Can We Understand What Something Is Made Of With Our Phones?

Discovering chemical compositions with a smartphone camera


The ‘Tricorder’ was a staple on the Starship Enterprise. And like smartphones, it has developed. Once a clunky rectangle device with a strap in Star Trek’s original series, it’s now smaller and has a touchscreen.

Fortunately for Star Trek’s writers, they didn’t actually have to make the Tricorder work. All they had to do was design a contraption which looked like it was worthy of doing what they said it could.

Their vision, however, has now been made into something tangible. Researchers at Tel Aviv University announced that a recent invention would make it possible for smartphones to identify the chemical composition of objects from distance. As you can see from this video, the product is compatible with a standard smartphone, with the creators - Professor David Mendlovic and doctoral student Ariel Raz - saying that even current models would be advanced enough to run the technology. It’s also reportedly mass producible, increasing its chances of being a commercial success.

In the product’s advert, someone takes a picture of a glass of whisky, which lists the drink’s components. In his article, Jason Dorrier summarizes how this is done: ‘The component is a kind of miniature filter that would allow smartphone cameras to take hyperspectral images that record the spectrum of light present in every pixel of the image.’

While this sounds cutting edge, the technology behind the product isn’t new. Similar imaging techniques, for example, have been used to analyze the earth’s surface. But what makes this discovery notable is that the technology has been stripped down and made cheaper. But while the tricorder was a necessary piece of equipment for the Enterprise, questions have been asked about what the technology can bring users.

Assuming the novelty of scanning arbitrary items and finding their properties wears off, it could be used to help people make better decisions about what food they eat. Imagine how useful it would be if you could scan a plate of food to find what its nutritional content is.

David Mendlovic is confident that it will have a wider impact. He stated: ‘A long list of fields stand to gain from this new technology,’ and that: ‘We predict hyperspectral imaging will play a major role in consumer electronics, the automotive industry, biotechnology, and homeland security.’

There’s clearly some way to go before that becomes a reality, but it shows how confident Mendlovic is. Eventually, the tricorder could become as useful to us as it was for the Enterprise’s crew.


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