Coming soon to your phone: handheld food safety

03 Oct
"Chekov, I believe these chocolate bars are safe to eat."

“Mr. Spock, I believe these chocolate bars are safe to eat.”

For years now, smartphones have invariably been compared to tricorders, those futuristic devices from Star Trek that do everything from environmental readings to scanning a patient’s vital signs. While the current crop of smartphones do an incredible array of things, they’re still a far cry from those all-in-one sci-fi miracle devices.

A new Indiegogo campaign from Toronto-based startup TellSpec, however, provides a glimpse of some of the near-term innovation that will soon come to smartphones, which will indeed bring them one step closer to tricorder capability.

TellSpec is actually a separate device, about the same size as a smartphone (or tricorder) that packs in a miniaturized spectrometer, or a meter that can measure different properties of light. The invention of the spectrometer, which I covered in depth in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, was one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in human history as it allowed for the identification of materials on a molecular level. It was particularly important in food production because it allowed for the detection of carcinogens and toxins. Without spectroscopy, we’d all still be dying from food poisoning on a regular basis.

Spectrometers have typically been giant, expensive machines. But, with the broader application of Moore’s Law, they’re rapidly shrinking in price and size. Handheld spectrometers have been available for industrial uses for some time, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on their use.

TellSpec is aimed squarely at the consumer, with the goal of enabling the identification of allergens, toxins and ingredients in food. As the video below explains, the device will allow users to see if the food they’re about to eat contains gluten or other potentially harmful substances:

Supporters of the Indiegogo campaign will receive a device after the $150 mark, which is pretty cheap for a portable spectrometer. Whether or not the TellSpec works as advertised or the company’s campaign succeeds, the idea itself is sound.

It’s only a matter of time before the size and cost comes down even further, to the point where some smartphone manufacturer or another adds spectrometers to its offerings. It’s at that point that smartphones will really start to resemble tricorders.

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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in food, gadgets, mobile


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