vitaliti, working for Cortex Design in Toronto. (Cloud DX chief medical officer, Sonny Kohli, originally of Calgary, is another Alberta presence on the project.)

After “working away madly, pulling insane hours” right up to the June 2015 deadline for prototypes, the team delivered 30 samples of the Vitaliti to the XPrize offices, Yatscoff reports, with another 18 to be delivered by fall. These prototypes will be used for human testing and other trials, with the winning devices announced early in 2016.

While the $10 million in prizes is “serious money,” Robert Kaul says tongue-in-cheek, what has been most exciting is creating an easy-to-use device that has the potential to save lives and improve health all over the world.

So stay tuned: soon you might be wielding technology like an Enterprise crewmember. Suit not included.

What’s a tricorder, anyway?

For the one or two of you out there who aren’t familiar with Star Trek, the tricorder is a hand-held diagnostic device first imagined 50 years ago by the creators of the Star Trek TV show. XPrize has challenged companies to come up with a real-life bio-monitoring device that is portable, non-invasive, easy to use and weighs no more than 2.25 kilograms.

How does the Vitaliti work?

VitalitiWell, it’s not quite as simple as scanning it over your body like the Star Trek version, but it’s pretty close. “The device is like a mini-doctor,” says Yatscoff: it asks questions about your health, checks your heart, blood pressure and other vital signs and performs blood and urine tests to see what’s going on in your body.

The Vitaliti is made up of two main parts. One is an ear bud sensor and a device worn around the neck that measure five vital signs continuously for 72 hours — electrocardiogram, oxygen saturation, respiration rate, core body temperature and blood pressure. The other is a base station that can diagnose 16 medical conditions, including anemia, mononucleosis, diabetes, hepatitis A, sleep apnea, stroke, tuberculosis and urinary tract infection and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among others.

How does it do all that?

With some pretty ingenious technology, that’s how. Take the ear sensor: this tiny device has an infrared thermometer that shines into the inner ear to measure core body temperature, plus a sensor array that monitors oxygen intake. From these, complicated calculations are used to derive blood pressure and respiration rate. As for the base station, it can perform six whole-blood assays and a urine assay by using a camera to take pictures of test strip results.

Sounds amazing but what’s the point?

A major goal is to “de-skill medicine,” putting access to basic health information in the hands of consumers. That can help people keep an eye on their own health, support doctors in their efforts to diagnose patients by providing more detailed data more quickly or be used in remote regions or emergency situations where a doctor might not be available. “Your physician could give it to you to wear continuously,” Yatscoff says as an example. “You can get a really clear picture of everything that’s happening to you over the course of 72 hours, even as you sleep, which you don’t get in spot checks.”

The team envisions the technology improving health care and saving lives, particularly in isolated locations or developing countries where people don’t have ready access to standard medical care — medical missions, military or peacekeeping deployments, disaster zones, humanitarian aid projects, mountain rescue. Maybe even in space.

When can I get one?

Cloud DX is already taking pre-orders for the vital signs portion of the device. As for the Vitaliti, the team isn’t waiting around for the XPrize decision. It’s already getting word out to investors and others who might be interested in making the device available to consumers.

– with files from Robyn Braun

About the XPrize

The XPrize is a global competition designed to stimulate innovative technologies.

In 1996, XPrize offered $10 million in prizes to a privately financed company that could build and fly a three-passenger suborbital vehicle. Mojave Aerospace Ventures won in 2004. Today, in addition to the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, XPrizes include the Google Lunar XPrize, the Nokia Sensing XChallenge and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize, among others.

More about Cloud DX

“We’re all serial entrepreneurs,” co-founder Robert Kaul says of Cloud Diagnostics, based in Toronto and New York. “We like to get things going.” Click here to read more

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