Mr. Spock's Smartphone: A spectrometer for your keychain

Mr. Spock's Smartphone: A spectrometer for your keychain

Summary: Consumer Physics, an Israeli start-up is bringing Star Trek "Tricorder" technology to your mobile devices to open up an entirely new world of chemometrical apps.

Art: CBS/Paramount

On Monday, an Israeli startup, Consumer Physics, successfully completed their Kickstarter campaign for a device that could completely alter the way we use our mobile phones, PCs and tablets in the future. 

If you're a classic Star Trek fan, you may recall a fictional device used by the Enterprise crew called a "Tricorder" that is able to, among other things, determine the molecular composition of nearby objects.

Consumer Physics has figured out how to incorporate this functionality into a Bluetooth-connected sensor the size of a keychain, called the SCiO.

The technology to determine the molecular composition of objects has been around for many years, as the science of spectroscopy. Observed under different wavelengths of visible and non-visible light, all matter has a resonance that produces a distinct "fingerprint" on the electromagnetic spectrum.

By looking at these fingerprints we can determine exactly what something is made of, even from tens of thousands of light years away.

This is how scientists are able to figure out if the thousands of extrasolar planets that have been recently discovered are made of gas, or are rocky, like the Earth. Or if there are other stars out there are similar to our sun, and if we could live on those exoplanets that orbit them.

In addition to astronomy, spectroscopy has many down-to-earth industry applications, including forensics, geology, pharmacology, and in various vertical industries where precise measurement of the composition of matter is required.

But spectroscopy equipment has been very expensive and not very portable. Until now.

The SCiO differs from a laboratory spectrometer in that it uses a tiny sensor that emits near-infrared light, which causes the molecules on the subject to vibrate and thus reflect the "signature" of its molecular composition.  

Due to this method and limitations in the sensor tech, the SCiO can only identify concentrations of matter of one percent or higher. The near-infrared technique also makes it difficult to recognize the compositions of gases or metals. So for example, performing precise blood chemistry or self-urinalysis, or determining if there are allergens in food might be challenging for the technology today.

However, even with these limitations, this still opens up a huge world of applications that never before existed to consumers. Consumer Science is building a huge cloud-based database of materials that the sensor is able to detect, and with the release of the SCiO, it intends to "crowdsource" identification of a lot more substances.

The device is able to scan and produce a displayable result on the smartphone or tablet in a matter of seconds.

The SCiO campaign on Kickstarter far exceeded its funding goal of $200,000 -- Consumer Science raised over $2.7 million in total. So clearly there is broad consumer interest for this type of technology. 

The first SCiO will cost $200 and will come with a number of demo applications for Android. Developers will be able to use Consumer Physics' chemometrical API for both Android and iOS as well as the web to create all sorts of custom applications.  

Have you ever wanted your own "Tricorder?" and does the SCiO interest you as a consumer? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Cloud, Emerging Tech, Mobile OS, Innovation


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • This gets to join the medical tricorder

    also being worked on...
  • Now they need to hook up a few of those to the medical monitoring display

    they showed in the last Star Trek film -- a hi-res display about 70"-80" with real-time data on pulse, respiration rate, blood flow, etc.
  • Dr Spock

    Dr Spock
    • Dr Benjamin Spock...

      ...was a pediatrician, best known for "Baby and Child Care". Gene Roddenberry had never heard of him when he chose Spock's name.

      His name is "Spock", not "Mr Spock". Mister is his title as ship's executive officer, as in "Mister Roberts".
  • Again....

    No Windows Phone App :(

    " Developers will be able to use Consumer Physics' chemometrical API for both Android and iOS as well as "
    BHHS Assistant
    • Not worth the effort.

      Only 103 Windows phones have been sold worldwide - ever - so no-one writes apps for it. In fact there are only 17 apps available for Windows phone and Microsoft wrote 14 of those.

      It might pick up though, I heard that another app called 'Lonely' (like facebook but only for Windows Phone users) is being released this fall.
      • Um, Just slightly exaggerated there

        Sigh Funny how many these apps are available for Blackberry too even though it's nearly at a share of zero now.
        • porting is easy

          Hi :)
          Porting between iThings, Androids and Blackberry requires very little re-coding. They are all sisters/brothers of each other and share very recent ancestry, they are all unix-based.

          So, it's no surprise when something written for one quickly appears in either of the others.

          However it's then quite a lot of work to get it onto Windows.

          The other way around is MUCH more difficult. Writing for Windows then often requires a radical re-think before re-writing it for anything else.

          MS takes over a year to rejig their own MS Office for Mac and even then it's a stripped-down version. If it's tough for the company that makes the platform just how much more difficult is it going to be for small groups of devs!

          Regards from
          Tom :)
    • windows phone?

      What? write an app for you and 2 other people??? :)
    • Sigh! This might be the straw...

      ...that finally breaks my (Windows) back. I've been one of the "Lonely Faithfuls" so far, and there's been nothing on Android or iOS to push me away from Windows Phone. Until now... A hand-held spectrometer? That is WAY beyond cool, and I might just take the plunge...