Imagine being able to tell whether an apple is sweet or eye-wateringly sour just by shining a light upon it. Or being able to accurately determine the calorific value of a takeaway (or indeed whether it is safe to eat).
Miniature spectrometry could take the guesswork out of dieting, and if two Korean developers at Mobile World Congress are to be believed, it could be coming to a wearable device or smartphone within three years.
Korean start-up NanoLambda has developed a $10 nano spectrometer-on-a-chip. The chip shines near infrared light on a surface of an object to determine its molecular structure. According to Bill Choi, the founder of NanoLamda, every object has a unique spectral fingerprint that can be matched to a database of catalogued objects. The frequency response of each colour can indicate the constituent parts such as fat or sugar or bugs.
Spectrometry has been used in labs for many years, but equipment is typically bulky and expensive. Creating a spectrometer on a chip could bring the technology to millions of consumers and businesses.
OEMs interested in trialling the technology can purchase an SDK kit on IndieGoGo.
A second Korean start up, Pied Piper, has developed a portable food detecting spectrometer. While the demo that it showed at Mobile World Congress was substantially larger than NanoLamda’s spectrometer on a chip, Pied Piper’s ambitions are in software rather than hardware. It wants to build the database of food wavelengths that can indicate levels of sugar, salt, fat, volume and even bacteria and develop a smartphone app that displays results.
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How effective this scaled down verion of labratory technology proves to be remains to be seen. A similar portable food spectrometer called the Scio appeared on Kickstarter last year , raising $2.7m in funding, but a scientist specialising in spectrometry was doubtful about how effective a portable spectrometer could be.
As the significant growth in fitness bands, smart watches, smart clothing and other wearables shows, there is an appetite for using technology to improve our wellbeing. But diet tracking to date has relied on guess work and memory. Perhaps spectrometers small enough to fit in watches and phones may not be 100% accurate in determining the constituents of foodstuffs, but they will surely be better and more convenient that looking up recipes and ingredients in calorie counting apps.
And of course, spectrometry is not limited to food analysis. It can also be used to detect skin type (for cosmetics), environmental pollution, quality in food production and also to too improve the sensors in digital cameras.
I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.