Like all geeks of a certain age, I watched with easy acceptance as Dr. McCoy eyed his medical tricorder while waving a handheld scanner at his patients. Of course he has sleek electronic gadgets to make his diagnoses. The intrusive diagnostic devices of the twentieth century seemed too crude — even medieval — to be used in our shiny, high-tech future.
With the first crop of actual, not-just-on-TV tricorders nearing release, it seems another Star Trek vision is coming to the real world. Scanadu is a finalist in the Tricorder XPRIZE, and the Scout device is becoming available in pre-release form as part of their large-scale FDA consumer health study (a portion of a larger roadmap to gain FDA approval).
Karina (a medical doctor and public health professional) and I (emphatically not a doctor but very interested in the health applications of tech and design) were early backers of the Scanadu Indiegogo campaign, giving us early access to a Scout and making me a willing human guinea pig in the study.
The Scout consists of a hopia-sized, sensor-laden handheld scanner (obscure Filipino-culture pastry reference here), along with a smartphone app to collect and display the data. The device is entirely dependent on the app for functionality, with no display or controls of its own beyond an on/off button. The package also contains a micro-USB cable for charging.
The Yves Béhar-designed device is made in California, and its form reflects a thoughtful design process. Designed to be held and used by the person being measured, the rounded, finger-friendly edges and cleverly positioned indentations are made both for comfort and for optimizing the position of the sensors relative to the subject’s body. Finger indentations on the top and bottom surfaces encourage a proper grip and good ballpark positioning when raised up to the forehead. A sensor on the top surface rests inside the finger indent (an affordance that the finger naturally falls into when gripping the device). Additional sensors positioned on a flat surface on the front edge are intended to be lightly placed against the forehead. Tiny holes on top and bottom presumably are ports for additional sensors measuring the ambient environment.
The rear edge houses the on/off button, the charging port and a power LED. A nice touch on the underside is an inscription reading “sapere aude,” a Latin phrase meaning “Dare to know.”
The device is surprisingly light, almost incongruously unsubstantial given the serious information it’s designed to measure. The glossy plastic on the top and bottom has a nice, slightly silky feel but the material’s appearance says “inexpensive medical device” more than it says “Apple.”
Installing the App
The Scout’s smartphone software installs from the App store, requiring no configuration beyond giving the Scout a name and entering some basic personal information (name, height, weight and age) to help with the data interpretation — and presumably to help with the calibration and data validation Scanadu is doing as part of the study. In its current form, the app is intended for a single user, consistent with the constraints of the investigational study (and, I suspect, the constraints of their software development schedule). However, Scanadu indicated that multi-user capability will be available in the future once the device gains FDA approval.
Starting a scan immediately guided me through the largely automated process of pairing my iPhone with the scanner via Bluetooth. The only action needed from me was to press the power button. Easy.
Additional screens illustrate how to hold the device and position it on your own forehead. The finger indents and the natural fold of the left arm got me close to the right spot, but the app’s real-time feedback showed that the data acquisition was weak at first. Small changes in position, pressure and body movement all made a big difference, and it was hard to tell from feel alone whether the flat sensor edge was pressing against my forehead. The short time window for collecting data (before the app halted the reading or the scanner hardware went to sleep) meant that many of my early attempts resulted in failed readings. Practice helps, though — I can now get good readings about 75% of the time after a couple of days of occasional practice. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating that the capture fails after the set time interval even as good data comes in. Ideally, the Scout would continue sending for as long as the app confirms good input.
The app interface and the data displays are clear and easy to navigate. The real-time data collection screen (below, left) shows an EKG-like live trace, along with an indicator of signal quality. Some set quantity has to be collected before the reading is considered successful and can be analyzed. Otherwise, the collected data are discarded. Upon completion, results for blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and blood oxygen saturation SpO2 are displayed in a summary screen, with some qualitative interpretation (below, center). Personal data trends for various time frames are available in the history screen (below, right). The Scanadu site indicates that the Scout data will include EKG, heart rate variability and some composite measure of stress, but these are not included in the current app. These measures will likely be possible, given that the acquisition screen already shows a real-time EKG, but this doesn’t appear to be recorded or interpreted. Perhaps these will be added later as the app and the underlying algorithms are developed further.
The Scout’s design and data displays are impressive, but does the device really work? Is it accurately measuring what it purports to measure? Quick checks against alternative methods and my own history indicate good accuracy, but we’ll be doing a series of more careful comparisons against traditional measurements in coming weeks.
The Real McCoy
If the accuracy proves to be as good as early comparisons indicate, the Scout promises to be a leap forward in personal health monitoring. It replaces a bag full of traditional instruments, and potentially makes advanced measures like an EKG possible. The simplicity of making measurements makes it practical to get more data over time — even for non-professionals — creating a picture of an individual’s health that can be correlated with behavior, treatment, diet and other factors. Stay tuned in coming weeks as we do our own informal validation of the Scout’s data to confirm that our Star Trek-style medical future has truly arrived.