SCiO: the Star Trek tricorder in real life

On: September 16, 2014
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About Josip Batinic


One of the most emblematic and authentic motifs from the American sci-fi television series Star Trek involves the medical officer Leonard McCoy using a tricorder in order to scan and analyse living beings and environments. He records data with a small sensor probe and reads it on a separate, handheld device.

McCoy using a Starfleet tricorder. Source

SCiO – a “pocket molecular sensor” – works in a similar way. It is “a tiny spectrometer and allows you to get instant relevant information about the chemical make-up of just about anything around you, sent directly to your smartphone.” The light sent from the device reflects back into the inbuilt near-IR sensor, which contains information necessary for determining the chemical structure of the chosen material. It then sends the data to user’s smartphone application via Bluetooth 4.0, and consequently to the cloud, where it is processed and analysed with algorithms. Finally, the analysis is sent back to the smartphone and displayed in real time. In addition to the product itself, the company will release an Application Development Kit, which enables developers to build their own third party applications to use with SCiO for their own purposes.

SCiO prototypes and the envisioned final product. Source

With just the basic SCiO kit, the users will be able to examine the molecular contents of various different things. For instance, they could scan an apple and get detailed information about its nutritional facts. Or, as CNN reports: “SCiO could be a protective tool for clubbers keen to check if their drink has been spiked, or patients to see if their pills are as advertised.” Its applications are virtually unlimited. Indeed, the creators hope to create a first “database of matter”, a collection of digital genetic fingerprints of physical objects that can be accessed and updated by anyone. Although, theoretically, one could also use SCiO to measure one’s own blood sugar level, or even the chemical composition of one’s skin, the creators warn that it should not substitute a professional medical opinion. In the interview with CNN, the creators also mentioned that people with allergies should not rely too much on it either, as: “it can identify elements between ‘0.1% to 1%’ of the overall chemical makeup, and that it would need to be more robust to be an effective guide for allergy sufferers.”

Example of a display on the SCiO application. Source

There has been a lot of emphasis put on the importance of managing one’s health in the media recently (Rose 1996), particularly in the western society, where health gurus have risen to the status of superstars. Some examples include Dr. Oz in the United States, or even the first lady Michelle Obama with her anti-obesity initiative Let’s Move. Existing digital media, and especially Google, are already used by many to find a diagnosis for illnesses. However, it is often criticised as being an unreliable and sometimes even dangerous method of acquiring medical information. Tania Lewis from the Monash University, Australia, analysed a group of young people who used the internet as a way to find information about their medical problems. Lewis concluded that, generally, the popular media and the medical literature tend to use an: “either/or rhetoric; lay people are either empowered consumers with control over their lifestyle choices or potentially the victims of cyberchondria” (536). The author is fairly in favour of using online sources, as it usually indicates a concern of the individual with their own well-being and healthy lifestyle. Tang and Hwee Kwoon Ng (2006) analysed instead how helpful Google can be for doctors to arrive to the correct diagnosis. Their conclusions indicate that, “in difficult diagnostic cases, it is often useful to ‘google for a diagnosis.’” (1144)

It would be reasonable, therefore, to assume that SCiO will help the customers make even more accurate medical predictions. It can enable them to track the intake of calories and other properties of the food or pills they are consuming. The new technology devices, such as SCiO, could give people more possibilities to monitor and prevent diseases on their own without going to see a doctor. Admittedly, there is a danger of cyberchondria, however these sort of consequences (hypochondria) existed prior to the introduction of the more advanced technology, and are not directly caused by the use of technology. SCiO also provides the user with facts specific to the analysed matter, and has consequently less chance of misinforming the users with misleading guesses.


Lewis, Tania.”Seeking Health Information on the Internet: Lifestyle Choice or Bad Attack of Cyberchondria?.” Media, Culture and Society. 28.4 (2006): 521-539.

Rose, N.S. Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Tang, Hangwi and Hwee Kwoon Ng, Jeniffer. “Googling for a Diagnosis – Use of Google as a Diagnostic Aid: Internet Based Study.” BMJ: British Medical Journal. 333.7579 (2006): 1143-1145.

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