Science Camp at UC San Diego: Building a Real Star Trek Tricorder

By Phill Powell

Dr. “Bones” McCoy was able to diagnose patients aboard the Starship Enterprise by using a device called a “tricorder.” Now, in a prime example of life imitating art (or reality imitating science fiction), there is a contest to actually build one—with $10 million in total prize money for the teams that do it.

Dr. McCoy examines a patient using a tricoder in the original Star Trek series. Now there’s a competition to build a real one. (Image: Paramount Studios)

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE contest is being sponsored at San Diego State University by the XPRIZE Foundation, and some 200 teams have entered the competition. The goal: to construct a device weighing less than five pounds that can be effectively used to diagnose medical conditions.

In the contest’s own words, the tricorders built need to “assess a set of 16 distinct conditions and five vital signs in a pool of people within three days, while providing a strong consumer experience in the areas of usability, understandability, engaging and desirable presentation of information, and ability of the solution to willingly invoke action on the part of the user.”

Creating the Future in San Diego
The first-place team will capture a hefty $7 million, with the second- and third-place teams scoring $2 million and $1 million, respectively. With that kind of money on the table, it’s no wonder that the contest has attracted some major scientific talent. One of the main teams being watched is headed by the University of California, San Diego’s Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, who co-leads the Distributed Health Lab at the University.

“This [competition] merges with our interests,” Lin said. “We believe in it. We’re in.” Lin is a much-respected scientist who uses innovative technologies in his work exploring the environment and making archaeological finds. He’ll be one of the many participants eager to learn the results in June when announced by the XPRIZE Foundation.

The XPRIZE Foundation believes in advancing the cause of technology, and it’s not afraid to put its money where its mouth is. It sponsored another competition called the Ansari X Prize, which promoted the cause of manned spaceflight launched by private industry. That contest took place in 2004 and was won by Scaled Composites—one of the many new companies using the new Mojave Air Space Port, America’s new gateway into outer space.

In it to win it: UCSD’s Dr. Albert Linn leads one of more than 200 teams that have entered the Tricorder XPRIZE contest. Top prize: $7 million.

Dr. Lin is just one example of the leading academic thinkers who call UCSD home. The school has developed a noteworthy reputation as a progressive think tank—a place where science looms large. UCSD has become well known for its leading-edge programs in oceanography, as well as space and aeronautics. Because of its overall excellence, UCSD is called a “Public Ivy” university—meaning it’s considered a top public-research university in the United States.

Science in Sunny San Diego
You don’t have to be a college undergrad or scientist to attend UCSD and learn about or create cool science. Digital Media Academy offers several science & tech camps at UCSD:

  • Got a future scientist in the family? Inspire that passion with DMA’s Adventures in Space & Aeronautics camp. Kids 8 to 12 discover key concepts about space, like how to build rockets.
  • Teens 13 to 17 explore robotics and electrical engineering in DMA’s Robotics & Electrical Engineering with Arduino camp. Plus, pick up Java™ programming basics.
  • For the full science-camp experience, DMA’s Academy for Robotics & Engineering delivers two weeks of tech with LEGO® Mindstorms® NXT robotics kits, and Arduino.