The holy grail for dieters—a way to accurately and easily measure the calories and fat in the food that’s on our plates and entering our mouths—is getting closer to reality.
The SCiO, a handheld "pocket molecular sensor" device that is taking off on Kickstarter that can scan food, medicines, and plants and figure out what’s in it, isn’t quite it. But it’s close.
I was skeptical when Dror Sharon, CEO of Consumer Physics, the Khosla Ventures-backed company producing the device, showed up at Fast Company’s offices with a bag of deli-counter cheeses and fruits he’d just picked up at Whole Foods. He told me: "The best way to disprove skeptics is to show it to them."
Despite some clear constraints, his demonstration convinced me that the device basically does what it claims: With a quick scan, it tells you the nutritional facts of what you’re about to put in your mouth. Other potential applications? Seeing the ripeness of a fruit through the peel. Checking on how healthy your plants are. Identifying if your medicine isn’t what you think it is.
The SCiO works because Consumer Physics has taken a huge and expensive piece of chemistry lab equipment called a near-infrared spectrometer and built a miniature sensor that, with the help of advanced software, makes similar-enough measurements at a fraction of the cost. While high-end equipment can cost tens of thousands, the SCiO that Sharon showed me could fit on a keychain and will likely sell for only a few hundred dollars (early backers are getting it for $199). Another company, TellSpec, is working on a similar device.
To use the SCiO, you hold the device between your index finger and thumb close to the food, and press a button that shines a blue light onto whatever food item you're testing. It also works through some clear plastic wrappers.
Within a few seconds, the sensor inside measures the wavelengths of light that reflect from the substance, which produces a spectrum that relates to the unique molecular composition of what’s inside. Via bluetooth, the device sends this information to an app on your smartphone. And with the help of algorithms that analyze the spectrum and learn from a database of all of the substances that every SCiO has already scanned, it can spit out information about what’s actually in the product.
In the demo, the SCiO’s measurements came close to the nutritional labels displayed on two cheeses, as seen in the chart I put together above (the FDA already allows nutritional labels to be within a +/- 20% error range).
Perhaps more impressively, the SCiO accurately identified a pill of ibuprofen that I had procured from my cubicle. It read out that it was a generic purchased at CVS, even though I had handed it to Sharon in a branded Advil bottle. To my surprise, the device was right: I had forgotten that I had refilled my Advil bottle with a generic a few weeks earlier.
There are some obvious limitations to its use. For food, the device only scans a small nickel-sized area and penetrates a depth of a few millimeters. So it won’t capture the caloric variety of a hearty stew, nor will it be able to tell you how many calories or fats are on your full plate. Rather, the user must input the portion size he or she will be eating and the device will simply extrapolate from a small food sample. To compare foods if portion size isn't known, another function of the app can tell you whether an apple or a tomato is sweeter, based on their relative caloric counts.
The device also depends on improving and learning from the knowledge in its database, which is one reason why Consumer Physics is running a Kickstarter campaign. It's looking for early adopters to go out and sample the world around them—creating a "physical database of matter" that will help expand the range of foods, medicines, and plants that the SCiO can identify. When I handed Sharon a Vitamin D pill to scan, the device hadn’t seen it yet and couldn’t recognize it. Instead, I had the option of helping put it in their database.
Gerard Downey, an Irish research scientist at the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Dublin, doubted the quality of the crowdsourced data the company will collect, especially because there will be no standard samples against which to verify its results. "The database is critical. You could produce the nicest, most highly-performing spectroscopic instrument you like, but if your database is bad, you're not going to get good results," he says. "Its not sufficient to wander around the supermarket, pick up a piece of cheese and accept that cheese as a representative sample."
Sharon says the device will be open to developers to make up new applications for the sensor. While Consumer Physics plans to retail the standalone device, the company’s ultimate goal is to keep making it cheaper and smaller. One day, Sharon hopes, you’ll be able to do the same scans from your smartphone or maybe even your smart fridge.
All in all, the technology is impressive. But at the price, I don't expect it will be useful enough that it would be a device that everyone will want to purchase (despite its huge popularity on Kickstarter). After all, in many cases, people can just read a nutrition label. In others, the need to know the portion size will be limiting. Perhaps it will also be used as an education gadget or a portable quality control tool. But if the promise of continued cost reductions holds up, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years we see magical material scanners everywhere.