Tricorder Technology Gradually Catching Up To Communicator Technology

While the Star Trek-inspired flip phone has been surpassed by smartphones, and phasers quite a ways off, there’s still the possibility that tricorders could make the transition from science fiction to actual technology.  After all, there are teams laboring on the QUALCOMM Tricorder XPrize.

While teams are working on a handheld device to monitor and diagnose medical conditions, researchers at Stanford (subscription for full text) have announced progress in sensing technologies and the press release links it explicitly to the tricorder (though not the Tricorder XPrize).  Combining microwaves and ultrasound, the researchers have managed to detect embedded objects without contacting the material containing those objects.

The researchers used microwaves to heat the area being scanned.  The heating prompts expansion, and the pulsed microwaves return ultrasound pressure waves.  These waves will vary based on the different rates of expansion for the different materials being scanned.  Interpreting these differences will allow for the detection of specific materials.  A key breakthrough is using transducers to convert the resulting weak ultrasonic signals into useful data.

While the research was stimulated by a challenge to find plastic explosives without touching the surrounding material, the results could be applied to other scenarios.  The heating caused by the microwaves is on the order of thousandths of a degree, making it safe in medical settings.  Once the technology can be refined to the proper level of sensitivity, it could detect tumors and other growths in the body that would be distinguishable from the surrounding flesh.  The researchers are optimistic, but anticipate this being possible in several years.

That’s not nearly as fast as the Tricorder XPrize wants it to happen.  The competition schedule was recently extended, but the organizers still expect a meaningful device in 2017.  While the XPrize does not require sensing without contact, the sensing must be non-invasive.

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