Could this take the $10 million Tricorder X Prize?

-October 03, 2012

Graham Ewing’s demonstration of Virtual Scanning, his entry for the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition, had all the hallmarks of a “Mission Impossible” scene: a new, as yet untapped but all-seeing chromotherapy analysis technique; top-secret mathematical formulas, developed by an obscure Russian scientist named Igor; visa-avoiding meetings in Istanbul. Where was the candid camera?

I would have checked for that camera, perhaps hidden somewhere high on the DESIGN East conference ceiling or behind a curtain, but I was engrossed by Ewing’s demo. It took me a while to figure out how adjusting colors on a computer could help diagnose everything from diabetes to mental characteristics. Ewing didn’t want me to look at his mental state on the screen, so he asked me to focus on the biological portion.

That was OK; there was still a lot to digest. It’s odd to go to an electronics show and end up getting an advanced course in medical diagnostics, chromotherapy, organ-brain information transfer and processing, and the effects of various medical conditions on proteins. From there, I got a primer on how the light absorption and reflection of the characteristics of those affected proteins could be measured and then put through the aforementioned secret mathematical formulas to come up with a full physical and mental analysis. Heady stuff indeed, and intoxicatingly perplexing; I wanted to know more. So I persisted.

The demo itself started with an image, in this case of an African plain with various animals. The subject is given a few minutes to memorize the image, in particular its hues. A monochrome version of the same image is then presented, and the subject has to re-create, to the best of his or her ability, the colors of the original image by adjusting a color palette. The subject repeats the process for a number of images to yield the final analysis data.

That data, showing the various mental and physical parameters of the subject, was mind-blowing—if it was accurate. Ewing, CEO of Montague Healthcare, swears by the Virtual Scanning technology and has vested his company with promoting and generating funding for the concept.

This case history of a 59-year-old patient with migraine illustrates how Virtual Scanning can yield an overall picture of a patient’s pathology, including its underlying causes. The top two scans show indications of uncompensated vertebral artery syndrome (a) and impaired spinal blood flow (b). Osteochondropathy with neurological effects (c) and idiopathic hypotension (d) are shown for the same patient. The collective data forms a connected set of underlying causes for the pathology: Osteochondropathy (c) can lead to vertebral artery syndrome (a), which leads to impaired spinal blood flow (b) and, in turn, ideopathic hypotension (d). (Source: “New Light on Chromotherapy: Grakov’s ‘Virtual Scanning’ System of Medical Assessment and Treatment”)

I wanted to get into how various organ ailments create and affect proteins, and to what level of accuracy the Virtual Scanning system could be relied upon. But then the X-Prize folks with whom I’d arranged to meet (before I got somewhat hijacked by Ewing) arrived on the scene.

Alan Zack, senior director of marketing for the X Prize Foundation, and Mark Winter, senior director for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize and the Nokia Sensing X Challenge, told me they were encouraging collaboration between the competitors vying for the Tricorder X Prize and those pursuing the $2.25 million purse for the Nokia Sensing X Challenge, announced in May.

Their case was strong: The sensing requirements for a true tricorder would be demanding, and sensors would be fundamental to a tricorder’s success. As I listened, though, the Virtual Scanning demo nagged at the back of my mind; I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was bothering me. Then my time with the X-Prize folks ran out, and it was on to the next DESIGN East meeting.

Later, as I was walking the show floor, it hit me: The Virtual Scanning technique can’t win the Tricorder X Prize, because the technology depends on the subject’s being conscious, able to see and to do so without color-vision impairment, and mentally stable and responsive.

A true tricorder, as any “Star Trek” fan knows, can render an accurate diagnosis regardless of the subject’s physical or mental condition. In fact, as a devout Trekkie, I have to take issue with the Tricorder X Prize’s vision of “a portable, wireless device in the palm of your hand that monitors and diagnoses your health conditions.” That sounds, well, like a simple health monitor, not a tricorder. But the $10 million prize is nothing to sneeze at, and any advancement in this field is good.

On a DESIGN East panel later that day, Ewing sat next to another Tricorder X Prize contestant, Nanobiosym CEO Anita Goel, whose tricorder approach involves taking a blood sample and performing genetic analysis. That seems to be a lot more viable in the X Prize context than Virtual Scanning, but we’ll know more as the contestants emerge. To date, more than 260 teams have signed up for the Qualcomm competition, and 65 teams have already accepted the Nokia Sensing X Challenge.

I don’t mean to write off the Virtual Scanner before it has a chance to prove itself. Ewing estimates the total market to be 8 million to 12 million British pounds, based on a market of 2 billion to 3 billion patients, though I don’t think he’s factoring in the caveats I’ve pointed out here. Still, the Virtual Scanner could be one more arrow in the quiver of medical diagnostics and health improvement.

To judge the technology for yourself, read “New Light on Chromotherapy: Grakov’s ‘Virtual Scanning’ System of Medical Assessment and Treatment.”

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