Pocket Food Sensor Can Give You a Calorie Count

Consumer Physics' handheld spectrometer looks like sci-fi but can actually analyze food - outputting nutritional value.

Courtesy of Consumer Physics

How sweet is that watermelon you want to buy? How many calories are in that strawberry shake? Did the shot you received when you got sick in the Far East contain antibiotics or diluted motor oil?

Until now you'd need a private lab and pet scientist to answer these questions. But if Consumer Physics' plans proceed as intended, within a few months you will be able to scan your food and – within about ten seconds - know what's in it, using a pocket sensor called SCiO. The scanner will also be able to authenticate medications or supplements.

The basic information read by the sensor, such as fat and protein content, calorie count, or the composition of a drug goes to an app on your phone. The pocket molecular sensor can even help you choose the sweetest watermelon at the grocery store.

It sounds like science fiction but actually the underlying technology has been around for a long time: the device is simply a spectrometer, but miniaturized to pocket size.

Perhaps it's the whiff of Star Trek that explains the company's success on Kickstarter, where it raised $2.7 million and presold 13,000 units of the award-winning sensor at $200 a pop. The devices will only be sent out after this summer, though, assuming the company's plans proceed on track.

Consumer Physics was founded in 2011 by electrical engineers Dror Sharon and Damian Goldring, once fellow Technion students, who ran into each other on the beach and formulated the idea.

Infrared bounce

How does it work? The SCiO utilizes spectroscopy, or, the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation, otherwise known as "light", plus the database the company is building up of how specific materials react to the light the sensor shines on them.

Light is energy. When the sensor shines light on a material, the material reacts to the energy in the light beam. Each material will react in a unique way (if they react at all. Salts or metals for example don't so the SCiO can't see them.)

The sensor reads the material's reaction and consults the database (which lurks in the cloud) to see what the material is. It then transmits the results to your phone by Bluetooth – all this within 10 seconds, says the company.

Of course if the material's unique signature (its reaction to the light) isn't in the database, you won't get an answer, but such is life.

The sensor is about the size of a matchbox and is coated in protective plastic. Half that size is a battery that can last for a week. It also comes with a small stand, convenient for testing pills, capsules or other forms of medicine, where accuracy can be critical.

At first, Sharon says, the device will be able to work with dairy foods, fruit and vegetables, and possibly meat. Later the database will have information on breads as well.

The output information will include protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and other substances above 1% in concentration. As for calorie count – the sensor calculates that (per 100 grams of food) based on the components that the device identified in the food. If you scan Brie versus a strawberry, the Brie is going to show more fat and protein per 100 grams, and show the higher calorie count.

At a later stage the sensor should be useful in gardening – for instance you'll be able to scan a leaf to know when to water the plant, the company envisions.

From its establishment the company has raised $10 million, including from Khosla Ventures and the Israeli serial entrepreneur Dov Moran. It has 50 employees in Israel and hopes to double that within a year.

The device can already be pre-ordered for $250, though upon release it will probably cost about $300. Anybody can pre-order it now. The company is planning to start shipping to its online buyers during the fall . The company has plans to offer the sensor to other companies, for integration in electric appliances and for the development of complementary technologies.

The underlying technology is small and Sharon foresees the day that its price plunges, and every phone has a sensor paired with wearable computing. There's also the potential for synergies. "For instance you could manufacture a smart blender. When you make a shake you could know how many calories you're drinking," he suggests.

With Ruth Schuster