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Ultrawideband gets humans one step closer to 'tricorder'

Electrical engineers present work confirming that ultrawideband radio technology could vastly improve remote, continuous, real-time health monitoring.

An artistic rendering of how ultrawideband might improve mobile medical monitoring. University of Oregon

The tricorder, that handheld geological, biological, and meteorological device of general awesomeness from the Star Trek universe, has spawned several real-life iterations boasting such uses as the detection of ulcers and deadly gases.

So in May, the X Prize Foundation announced that, alongside Qualcomm, it would award a $10 million Tricorder X Prize to the person who develops a mobile device that can diagnose a broad range of common health ailments as well as--or better than--a panel of board-certified physicians.

A team at Oregon State University in Corvallis is now one step closer to what remains a pretty tall order.

In the EURASIP Journal on Wireless Communications and Networking, the electrical engineers and computer scientists report that the not-so-new radio tech "ultrawideband" (UWB) could hold the key to one of the main challenges of such a mobile device: transmitting large amounts of data using very low power.

By employing UWB, which uses a large portion of the radio spectrum to transmit at short range using very low energy, the team says they might be able to build a wearable sensor roughly the size of a bandage.

"The sensor might provide and transmit data on some important things, like heart health, bone density, blood pressure or insulin status," says Patrick Chiang, an expert in wireless medical electronics at OSU. "Ideally, you could not only monitor health issues but also help prevent problems before they happen--maybe detect arrhythmias, for instance, and anticipate heart attacks. And it needs to be non-invasive, cheap, and able to provide huge amounts of data."

At this point the team's report is largely hypothetical (hence the Star Trek reference), but Chiang predicts that Earthlings may be able to deal with the complex challenges such a device presents, and bring it to market, within a matter of five years.

Correction at 4:36 p.m. PT: This story initially gave the incorrect name of the university that is presenting this research. It is Oregon State University.