Beam me up Scotty: Star Trek technology about to become reality

If you’re an avid Star Trek fan (as I am), and even if you’re not (poor culturally deprived person), you’ll be able to appreciate the significance of the latest medical technology breakthrough. Doctors in Star Trek are never without their tricorders,which are very cool handheld devices that can diagnose everything from the common cold to a subdural haematoma. Soon, doctors in rural areas will be able to use their cell phones in a very tricorder-like manner.

A team from the University of Berkeley, California, has broken down bulky medical imagers into their component parts and placed the most complicated elements in one central location. Then, using off-the-shelf cell phone technology, they created a portable scanner that can be plugged into any cell phone capable of sending and receiving pictures. Scanned data is sent to the central location for analysis and diagnosis, and the results are sent back. Practical tests carried out by the researchers found that the entire process uses fewer kilobytes than a single sentence email.

These portable scanners can be used for anything from detecting tumours to monitoring the progress of a child in the womb. Boris Rubinsky, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley, says that big bulky imagers and scanners are often too expensive and impractical to run in most areas of developing countries. The new portable cell phone scanners will play an important role in helping hard-pressed doctors improve their diagnoses and treatment options in even the most trying circumstances. The best part is that it needs only a cell phone signal to work. And where, apart from deep within the depths of an underground cave, can you not get a cell phone signal?

It’s quick and easily affordable, for example, an ultrasound machine costs around $70,000 (AU$ 74,341), but a scanner coupled to a cell phone would cost only around $1000 (AU$ 1,062). Another major benefit is that one central server would be capable of dealing with data from several portable devices, eliminating the need for many machines. As you can see, the savings are enormous, and exactly what developing countries need.

But Rubinsky doesn’t see them benefiting only developing countries; he hopes to see the devices in ambulances all around the developed world as well. Completing scans en route means that diagnosis and treatment could begin that much sooner, and could spell the difference between life and death for many critical patients.

We are fortunate enough to live in a world where science fiction is increasingly becoming science fact. If technology continues to advance at this pace, and scientists continue to take their inspiration from cult TV and books, it won’t be long before we’re traversing the universe with the help of someone who may or may not be named Scotty.

Sensors in cell phones provide more reasons to love mobile technology

There are many reasons to love mobile technology: it’s convenient, it’s accessible and it’s improving all the time. Nokia is only one of the companies that are hard at work perfecting innovative initiatives that they hope will revolutionise mobile technology, making it even more indispensable than it already is.

According to an article by Daniel Langendorf on Read Write Web, the latest thing to hit cell phones is the incorporation of billions of sensors that will make reporting on everything from traffic to the weather more interactive.

Bob Iannucci, chief technology officer at Nokia, has let the cat out of the bag regarding several of Nokia’s projects that use mobile sensor technology. One of these projects was carried out with the help of 150 students from the University of California, Berkeley. During the course of the project, Nokia placed 100 N95 smartphones into the student’s cars and used them to gauge real-time traffic. The idea behind the initiative is to use mobile sensors to collect data from thousands of motorists in any given area, which would then be analysed and interpreted, and the results sent back to the recipients. That way, your phone will be able to warn you of upcoming traffic problems specific to your route, and provide you with a viable, hassle-free alternative.

Another initiative proposes to use cell phones with barometric sensors to help meteorologists gauge changing weather patterns, and to provide up to the minute weather reports with pin-point accuracy. The theory is similar to the traffic initiative, in that data will be collected from millions of cell phones around the world, in order to provide a unique view of global climates. This would also have a profound effect on determining the state of the planet and could be instrumental in planning environmental interventions.

On a more surreal note, the MobileLab at the University of Texas in Dallas are looking into “the use of mobile devices in augmented reality”. According to Dean Terry, who is the director of the MobileLab, cell phones could soon be used to leave behind “virtual artefacts” for others to find. Imagine what it would be like to walk into a museum, art gallery or theatre and be able to view comments left behind by other patrons on your cell phone. If that doesn’t strike your fancy, perhaps you would prefer recommendations for restaurants that you’ve always wondered about. These ethereal communications could be in any form, pictures, video, audio or text.

Bob Iannucci sees a future where cell phones will be used in ways that extend far beyond simple communication. As he says, “The ability to move information changes societies and livelihoods.”