Star Trek-style ‘tricorders’ on their way to customers

After raising $2.7m on Kickstarter and wowing reviewers, the SCIO molecular sensor is finally set to ship

What's really in that cheese? SCIO knows (Courtesy)
What's really in that cheese? SCIO knows (Courtesy)

In just a few weeks, early adopters will receive the world’s first device that can scan products and provide a list of ingredients, components, materials, and other important information about food, pharmaceuticals, plants, and much more. Consumer Physics, the company behind the device, called the SCIO device, announced Monday that it was preparing to ship its first units to researchers who ordered the device. With the SCIO device in hand, researchers will be able to develop apps to expand the device’s capabilities.

The SCIO device, say many observers, reminds them of the “tricorder” – the device from the Star Trek TV show that the crew of the USS Enterprise used to figure out what the fascinating things they found on alien worlds consisted of.

The SCIO has been heralded by scientists, researchers, journalists – anyone who has seen it in action – as a major tech development. The device uses near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy to scan physical materials for their molecular fingerprint, discovering the specific components of a piece of fruit, a hamburger, a pill, and, eventually, anything else, depending on what apps are developed on the platform. Once the molecular components are detected, the data is uploaded to a user’s smartphone, from where it is transmitted to the SCIO database. The database then provides information about the materials, and the product – vitamins, calories, product recalls, active ingredients in over-the-counter pills, and more.

The device could be a boon for anyone interested in gauging whether the food they are eating or the medications they are taking are effective – but the company stresses that the SCIO is not a medical device. “SCiO typically detects materials in concentrations of 1% or higher. Concentration levels of 0.1% or less may also be feasible for some materials, however this is rare. The exact specifications depend on the application and material being analyzed,” and as a result, the company says, “SCiO is not a medical device and should not be relied on to protect you from allergens under any circumstances,” as there are many allergens that may be present and can cause damage at levels of less than 1%.

Out of the box, users will be able to scan dairy products, fruits and vegetables for nutritional data, as well as plants (to determine their overall health, whether they need water, etc.), common medications and nutritional supplements. But eventually, the company hopes to expand the SCIO’s functionality to include, well everything, developing “the world’s first material database” that will catalog which components are in what product.

However, Consumer Physics stresses that users will get a lot of use out of the device right away, for example wth nutritional supplements, which American officials have in recent months sought to crack down on for inaccurate labeling. According to the New York State Attorney General’s Office, for example, some of the unlisted ingredients on supplements sold by large, reputable retailers contain contaminated, or even dangerous, ingredients. The AG has launched an investigation, but SCIO users won’t have to wait for its results; according to Consumer Physics, the SCIO will be able to identify the ingredients that are in supplements – whether or not they are on the label.

Since completing its Kickstarter campaign in June 2014, which was successfully funded within 24 hours and raised 1,381% of its funding goal, Consumer Physics has focused on perfecting its technology and building an ecosystem of global developers to help build unique molecular sensing applications based on the SCiO handheld sensor, said Dror Sharon, CEO of Consumer Physics, pointing to the slew of awards the device has received, with the latest being the prestigious INDEX: award from Danish non-profit Design to Improve Life.

“It’s been more than four years since we started working on SCiO, and the Kickstarter campaign has been part of an absolutely amazing journey,” said Dror Sharon, CEO of Consumer Physics. “The greatest value from our campaign has been the highly enthusiastic and engaged community of early adopters, scientists, developers, and more SCiO explorers. Their feedback has and will continue to have a huge and positive impact on our roadmap, our processes, and our final product. We can’t wait to share SCiO with our community and beyond.”

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