In Star Trek, tricorders are multifunctional devices that do everything from mass spectrometry and genetic analysis to communications. Now there are a host of mobile apps you can turn your phone into a scientific tool not entirely unlike what Data uses to analyse new planets.
Top image: Data with the TR-580, used for detecting dampening fields. Via Delta2373/Memory Alpha.
In the Star Trek universe, tricorders have three default scanning functions — geological, meteorological and biological — though they come in more specific flavours, such as the medical tricorder.
With the ever-growing selection of apps today, our smartphones are quickly gaining a plethora of functions that help give them a tricorder-like utility. Let's take a look at some of these apps. We'll lump them into the tricorder's three fields of use.
While it'd certainly be nice to be able to use a scanner to instantly know everything about the surrounding terrain's topography and geologic activity, our smartphones just aren't there yet. But this doesn't mean you're completely out of luck.
First off, to get a sense of the environment around you, there's Google Earth for both iOS and Android. This popular software gives you annotated satellite images of our planet, which you could use to learn about unfamiliar places. Alternatively, you can go with something like Gaia GPS, which provides detailed topographical maps and GPS track recording (so you can see where you've been if you're on a trek, for example). And if you need to know how far something is away from you, Sonar Ruler or Acoustic Ruler can calculate those (short) distances for you using sound waves. Pair these tools with one of the many maps apps available and your smartphone will help direct you out of an outdoors-y jam.
There are also apps that can give you an idea of the geologic activity in your area, or other locations around the world. Are you curious about earthquakes or volcano eruptions that occurred in the last week or month? QuakeFeed and Volcano Report, respectively, will map them out for you. Unfortunately, they can't tell you what's going on right this minute, as the apps simply pull information from the United States Geological Survey.
Terraphone can give you other useful geological information. Using the app's built in map, you can choose a specific location on Earth and learn about its strata layers and mineral deposits, as well as the fossils, meteorites and precious metals that have been found in the area.
Some apps can turn your phone into a scientific tool in different ways. For example, say you're doing an acoustic experiment and you need to know how loud your environment is. Decibel Meter Pro can help you with that task. Other apps, such as Android's 3D Compass and Magnetometer or Apple's Magnetometer, can analyse magnetic fields around you (detected with built-in sensors), while iSeismometer measures the strength of vibrations.
There is a seemingly endless amount of weather apps out there. What's more interesting are those apps that are bit more robust, or serve a unique function.
One such app is WeatherGeek Pro. This nifty weather tool gives you the same numerical weather models and weather maps meteorologists use to develop their forecasts. It provides a wealth of meteorological information, including precipitation, air pressure and wind speeds, according to the app's description. It's almost as if you're scanning the atmosphere with your phone.
Another interesting app is AeroWeather, which displays the standard weather conditions and forecasts used in aviation. The pro version of the app is even more geared toward pilots, as it includes webcam videos of airfields and information from automated weather stations from various airports (useful for any Starfleet pilot).
Some apps can even give you an idea about the air quality of your location. With the experimental app Visibility, all you need to do is take a picture of the sky — the app then attempts to measure the particulate matter currently present in the atmosphere. "Each picture is tagged with location, orientation, and time data and transferred to a backend server," the app developers write on their website. "Visibility is estimated by first calibrating these image radiometrically and then comparing the intensity with an established model of sky luminance."
A project called CitiSense, which is still in the development and testing phase, is also looking to take readings of air pollution. Here, a portable air-pollution sensor measures ozone, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide levels, and then transmits that data to your smartphone, which displays the information using a custom app.
In terms of biology, our mobile apps are way behind tricorder technology — there are no apps that can detect nearby life, identify species outright or diagnose medical conditions (as the medical tricorder can). However, there have been some developments along these lines.
For automatically identifying species, we have Leafsnap (pictured to the left). The app, which was released a couple years ago, tries to identify tree species using the pictures you take of leaves. Other apps give you information so that you can identify species on your own. For instance, Bugs in the Garden provides numerous photos and illustrations of 24 common garden insects, allowing you to compare and pinpoint the insects tearing up your tomato patch.
There are also many apps out there that help you diagnose medical conditions. One of the more interesting ones is Doctor Mole — simply snap a photo of a mole (the skin blemish, not the burrowing mammal) and the app will analyse it and attempt to determine if it's malignant or not. SkinVision (formerly SkinScan) performs a similar function. A few other apps, such as Isabel and ADA Dental Symptom Checker, help you self-diagnose by going over specific signs and symptoms of medical issues you may be experiencing.
In addition to these tools, there are few apps that pair with other devices to provide some really cool medical services. Have you ever heard of the Withings Smart Blood Pressure Monitor? It's just as it sounds — a portable blood pressure monitor that works with your iPhone to take measurements and produce graphs (via a dedicated app). Similarly, the AliveCor Heart Monitor system uses your phone to analyse your heart rhythms, while iBGStar helps you manage your blood glucose levels.
And perhaps most exciting of all is the upcoming Scanadu SCOUT. Place the device on your temple for 10 seconds and it'll take your vital signs, including your heart rate, temperature and blood oxygenation, among other things. It then transmits that data to your iPhone or Android for viewing. The company is also developing a urine test, which an app would interpret, to give early warning signs for possible liver, kidney, urinary tract or metabolism issues.
So though we don't quite have tricorder technology just yet, it's possible to give your smartphone at least some semblance of tricorder functionality — that is, if you're willing to shell out the big bucks for all of the necessary apps. The apps listed here are, no doubt, just a fraction of those available. If you know of any other cool tricorder-like apps, let us know in the comments below.