Makers Making The Sci-Fi Tricorder A Reality With VOXearch

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


Remember the the Star Trek Tricorder--that handheld, sci-fi device which could be waved over someone and instantly figure out what was wrong with their health? A number of teams have recently been looking to turn that vision into reality, as a result of the Qualcomm Tricorder Prize, a $10M competition being run by the X Prize Foundation to create a real life Tricorder. We caught up with one of the local teams competing in that competition, VOXearch (, to learn more about the prize as well as their specific approach to the competition. We spoke with Mike Outmesguine, CEO and Alan DeRossett, CTO of the company, and how their roots in do-it-yourself, "Maker" projects is key to their entry into the prize competition. Photo: Left: Mike Outmesguine, Right: Alan DeRossett

What is the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize?

Mike Outmesguine: The X Prize Foundation was asked by Qualcomm to manage a $10M purse in a competition to build the world's first, medical tricorder, based on the science-fiction device. The challenge is to make one that can detect several medical conditions, all in one unit, with a weight limit of five pounds, some kind of hand held device.

What functions does the device need to have?

Mike Outmesguine: There's a complicated list. There are milestones for May 15th, for judging in June, and another one in December of this year. I don't have the exact number, but there are things like five vital signs--heartrate, pulse, oxygen levels, breathing rate, and a few others. There's also a big list of other items you can pick to also implement, such as testing for Hepatitis, or checking for a stroke, or finding food borne illness. So the idea is to create a device that does all of that, and you get judged on how well it does, and how easy it is to use.

Talk about your team, how did you get interested in this project?

Mike Outmesguine: We're one of about thirty teams left in the challenge, out of more than 300 that signed up last August. We got into this by seeing that it was available, and knowing that as engineers and technicians it seemed like we could pull parts off the table, sort of, and bring them all together. The company actually was working on a different project which had dried up at that point, and it was just natural to step into this at that point.

Talk about your team, what's your expertise in this area?

Mike Outmesguine: Alan and I are engineers by background, and have done lots of do-it-yourself, and have done lots of experimenting on our own. I wrote WiFiToys, a do-it-yourself how to build yourself stuff out of scratch, and started Crashspace, the Makerspace in Culver City. We were looking at it, and saw that if we could take all these off-the-shelf sensors, and put it all together, and write some code, and make a user interface, it's basically done. It's assemble the parts and it looks much like a DIY project. We look at that, and saw that if you need to measure heart rate, there are sensors out there that can do that, and we can mash it up. That's essentially how the Tricoder competition was formed--it's time for this to happen.

Alan DeRossett: We have lots of cross disciplines on our team. I've run an ISP for over 20 years, have been running Linux and Maker groups. I've been a laser engineer, working with optics and lots of RF as well. I've worked in the movie business, movie, audio, imaging. So, very early on was our project-Voxel Research, how our name got created and mashed up to Voxearch. Our first project was 3D imaging of the heart, so that doctors could study a pacemaker and defibrillator recall from the Alfred E. Mann implantable device area. Alfred E. Mann had long sold the company and patents, but one of their providers which had been installing them surgically, and had started installing parts from China. Unfortunately, those providers decided the gold leads were expensive, and decided to use a Chinese vendor which would provide them at half price. They ended up being ferrous metal, which is magnetic, so a patient with these with one of these defibrillators would die. So imagine, they'd just pfft and kill the guy. The leads were also fragile, since it was a soft metal, it would fracture easily, so a patient would do what they're supposed to do--which is exercise or swim, bike ride or jog--but any upper body stress would also break those wires, and they'd also drop dead. So, it was not a good situation. Alfred E. Mann, to his credit, with his multi-billion dollar foundation, he offered to find out what was going on, offering $100 million to UCLA to find out what was going on. That's when I talked to doctors, and I asked why they didn't just put these patients on an MRI to figure out what was going on, and they explained that you couldn't.

Mike Outmesguine: They wanted to do X-rays instead. They wanted to do 3-D X-rays, but at the time, there was not technology available to do that. We figured out we could a GP render farm, and they didn't have the ability without running a computer for days. Instead, we could do that in real time through the cloud.

Alan DeRossett: That would allow a surgeon to turn the heart and see that the patient might have some scar tissue, if they pull the leads that they might bleed out. One in four of the patients died on the table. We thought we could deliver that 3D image as a software-as-a-service. Unfortunately, UCLA's money dried up due to legal issues. After two years, Alfred Mann decided to give money to USC for the effort instead. We never heard back from the doctors we had worked with. That's when the Tricorder prize came around.

So you sort of adapted what you were doing to the Tricorder prize effort?

Mike Outmesguine: With the Tricorder, there's a few components involved. First, there's the device, but then there's the system to monitor the data. Anything that is sense by the device goes up to the cloud, in a cloud database, and that's basically what we had already built on our end. It was already set up for this HIPPA compliant, medical records. We were already going to do this for a medical device, so we thought, we can easily do this for a health and fitness device, which is what the Tricorder is about.

Talk about the project and where you are?

Mike Outmesguine: Right now, it's a competition, so there are deadlines. If you remember the first X Prize, which was something like ten years ago. It was announced in the 90's. The first X Prize involved sending a manned vehicle into space, and within two weeks, send that back into space--which, back then, was astonishing. That basically launched the space tourism industry. We now know that it was Burt Rutan , and Virgin Galactic was launched because of that. That was a ten million dollar prize, and there was that one condition. Now, this is down to a science. There is a ten million dollar purse, seven million for the first prize, two million for second place, and one million for third place. Because it's now managed so well, there are time lines and ways to ferret out the competition. Coming up May 15th is the submission deadline for the report of what we're going to do. That's judged by a number of judges who are experts in a number of these areas, and the results from that will be announced in June, with ten teams being picked in June who will go on to the next stage to build a prototype.

How are you funding this project?

Alan DeRossett: VOXearch was already up and established. This is really also funded because of Mike and my other project, the 101 incubator. The concept of the incubator is we're raising a fund here locally and ten percent is local the other 90 percent on AngelList, and we'll be locating here in the town of Thousand Oaks. We have city and school support for that.

Mike Outmesguine: There's also sponsorship opportunities we're seeking. The X Prize is becoming a marketing partner of ours, and there's a one year sponsorship for many companies to help sponsor our team. With that sponsorship they get use of the X Prize logo and other benefits.

What's going to get you through the next cut?

Mike Outmesguine: We've been researching all the times, have met most of them, and know them well. Looking at the way the teams are all formed, generally, it looks like some of them are in it for marketing, also, others are experts in single fields, like a team which is an expert at the heart. A few teams are generalists and integrators, where it's about pulling a whole bunch of resources together. We're more like that, where we're pulling together a network of experts where we need them. Forty percent of the judging is on usability. The judging will be something where a box might be shipped to them, and they'll have to see how quickly and easily they will be able to use it, turn it on, or figure out wires and switches. Will they be able to do a readout, or will it be like and iPad and. As software interface guys we think that's our lead.

What's the hardest part of this?

Mike Outmesguine: The hardest thing is the timeline. I think we'll be ready for the report, and we're on track for that. We expect to win. However, in June, when they choose the ten teams, we'll have a limited window to develop a prototype, make a number of copies for all of their people, which may be as many as fifty units. That why rapid prototyping is part of that, we think we'll be able to fabricate what we need without having to send it overseas for production.

So that maker background is a big part of what you're looking at?

Mike Outmesguine: Yes, that's the key to our team.



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