$550 Real-Life Tricorder Device Plugs Into Any Smartphone


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

The "original" Star Trek model. David Lodge/FilmMagic via Getty Images

In case you missed it, the Tricorder all-purpose medical device from Star Trek now exists.

Thanks to a global competition spearheaded by the X-Prize Foundation, a prototype is now being developed that can identify 12 different diseases, without any additional medical assistance, anywhere from 90 minutes to 24 hours after diagnosis. Five vital health metrics, like your respiratory function, can also be constantly monitored.


It’ll be awhile before this makes its official debut, however, and it’s more likely than not that it’ll be a bit pricey – not expensive per se, but certainly not cheap. With this in mind, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a $550 model that attaches to any smartphone.

Although not as adept as the X-Prize version, it still performs incredibly well. As reported in the journal Lab on a Chip, the team explain that it can analyze a patient’s blood, urine, or saliva samples.

Right now, the transmission-reflectance-intensity (TRI)-Analyzer can look for biomarkers linked to earlier-than-expected births in expectant mothers, as well as identify an enzyme that’s linked to normal growth for newborns. The authors note that these are more complex tests, and that it can already be adapted to run “standard” tests, like blood type or blood-sugar levels.

The new device. University of Illinois

“It’s capable of performing the three most common types of tests in medical diagnostics, so in practice, thousands of already-developed tests could be adapted to it,” coordinating researcher Professor Brian Cunningham, the director of the Micro + Nanotechnology Lab at UIUC, said in a statement.


The key selling point here is that it works with any modern smartphone. Attaching the 3D-printed crib to the phone, samples are placed in the back and the phone’s LED illuminates them. The light from the sample is then sent through an optical cable, which goes into a diffraction grating near the phone’s camera.

Light will diffract differently through different substances, including proteins and sugars, and the device can use these discrepancies to identify what exactly is in each sample. The results are delivered within minutes, and they are just as accurate as any conventional laboratory technique.

This device’s cost-effectiveness and portability means that it is ideally suited to conflict zones, or regions where the medical infrastructure is notoriously poor. Make no mistake: This ability to shrink down an entire laboratory into a portable device has the potential to save thousands of lives every single year.

In fact, this seems to be the way all medical research is heading. From hospitals to Tricorders, from conventional chemotherapy to gene-editing, everything biomedical is going the way of the microchip: It’s more advanced and pocket-sized than ever before.


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