Technically it is a near-infrared portable spectroscopic device, but let’s be honest, everyone thinks Jerusalem-based Consumer Physics’ SCiO is the closest thing you are going to get to Mr. Spock’s Tricorder.
However the device, which Consumer Physics hopes will help create a database of every product in the world, hasn’t just caught the imagination of geeks. The company was named last month by the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer, one of 49 selected globally as the world’s most innovative companies.
Is It Ripe?
After a successful Kickstarter campaign (it sought $200,000 and raised $2.7 million) the company has already started shipping the Israeli-manufactured device to researchers who get a software development kit and a device. Damian Goldring, the company’s CTO and co-founder, says the over 1,300 developers who have signed up should be receiving their devices about now and that shipping to consumers will start this autumn.
“By the end of this year we hope we will be shipping to everyone on Kickstarter and we will start shipping to all of the pre-orders that we have on the website.” The company has 13,000 pre-orders.
What Is Near Infrared Spectroscopy?
Atoms and molecules are linked to each other by chemical bonds — imagine them a bit like springs. If you give them the right amount of energy they will start to vibrate and emit radiation. A link between, say, a carbon and hydrogen will vibrate at a different frequency to that of oxygen and carbon. This means every compound should have a unique spectrum.
Light in the “near infrared” spectrum (from about 800 nm to 2500 nm) is well suited to exciting those bonds. Near infrared is easy to produce (no expensive lasers), is safe and has good penetration: in food/the human body it’s a few millimeters. It also doesn’t harm the sample.
The complicated part is being able to interpret the spectrum. Laboratory devices operate in tightly-controlled environments. The SCiO is a handheld device used in the real world, so other things can affect the result; even holding it at different angles can make a difference.
The other problem is that in many organic materials, the dominant chemical is going to be water; for example cucumbers are about 96% water and a tomato about 94%. Being able to discern the other chemical compounds can be tricky to do.
The handheld device comprises an infrared source and a custom-built spectrometer. It connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone. A user scans a product to produce a spectrum and within a few seconds gets back an analysis.
Consumer Physics says the device can report on macronutrient values and produce quality and ripeness for various foods. SCiO can identify and authenticate medication by cross-checking with a database of medications.
The device can classify materials and tell the difference between a potato and an apple. It can also estimate the make-up of a material.Estimation could be used to report on how ripe a fruit is based on its sugar content, or if a plant needs watering.
While it is nice to imagine Mr. Spock’s tricorder in our hands at last, alas the device is not without its limitations.
Firstly in order to be classified whatever is scanned must already be in Consumer Physics’ cloud-based database — no mean feat given the countless millions of “things” that exist in the world. At this early stage of development the company is building up scans, both from its own input and from those of developers.
“We are building a mechanism of using scans from the crowd in order to build an accurate database of matter.”
Not A Medical Device
Furthermore, as Goldring points out, the SCiO is not a medical device. It won’t, for example, necessarily tell you if a product has nuts in it. “It is not fully safe for people with severe allergies. Also if you shine a light on an area, it gives you the fingerprint of just that area,” says Goldring. “You may miss the nut.”
And, he says, while the device might tell you the difference between, say, an apple and an avocado, it might struggle to differentiate an apple from a pear. “It’s very challenging because most fruit are made up of water. It might not accurately tell you that that is an apple or that is a tomato because it is hard to classify between different spectrums that look almost exactly the same.”
Nevertheless Goldring sees scores of use cases for the device, which is about the size of a smartphone camera. The company is in talks with OEM makers about incorporating the technology into other products. “The possibilities with the sensor are almost endless in terms of getting it into very different industries and building different type of models” he says.
The company has raised $10 million; backers include Khosla Ventures and entrepreneur Dov Moran, inventor of the USB memory stick.