The Peek-A-Boo Prober Capsule
Apr. 1, 2013 — The future, as they say, is now. Everything we know today was once just a possibility, a germ of an idea that might come to fruition months or years or decades down the road.
In the 1960s, the television series Star Trek offered a vision of the future — and of technology in the future — that, in some ways, has already come true. Among the predictions made by the show: the tricorder, a handheld medical device used to detect, diagnose and treat whatever injury or illness happened to arise. The tricorder was just a germ of an idea then, but it anticipated — likely inspired — a number of devices under development and even in use a mere 50 years later (See: The Age of the Tricorder).
Star Trek offers all kinds of examples of instruments that have since come to pass. But today I’d like to talk about another ’60s TV show that has proved prescient in describing the technology of the future. I refer, of course, to The Jetsons.
A 1962 episode of The Jetsons introduced the Peek-A-Boo Prober Capsule. George’s visit to the doctor begins at about 5:31.
This animated sitcom didn’t always hit the mark in its depictions of space-age devices and conveniences (See: The Tech of Tomorrow, But Not Really). In some cases, though, it was curiously prophetic.
Take, for example, the 1962 episode titled “Test Pilot.” Here, an exasperated Mr. Spacely sends George to have an insurance physical, which consists entirely of George ingesting a Peek-A-Boo Prober Capsule — a device the size of a ping pong ball that reports back on the status of his innards (“you just swallow it and it transmits pictures to a TV screen,” says the physician, a chisel-jawed Dr. Kildare type). Hilarity ensues, of course, as the capsule travels from the lungs to the heart to the brain cracking wise as it goes.
Now the Peek-A-Boo Prober Capsule has a modern-day analogue. In the February issue of Nature Medicine, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston introduced a technique called tethered capsule endomicroscopy. With this technique, an optomechanically engineered “pill” acquires cross-sectional images as it travels through the digestive tract — light from a rapidly rotating laser reflects off the esophageal lining and is detected by internal sensors, which send the information to the imaging console. In other words, you just swallow it and it transmits pictures to a TV screen.
The technique is simple and painless, the authors of the study report. And because it doesn’t involve sedation, there is no need for the specialized settings, medical equipment and staff found with endoscopies today. Thus it opens up new opportunities for population-based screening and diagnosis of organs in the gastrointestinal tract — opportunities that half a century ago were only the stuff of fantasy … and space-age cartoons.
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