You take out a discreet little device, point it at the object – or, rather, the food – to be inspected, and there you have it: its nutritional and caloric content will be revealed. It’s called SCiO, and it could become the “magic” tool that no foodie or industry professional can do without. In fact it’s a molecular sensor: an object – about the size of a USB plug – that reveals the chemical composition of what it analyses, from a short distance. It became a reality because of its thousands of fathers and mothers worldwide, 12,958 to be precise: the project, by an Israeli start-up, was also funded with a campaign on Kickstarter, the popular crowdfunding platform.
Almost three million dollars were collected thanks to that (of the 10 million total collected up to now), in one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the online service. This says a lot about how much desire there is for an item like this. It was re-christened “Your Sixth Sense”; its name comes from the Latin “scire”, to know. But what can you learn with the SCiO? All the nutritional value of an “object”, like its protein, carbohydrate and fat content, its calories and composition. Up to now, in order to get a chart like that you had to go to a medical lab. Now you just press the button on the sensor, and in about ten seconds the information will be sent directly to your smartphone. Not just food: also plants, medicines, supplements and potentially anything else, even stones.
The applications of this instrument – which basically is nothing more than a pocket-sized spectrometer – are varied and even major. You’re at the market and don’t know how to choose a melon of just the right ripeness? SCiO will choose it for you. You’re abroad and have to buy a medicine with a name different from the one you know? The molecular sensor can certify its quality. It can also check soil conditions and provide invaluable data to gardeners and farmers. Technically, and very approximately, it works like this: the object in question is hit by a beam of light that creates vibrations inside its molecules; each material reacts to the energy of that light in a specific way, leaving a sort of chemical imprint that the sensor compares with the data in a database, and then sends it to the final user.
The co-founders of Consumer Physics, the company that created the device, are managing to incorporate all that in a consumer object, at extremely reduced costs, filling that monster gap that existed between the possibility of “googling” any information about the known universe, and the absolute impossibility of doing it live with what is at the base of our lives: the foods we eat every day. For now, the range of applications is still limited: fruit, vegetables, dairy products, cooking oil, authentication of medicines and supplements, evaluation of the health status of certain popular plants. But the Consumer Physics is expanding, and it will soon be possible to scan beverages, meat and bread. Every time someone uses SCiO, it will add “meat” to the database and make it more powerful. This will happen in the future, because the sensor is not yet available out in the world: currently it can be pre-ordered for 249 dollars; the first devices will be shipped out in the summer/autumn. A minor revolution, which in just 10 years will probably be an everyday thing.