Is iPhone 5S a version 1 of the Star Trek tricorder?


Using an Apple iPhone could get a lot more personal. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Imagine a computer physician that travels with you wherever you go. It tracks your temperature, heart rhythm, blood pressure, and emotional stress levels. It warns you when you’re about to get sick or have a breakdown. It tells you where there is an outbreak of disease—and where not to go. And it provides all these data to your human physician—if you ever need one. I’m talking about version 1 of the tricorder that we saw on Star Trek.

That is the future that the Apple iPhone 5S has just brought us a step closer to. It will make it more possible for developers to create a new generation of health technologies.

The iPhone 5S has a 64-bit A7 chip, 40 times faster than its predecessor and more powerful than yesteryear’s supercomputers. It provides the computing power to analyze vast numbers of data. Its new M7 sensor continuously monitors motion with a gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass. This sensor is more powerful than what research labs, airplanes, and combat jets still use, and can monitor physical activity. The new iPhone camera provides the magnification and color correction necessary to accurately detect skin lesions and ear infections and to monitor body dimensions.

So there is the foundation for building a very powerful device. But to build a Star Trek–like tricorder, you need many other types of sensors. Fortunately, entrepreneurs and scientists are building them.

Already, you can buy dozens of “quantified self” devices that connect to smartphones and monitor exercise and sleep. Then there are blood-pressure cuffs, glucometers, and EKG sensors. These are available as iPhone cases and as arm bands and watches.

Soon we will have implantable sensors that are tattooed or embedded in the skin or inside the body. Such sensors have been used for animals and pet identification for many years. Scientists are also developing the “personal blood testing laboratory”—a minuscule device implanted just under the skin which provides an immediate analysis of substances in the body. It connects to a cell phone through a built-in radio module and will provide constant glucose and blood-pressure monitoring and disease detection.

Then there are ingestible sensors in development—sensors that can be swallowed. These include camera pills, which pass through the digestive tract and take pictures; thermometer pills, which monitor internal body temperature; and pills that keep track of the fact that you have swallowed them, useful for patients who don’t remember what they have taken.

So, while many people are excited about the new colors of the iPhone and the plastic cases, I’m looking forward to the apps that developers will soon be building. I see the making of a revolution in health.

 

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.
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innovations · September 5, 2013