Ever wonder about the chemical makeup of everyday objects? You may be simply curious, or have a reason to know the composition of such things as food, medicines, plants, or household products. The mysteries of matter have captivated scientists for centuries, however without the right tools, the rest of us have been unable to access the microscopic layer of our world. Smartphones may have transformed our relationship to our environment with innovations such as location-aware, imaging, and biometric technologies. But they have not connected us to the material world beneath its surface. Until now.
The founders of Consumer Physics had a bold vision – they wanted to bridge this gap and create a simple consumer device that can tell us the chemical makeup of our world. Thousands of Kickstarter supporters also wanted to make this vision a reality, and the company’s first product, SCiO, was born. SCiO is a small, hand-held spectrometer allows users to scan and analyze the composition of just about any object. It is based on near-infrared spectroscopy (NIR) technology that has previously only been used in labs and factories.
Scanning for the Micro Beneath the Macro
When a user scans an object, data is sent to an app on the phone which then parses and displays relevant information. For example, scanning food may provide macro nutrient values or indicate the quality or ripeness of a perishable item. SCiO can also identify and authenticate medication or vitamin supplements in real-time. Scanning a plant can help a user know when to water by confirming its moisture levels. SCiO is capable of analyzing almost any material, including cosmetics, clothes, flora, soil, jewels and precious stones, leather, rubber, oils, plastics, and even human tissue or bodily fluids.
As a standalone device, SCiO can be immensely useful, however the company’s vision is much broader. They intend to create the world’s first database of matter by inviting the community of users to contribute data and help SCiO grow. Such a database can also provide an invaluable resource for research, medicine, education, as well as those working to improve our food system and environment.
The company also invites third-party developers to innovate using their technology. They provide a software development kit and support that can help developers create innumerable new user experiences. Included is an app that lets developers search the SCiO database for ‘physical fingerprints’ and hack the data in order to build machine learning algorithms and create new ‘sensing models.’
From Material to Virtual: Processing Chemical Data on Heroku
After considering a variety of solutions, Consumer Physics chose Heroku due to previous experience with the platform. They designed a unique architecture with the Heroku platform in the middle. The bulk of their computational activity happens on AWS servers running in the background, and their Heroku app routes requests to these servers from various clients, such as Android, iOS, and web apps, as well as manufacturing and production line systems.
We call Heroku ‘the front-end of our back-end.’ It’s integral to our architecture and helps us process data in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Dror Sharon, CEO, Consumer Physics
The team built their Heroku app in Python using the Flask framework, and use the Heroku Add-on SSL encryption to enhance security. The company has recently adopted Salesforce as their CRM platform and are in the process of migrating from their legacy platform and integrating Salesforce with their apps and online store.
We are big fans of Heroku. We love how the platform allows us to move as quickly as we need to – we can deploy new features to our customers within minutes using a simple git push command. Dror Sharon, CEO, Consumer Physics
With SCiO, consumers can use mobile apps built by Consumer Physics or third-party developers to help them analyze specific categories of data. At launch, an app will be available to analyze food and medication, as well as give users tools to teach SCiO about materials. With datasets growing, more and more consumer applications will be released.
To conduct a scan, the user opens a SCiO app and from the home screen, chooses the type of material they want to scan. The app may ask for more information about the material in order to improve accuracy. Next, the user holds the SCiO scanner approximately ¼” away from the object. The app will then display the resulting analysis. For example, if the object is a food item, it may show the number of calories, fats, carbohydrates and other nutritional information.
SCiO's typical scan cycle is approximately 10 seconds: two seconds to aim, two seconds to scan, one second for analysis, and another four to five seconds for transmitting the spectrum and getting back the results on a 3G internet connection. Transmitting and receiving times may vary depending on the smartphone data connection.
An Explorer Mode lets consumers create their own database within the application on the fly. For example, someone who enjoys woodworking can scan different types of wood and the app will build a machine learning model and compile a database of scan samples. The user can then use SCiO and their own database to identify wood pieces at a building supply store.
A wide spectrum of users can benefit from the insights provided by SCiO: health-conscious consumers, sports enthusiasts, medical patients, healthcare providers, food growers, gardeners, wine makers – you name it, the use cases are endless. And that's just for the data categories at launch. Currently there are over one thousand registered SCiO developers. Only time will tell what creative applications this fast growing developer ecosystem may bring in future.
We live in a material world, and SCiO helps us follow our curiosity without having to be a scientist.