scio scan closeup

Meet SCiO, the handheld scanner that IDs the molecules of food and pharmaceuticals

We can’t hide from the cold calculus of science, especially when it comes to the food we stuff down our mouths.

Everything we eat is ultimately a collection of molecules, some healthful, some potentially harmful. And when you study these molecules with the SCiO scanner from Consumer Physics, you develop a new appreciation (or fear) for all the artery-clogging fats and blood glucose-spiking carbs that are hiding inside the food we eat.

Launching Tuesday via a Kickstarter campaign, the SCiO is a $150 handheld widget that can determine the molecular fingerprints of a wide range of materials. When the device ships to crowd-funding backers at the end of this year or early 2015, it will come with apps that can report the physical composition of food and pharmaceuticals, says Dror Sharon, Consumer Physics CEO.

scio scanning Image: Jon Phillips

Sharon scans a wheel of cheese with a prototype version of SCiO.

But these are really just the headline features of SCiO’s molecular reporting schtick. Sharon says Consumer Physics’ spectroscopic sensor has the potential to divine the chemical composition of wide range of materials, from gasoline and rubber to cosmetics and gemstones. And once you can determine what something is—on a precise molecular level—you can also extrapolate what it isn’t, inviting new possibilities for product authentication, consumer safety and other applications.

I’ve seen SCiO in action, and its analysis tricks are a sight to behold. I can’t wait to get one of my own just to, you know... see what things are made of.

How it works: basic spectroscopy

SCiO’s spectroscopic sensor is essentially a miniaturized, inexpensive version of technology that lab scientists have been using for years to determine the physical composition of various materials. The SCiO hardware shines LED light on whatever you intend to scan, prompting vibrations in your target’s molecules. Some light wavelengths are absorbed; others are reflected. And it’s these reflections that leave fingerprints revealing specific information about the molecular composition of whatever’s been scanned.

Sharon simplifies the process even further: “It senses the spectrum of the actual molecules, sends it to the cloud, and compares what it finds to a huge database.” 

scio results 2 Image: Jon Phillips

Here we see the nutritional values of scanned cheese. The numbers reported by SCiO were within about 10 percent of the nutritional information on the cheese packaging. It's a margin of error that's considerably less than the FDA's own requirements.

Assuming that database is pre-populated with all the information its needs to identify various fats, carbs and proteins, the system can report back specific data on the food you scan. During a product demo using an early SCiO prototype, I scanned a hunk of gouda, and the accompanying app reported the cheese’s specific fat, carb, protein and calorie content for a single serving. Comparing SCiO’s numbers to the cheesemaker’s published nutritional information, the sensor was within 10 percent of each advertised metric.

It felt like science fiction. And it made me want to SCiO the hell out of anything else I could find.

No two tomatoes are necessarily alike

It’s important to note that when you scan a tomato, for example, the sensor isn’t identifying your target as a tomato, and looking up a typical tomato’s average nutritional scores in a static database. No, SCiO susses out the specific fat, carb, protein and calorie content for the very tomato you’ve scanned.

The key, Sharon says, is for the Consumer Physics database to have molecular profiles of everything we might target. He says that when SCiO ships to Kickstarter backers, he expects the database to recognize about 80 percent of all the various foods we eat. Proteins are the hardest to detect, followed by carbs, and then fats are the easiest to profile. But in the end, Sharon says, all these materials are within SCiO’s reach. Only transparent materials—like clear liquids—present serious trouble when it comes to identifying molecular structures.

scio closeup 2 Image: Jon Phillips

Here we see a model of the formfactor Consumer Physics intends to ship to Kickstarter backers. It's notably smaller than the working prototype I used during my product demo.

When the SCiO takes a reading, its light penetrates a few millimeters into its target’s surface, and covers a circle roughly 15 millimeters in diameter. So if if you intend to scan a fruit tart, for example, you’ll get different readings if you first scan the topping, and then the custard underneath.

Still, the system is packed with potential, assuming all of Sharon’s plans prove out by the time SCiO begins shipping. He says the technology is powerful enough to determine the difference between unripe, ripe and spoiled fruit—useful for casual produce shoppers. Likewise, with the right database information, SCiO could recognize milk that’s been tainted with melomine, an additive that caused a scandal in China in 2008.

Forget food, let’s scan some stuff

Consumer Physics is focusing on food for its initial roll-out, as the world is obsessed with nutritional data, and calorie tracking presents such an obvious consumer use case. But the sensor technology itself is capable of analyzing a wide range of substances. Only metals and other reflective materials present serious scanning challenges, Sharon says.

Luckily, pharmaceuticals are easy to scan, so when SCiO launches, its apps will also be able to determine the identity of various pills. During my product demo, we scanned a generic ibuprofen pill, and then a name-brand version. Both nondescript pills appeared in the Consumer Physics database, and the app was able to tell the difference between the two.

scio beauty Image: Jon Phillips

Consumer Physics says you'll be able to get 200 scans between charging up the SCiO with a simple USB cable.

SCiO launches with an open API, so third-party developers will be able to extend the list of materials covered by the Consumer Physics database, and also create apps suited to specific use cases. Sharon that in same cases, only 10 samples of a particular material are necessary to establish a reliable database profile.

In the future, Sharon envisions, the SCiO scanner could be used by home brewers to establish a beer’s alcohol content; by consumers to suss out allergens in food and cosmetics; by shoppers to authenticate luxury goods like gemstones and leather; and by anyone who wants to identify an obscure plant species. He’s not promising these use cases, mind you, but says they’re all within the reach of spectroscopic technology, and could become reality with support from third-party developers.

A race to the spectroscopic finish line

If the SCiO story sounds somewhat familiar, it’s probably because you’ve already heard of TellSpec, an extremely similar product that completed a successful Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign in November. Spectroscopic analysis is a nascent consumer technology, so there’s certainly room for two players in the field. Still, Sharon was ready to point out what he believes are key difference between TellSpec and SCiO.

“The main differences are we have the full stack of a multi-disciplinary team, whereas I believe they still have to build out their hardware experience,” Sharon says. “Second, we actually own the sensor; they use off-the-shelf. And third, they started off with a different type of spectroscopy and switched over, so I think it’s going to take them some time to ship.”

scio evolution Image: Consumer Physics

Here we see the evolution of Consumer Physics' proprietary technology. Sharon says his company will eventually miniaturize the sensor to the point where it could be integrated in smartphones.

It’s true that TellSpec started off with laser-based Raman spectroscopy (it’s described in its Indiegogo campaign), and switched to a DLP-based sensor when it partnered with Texas Instruments in March. I didn’t have a chance to contact TellSpec for comment in this article, but I hope to one day test the two competing sensors side-by-side. Ultimately, user experience might be more important than who ships first—assuming both products work as advertised and accurately identify real-world molecular structures.

Still, Sharon believes owning proprietary sensor tech plays in his company’s favor. He says his team of engineers can continually iterate its patented technology, creating smaller and smaller sensors for a new range of devices. “Our vision is to have this inside every smartphone, every wearable device, and every Internet-connected device—everywhere it makes sense for you to measure a physical property,” he says.

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