The world of Star Trek featured a handheld device that was used to scan the health of patients. In 2014, it came to light that Alphabet’s “Moonshot Factory” was trying to create such a gadget, with that effort currently housed in Verily Life Sciences. It has now emerged that the X division was working on another tricorder project in 2019, but has since canceled “Maya.”

X today revealed the existence of a moonshot project to see “if your skin could be used as a sensor for your body’s health.”

Skin health can tell us a lot about our overall health; for example, jaundice is an early sign of liver stress, while the oxygen level of our skin can be an indicator for heart health. Today, the way we learn more about our skin and health is with biopsies. These can be invasive, require expert intervention, and are often done reactively, once the problem has already manifested.

The Alphabet division wanted to find a non-invasive method of determining whether a person had certain problems. Its solution involved using “different light wavelengths to investigate skin health indicators — like structural breakdown, inflammation, discoloration.”

X Project Maya tricorder

Two prototypes were shared, with both featuring a wide array mounted with bulbs that emit red, green, and blue lightwaves. As they “penetrate skin at different depths to measure thickness,” optical sensors gather data that’s processed by machine learning. X imagined this machine being available at home, and tracking patterns to “develop personalized preventative measures based on the scan’s results.”

However, this “moonshot” was too broad and success was hard to define: 

For their moonshot to work, the Maya team had to tackle several high-risk, interconnected, hard-to-know-where-to-start dimensions to the problem, so they were going to have to do a lot of work in different areas before they could even get a sense of when and whether they were making progress — and so, they decided to end the project.

This light-based approach was very different from the nanoparticles that Google X Life Sciences first publicized in 2014. It involved swallowing a “capsule chock full of the nanoparticles” that circulate through your bloodstream looking for specific cells, such as cancerous ones. During this process, you’d be wearing a wearable that detects the nanoparticles and transfers over information to a medical professional.

In 2016, reports emerged that the project was facing setbacks, while the effort is still being worked on inside Verily as of 2018.

The canceled Project Maya from X would have been even less invasive and closer to the science fiction tricorder. 

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Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: