Technology & Innovation: A Working Tricorder

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In the television series “Star Trek,” the character Spock used a “tricorder” to take measurements after being transported to a planet. A University of Arizona researcher, Dr. Peter Jansen, has developed a working tricorder. His model can measure temperature, humidity, magnetic fields, atmospheric pressure, ambient light levels, distances, and contains a colorimeter, GPS, accelerometer, and gyroscope. It is also open-sourced, with plans available for anyone to build one.

Ted Simons: In our continuing coverage of technology and innovation issues, we look at a case of science fiction turned science reality. In the Star Trek TV series the character Spock would use an electronic hand-held instrument called a tricorder to get readings on a newly discovered planet. A post-doctorate research fellow from the University of Arizona has created a real-life working tricorder. And here to talk about his enterprise is Dr. Peter Jansen. Did you get the enterprise joke there? You probably heard every single joke, haven't you?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: I've heard a lot of them.

Ted Simons: What is a tricorder?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: So a tricorder is really a very general scientific tool that's sort of like a Swiss Army knife of science. You can use them both for just doing science research as well as science education. And they contain sort of every different sensor that you can think of and you can fit in such a confined area.

Ted Simons: I know in Star Trek a tricorder seemed to do atmospheric conditions, electromagnetic conditions. Is that what these do as well?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Very much so. It can sense things like atmospheric temperature or pressure or humidity, spatial things like distance or motion or GPS locations. Those are all here.

Ted Simons: I think we have some shots of the schematics, if you will, and diagrams as far as getting involved. What kind of operating system does this use?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: So the first one uses a very custom operating system. And the second one uses a commodity operating system called Linux, open source and freely available.

Ted Simons: Open source meaning I have a great idea if I move that USB that will attract elephants I can do it?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Exactly. You can go to the website,, and down load the schematics, the plans, the diagrams, and build your own right in your basement.

Ted Simons: We are looking, we were looking a little bit at the construction, kind of the guts, if you will, of this -- what got you started in all this?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: I have wanted to build a tricorder ever since I was a kid. My dad and I used to sit down and watch Star Trek together which was absolutely great. And ever since then, I was just absolutely fascinated by the technology. And went into science in order to build it.

Ted Simons: Yeah. And was there a point at Star Trek where you went, you could have done a phaser?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: I am Canadian. We don't do phasers.

Ted Simons: I got you. You got a couple of these on set here. This one, the first one is your original model.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: So this is more of a proof of concept. And it's really, was really to prove to myself that I could build a tricorder. When I came into this I was fairly new in building tricorders. And it can sense things like magnetic fields, there's temp and humidity and all those sorts of things are available here. And then the second tricorder that I have now --

Ted Simons: Let's take a look at that one, too.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: It's a bit fancier. I really designed it for me. I designed it to be the sort of beautiful instrument you could do a lot of visualization work, and really make, really make people intuitively understand what you are trying to sense.

Ted Simons: This is you are basically recording. You are measuring things here. Correct?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Exactly. Here we are seeing some magnetic fielding on the side here. Down here we have noncontact temperature so I think we are measuring the contact in the ceiling right now.

Ted Simons: Sure.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: But that giant blip that we just saw is my hand moving.

Ted Simons: Isn't that something?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: It's really kind of cool.

Ted Simons: And you got a keyboard below that so it's somewhat familiar to those of us who aren't in the tricorder --

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Very much so.

Ted Simons: In terms of real life application, medical? Like diagnosing? Like Bones used to do there in the Sick Bay?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: In Star Trek they had two different kinds of tricorders. One was a tricorder that Spock would get and he would take down with him on an away mission on a planet to figure out all sorts of interesting things and the other was a medical tricorder they would use in Sick Bay to really just figure out what was wrong with you, with the press of a button.

Ted Simons: Now, how far along are these to doing, especially the medical application?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Right. So these are squarely science tricorders right now. But the X-prize foundation, the same folks who sponsored the $10 million X-prize to reach space, they have just announced a tricorder X-prize squarely aimed at medical tricorders and diagnosing all sorts of different diseases from cancer to bacterial infections to whatever you can think of.

Ted Simons: Basically the contest is, get a tricorder, point it, don't poke it at anybody but point it at them and if you can diagnose something or sense something, you win a big prize?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Exactly. It's really exciting and I imagine it's just going to absolutely blow away medical science.

Ted Simons: You know, a lot of things with Star Trek you see apps, android and iPad apps that do similar stuff, some sort of close approximation, I should say. Compare and contrast those with these.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: So modern cell phones have really gotten very advanced and many of them include a couple of different sensors. Most of them aren't designed for accurately sensing the environment but they're things like to adjust the contrast or brightness of your screen if you are in a light environment or daylight. These are really very different instruments. They have very accurate sensors and they are really designed to do exciting science.

Ted Simons: A last question here. Any copyright or licensing problems? Because you are using a tricorder and there was no such thing as a tricorder before Star Trek.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: So apparently, Gene Roddenberry negotiated in his original contract that if anybody makes the actual technology, that they can use the name. I think that this is one of the first instances that I am aware of that that's actually happened.

Ted Simons: Isn't that something?

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: It's really kind of cool.

Ted Simons: Basically the idea is, if you can do it, you can take it and it sounds like you are doing it.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: We have to work on the warp drive next.

Ted Simons: Congratulations and good luck. I hope we see some leaps and bounds with this sort of technology. It certainly is exciting. Old Star Trek fans it's kind of fun, too. Good to have you.

Peter Jansen, Ph.D.: Good to be here.

Dr. Peter Jansen:Researcher, University of Arizona;

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