The SCiO device contains a tiny spectrometer which, in concert with your iPhone and the SCiO cloud, can determine the composition of materials. Or so they claim.
(SCiO handheld device)
SCiO is based on the proven near-IR spectroscopy method. The physical basis for this material analysis method is that each type of molecule vibrates in its own unique way, and these vibrations interact with light to create a unique optical signature.
SCiO includes a light source that illuminates the sample and an optical sensor called a spectrometer that collects the light reflected from the sample. The spectrometer breaks down the light to its spectrum, which includes all the information required to detect the result of this interaction between the illuminated light and the molecules in the sample.
Spectrometers used for near-IR spectroscopy are normally found in scientific laboratories and are very big and expensive. Designed for consumers, SCiO leverages a tiny spectrometer, designed from the ground up to be mass-produced at low cost. Consumer Physics achieved this advancement by reinventing the spectrometer around low-cost optics and advanced signal processing algorithms.
To deliver relevant information in real time, SCiO communicates the spectrum of the sample to a smartphone wirelessly, which in turn forwards it to a cloud-based service for review. Advanced algorithms utilize an updatable database to analyze the spectrum within milliseconds and deliver information about the analyzed sample back to the user's smartphone in real time.
Many of us remember the tricorder from the original Star Trek series of the mid-1960's. The standard Starfleet tricorder was used for determining various characteristics of landing areas (like life form readings). (Doctors and engineers had their own specific types of tricorder.)
The SCiO device has the additional requirement that people interact with their cloud to help them make their cloud smarter. It kind of reminds me of Ava, an AI from a pretty cool novel The Calcutta Chromosome published in 1995. Ava used people to answer questions endlessly about every last piece of junk it encountered. The SCiO cloud might be a bit like that. That's why I think it wants you to be Spock; you roam around and whenever it doesn't know something, it will want you to provide more data.
Apparently, you can pre-order one of these little beauties now.