A new generation of hand-held molecular data readers offer us a glimpse at a safer, healthier, better informed future.
This month, Consumer Physics, an Israeli startup, will start shipping out a prototype of its maiden product, the SCiO handheld spectrometer, to a group of Kickstarter supporters-cum-beta testers. A pocket-sized molecular sensor capable of breaking down and reporting the constituent atomic matter of various objects, the device probably sounds like a niche interest for the at-home scientist crowd. But in truth, the technology underlying this little, eminently affordable trinket, could revolutionize the way that everyday consumers interact with the world. By allowing us to (as Consumer Physics founders Damian Goldring and Dror Sharon would put it) “Google” physical reality, one day devices like the SCiO may not just provide us with interesting information, but also detect counterfeits, poisons, and other scams, cons, and threats on the fly—among a host of other as-yet-unseen, but inspiring potential applications.
Although it sounds like an incredibly futuristic technology, in many ways the SCiO is actually fairly old hat. It operates using the exact same technology laboratories and border control facilities use to investigate the make-up of items under inspection by bouncing near-infrared light off an object then reading the distinct vibrations of the molecules within. These devices then compare the ratios and make-ups of scanned objects to known profiles of different materials, revealing the product’s true nature. Consumer Physics took this longstanding technology and, piggybacking on the work done by smartphone developers to miniaturize optical devices over the past decade or so, shrunk it down to a manageable size. Rather than crunching all the data itself, the lighter-sized SCiO uses Bluetooth to communicate with the user’s phone, comparing the device’s measurements against a Consumer Physics directory of known matter within seconds. The app then spits out basic information on the object scanned, offering enough precision to, for example, distinguish Coke from Pepsi.
Consumer Physics founders Damian Goldring and Dror Sharon
Under development since 2011, the SCiO started catching a good deal of media attention as soon as it launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, seeking just $200,000 to develop, test, and distribute early versions of the product. Almost instantly, folks fell in love with the concept of hacking the world around them and wound up pouring $2.7 million (1,381 percent of Consumer Physics’ fundraising goal) into the venture. Unlike many other Kickstarted products, the device, which showed up in prototype form at the January 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, actually over-performed on its promises to crowd-funding investors, working (mostly) as advertised and retailing for under $300. The SCiO has since mopped up a host of prestigious innovation awards and continued to attract money and attention in Silicon Valley.
Yet most of the hype around the SCiO has focused on its potential as a nutritional planning tool. Most coverage fixates on how, by combining an object’s weight with its readings, the device can give users a breakdown on the calories, fats, carbs, and so on in a given piece of food, providing more exact information than often wishy-washy general serving statistics. The SCiO could detect ripeness and spoilage, or pairing it with other fitness devices that track energy expenditures, tell users precisely how much work it would take to burn off that cupcake. Only a few people, based on SCiO demos, have talked about the device’s potential to, say, detect when a plant needs watering by looking at the moisture in its soil, or whether pills in a bottle are what they say they are, or have somehow gotten mixed up at the pharmacy or in a medical cabinet.
Part of this fixation is just a byproduct of the way SCiO’s technology operates: to work with the device, the object in question needs to have already been scanned at one point, and an app has to wrestle useful information out of the raw inputted molecular data. As of now, food data has been some of the easiest and fastest information to gather and parse into an app. But Consumer Physics sees its device less as a one-trick pony and more as a platform for future development, selling app development kits for about $450. Their plan is to expand the uses of an ever-growing matter database through experimentation.
Because the apps that serve the device are expanding in scope, the applications are theoretically limitless. Demos on the existing device’s ability to tell different makes of ibuprofen apart suggests that users might one day be able to use it for detecting counterfeits or mislabeling in their pharmaceutical products. It could even be used to discern the safety of illegitimate drugs, taking a massive bite out of the potential for death when consuming ill-begotten or badly cut black market narcotics. The same principles apply to weeding out real leather from imitations, and other such broader issues with consumer goods. Some folks have even floated the idea of using a quick scan to detect the presence of date rape drugs in drinks or detecting allergens in one’s environment. This ability to detect dangers and cons that elude existing consumer protection and law enforcement mechanisms could make the world a much safer place, and far less hospitable to funny business.
Unfortunately, at least with the first version of the SCiO, the lack of current information isn’t the only thing standing in the way of these broader applications. Critics of the device, some of whom see it as nothing more than a novelty, point out that miniaturization has robbed its measurements of a certain robustness. It’s not sophisticated enough, for instance, to detect an allergen. It’s also easily thwarted by packaging, functional only at extremely close ranges, and capable of scanning just a small portion of a given object, risking misidentifications. Plus, critics believe there’s probably a lot of guesswork going on with the in-phone data crunching, matching general measurements up to generic information about products (in food analysis especially), and thus limiting its bespoke appeal. So the SCiO itself is hardly going to pull off a consumer protection revolution.
But this is an early-stage technology—comparable, maybe, to a shitty, first generation camera phone. Consumer Physics has stressed the fact that their scanner is just a building block, and that its functionality will improve over the years. Not only that, but the excitement around its launch will likely spur other developers and researchers to invest in upgrades to the technology. Indeed, a few other groups seem to be working on their own prototype scanners at the moment—although like the SCiO, they seem to be focused on food, an application of the tech with clear objectives and an eager user audience.
Consumer Physics hopes that one day their technology will be integrated into phones and other common accessories as well, rather than sold separately as another glitchy little machine to carry around. As the technology improves, and more bespoke, specialized, or high-powered iterations come onto the market, it’s likely that we’ll see little revolutions develop, until suddenly we enjoy sweeping new powers of detection and protection. This future is far off from the humble SCiO scanner (really still a prototype). But it’s a stirring vision of what could be—one that will hopefully drive us forward, pushing us to improve on this starting point, and allowing us a more informed relationship with the world around us.