Category Archives: Tricorder

First Look: Scanadu Scout, a Real-Life Tricorder

The Scanadu Scout, a real-life tricorder?

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).

the Scanadu Scout in-hand

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 System

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.

Scanadu Scout shown with scale reference

The Hardware

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.”

Rear View of Scanadu Scout

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.

Scanadu Scout in action

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.

Scanadu app screens


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.


Point This Magical Scanner At Your Food And It Will Count The Calories

From a mindful eating stand point, I think counting calories is as outdated and boring as BMI. Nonetheless, data is data. And data is king (or queen). Real information in real time at your fingertips would be fantastic.

So will this make you toss away that Moleskin or delete that food logging app that you call your best friend next to DailyMile and Smart Coach?

Would you want one of these? I probably would.

Today there are wearable trackers available for just about every move you make and step you take. Almost. If there’s a missing link, it’s the ability to track all the food that enters a person’s mouth. Dieters are stuck tediously logging their eating habits.

TellSpec, a device that’s quickly raising money on Indiegogo, claims to be that missing link and more. With a wave of the hand, the device can reportedly calculate all the calories, ingredients, chemicals, and allergens in any given piece of food.

Remember Jack Andraka, the then 15 year old who built a very low cost pancreatic cancer sensor and lately (at 16!) a handheld raman spectrometer?

This new food scanner, being built by Isabel Hoffman and Stephen Watson, uses the same technology.

Raman spectrometers, which essentially shoot lasers at objects and evaluate their chemical composition, used to be big, bulky instruments that sat in laboratories. These days, it’s entirely possible to make a handheld version. Hoffman’s question was whether it could do what she was looking for.

Imagine that. The 21st century behavior of compulsively taking food photos will have an actual purpose beyond Facebook feed noise and free advertisements for restaurants.

Sent from my Tricorder Part I

Like everybody else these days, I write many emails with my phone. Those who have received emails from me have most certainly noticed my signature reading, “Sent from my Tricorder” instead of “Sent from my iPhone.”

Not only is it an homage to Star Trek, I have been fantasizing about a real Tricorder for ages now. But it was not until I finally, and hesitantly, shelved my Nokia E71 for an iPhone 4 a couple of years ago that I seriously thought I would see it (or at least a version of) in my lifetime. I know it’s just around the corner. After all, around the corner nowadays mean leaps in technology in no time. Just sit for a Mac Keynote every so often and you’ll know what I mean. Yes, I drank the Apple Kool-Aid. 😉 Oh, lighten up.

As a medical doctor by training and a gadget geek, I dream of many things technologically for the future—specifically devices and knowledge that would enhance individuals’ capacity for self-care. The Tricorder dominates them all. The Tricorder will truly empower individuals, not just in high-income nations but in low- to middle- income as well. I can imagine its possibilities not only in remote medicine (remember the FAST ultrasound aboard the ISS?) but in our everyday lives. Notice I say individuals and not patients. This is how game-changing the real Tricorder will be. The Tricorder will largely contribute to realizing the advocacy efforts to bring patients’ health center stage—individuals as active participants in their own health. Just you wait.

The version in my head looks just like the beautiful (can you hear Jonathan Ive’s voice?) iPhone 5s I am holding right now. Probably 50-100x more powerful (it’s my blog, I can speculate my heart out!) with enhanced sensing via the camera or additional sensor capabilities. And to think, we are bowing like crazy at the iPhone 5s photo capabilities today. That’s why I was shocked at Qualcomm’s knee-jerk judgment about the 64-bit A7 chip. I was not surprised at the retraction shortly after.

Wired thinks it’s forward looking.

But more importantly (and unlike much of its competition), the handset is laying the groundwork for the smartphones of tomorrow. The 64-bit A7 chip and M7 coprocessor together mark a profound jump in device performance and efficiency.

As far as a smart phone’s potential as a vessel going forward—ready to house that precious near-future personal health device—the current iPhone has fingerprint ID (incredible!), slow motion video capture (fantastic!), and real-time panorama creation (amazing!). If it can do all these, it can surely be the high-processing platform for the Tricorder.

After all, there is a reason why the iPhone is the photo in our minds when we think about the non-fiction Tricorder. I am not alone. Just a couple of weeks ago, I caught this from the X-Prize Facebook Page:

iPhone = Tricorder?

iPhone = Tricorder?

Signs of the times, on my radar:

Mobisante, the smartphone ultrasound device approved by the US FDA in 2011.

Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize, the contest that will deliver the real Tricorder.

Advances in fields such as artificial intelligence, wireless sensing, imaging diagnostics, lab-on-a-chip, and molecular biology will enable better choices in when, where, and how individuals receive care, thus making healthcare more convenient, affordable, and accessible. The winner will be the team whose technology most accurately diagnoses a set of diseases independent of a healthcare professional or facility, and that provides the best consumer user experience with their device.

Scanadu, which successfully funded a campaign on Indiegogo earlier this year, is my favorite. Gerry was on it and got us one. We did not quite make it to the ones with a bit more testing participation, but we made it in time to reserve a delivery on March 2014. I cannot wait.

There are plenty more signs of dramatic progress ahead… so stay tuned!

[Written: 11.01.2013]
[Revised: 11.17.2013]