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

Jon Phillips | April 30, 2014
We can't hide from the cold calculus of science, especially when it comes to the food we stuff down our mouths.

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.

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." 

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.

 

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