Devotees of the Star Trek sci-fi franchise will be familiar with the ubiquitous tricorder, the multifunction handheld device used by Starfleet officers to analyze just about any material - and resolve dangling plot threads with pseudo-scientific expository dialogue. ("I'm reading trace amounts of dilithium, Jim.")
The tricorder concept has long been more of a narrative device than an actual scientific device, but that's starting to change with the advent of portable spectrometers that put molecular analysis in the palm of your hand.
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To wit: After a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, the handheld SCiO molecular scanner is slated to hit digital shelves in December.
The device employs a variation on the traditional mass spectrometry technology used in laboratories, but radically miniaturized and linked with your smartphone. Other portable spectometers have been deployed by scientists in the field, but SCiO is the first to market itself as a consumer device.
Using near-IR spectroscopy, the SCiO (pronounced "ski-oh") uses a source light and an optical sensor to identify the molecular structure of any given material.
Different types of molecules vibrate in unique ways, and those vibrations interact with the light to create an optical signature. By analyzing the light spectrum of each specific signature, the SCiO can tell what molecules are present in a material or substance.
The makers of SCiO hope that, by working with developers and pairing the device with software apps, portable molecular scanning will have a wide range of practical applications.
For instance, out-of-the-box apps planned for release will allow users to scan food for nutritional value. You can see how many calories are in a piece of fruit, or how many grams of sugar in a milkshake. You can use it to determine what exactly is inside your nutritional supplement, or even scan the composition of your clothing and jewelry.
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To manage the high-octane number crunching required, SCiO uses cloud technology and a kind of crowdsourcing solution. Every time you scan an object or material, the SCiO sends information to an online database. Algorithms interpret the data in the light spectrum, and identification information is delivered back to your phone within seconds. As more people use the SCiO system, SCiO's "database of matter" will get faster and more accurate over time.
You can pre-order the SCiO pocket sensor now for $249, or if you want to design your own apps, the Developer's Kit is going for $449. So there you go - your own Star Trek tricorder, just in time for holiday shopping. Watch the video for more details.