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Is this real life? Scio molecular spectrometer feels like something out of Star Trek

There’s no shortage of groundbreaking new technology at CES, but even among a sea of cutting-edge gadgets, every year we still manage to stumble across something that makes everything else we’ve seen look like a fossil. This year, it was Scio.

In short, it’s a handheld molecular spectrometer. We’ll get into why that’s amazing in a second, but for those of you who might’ve missed the Kickstarter project, Scio allows you to scan practically anything — foods, drinks, pills, plants, and more — and get detailed information on the object’s chemical makeup.

To do this, the device uses an age-old method of materials analysis known as near-infrared spectroscopy. Basically, this process involves shining a near-infrared light onto the surface of a given material, which causes the molecules to vibrate and bounce back light in their own unique way. This reflected light is then collected and passed through a spectrometer (think of it like a prism) that separates the light out into all the different wavelengths it contains. By analyzing the unique optical signature of the scanned material, it’s possible to determine what it’s made out of.

Photo credit: Digital Trends / Bill Roberson

Photo credit: Digital Trends / Bill Roberson

This technology has existed for decades — but before Scio, the average spectrometer was about the size of a microwave, and also quite expensive. So while Consumer Physics certainly isn’t the first to build a spectrometer, the fact that they’ve managed to shrink the technology down and fit it into a keychain-sized device is incredibly impressive.

But of course, making a portable, consumer-oriented spectrometer is only half the battle. Without any context, molecular scan data is useless to the average Joe — so Consumer Physics has also designed an accompanying smartphone app that helps you make sense of all the readings Scio takes.

We definitely had our doubts about how effective it would be, but when we took it for a spin on the showfloor at CES, we were impressed with how fast and accurate Scio is. We scanned a handful of different over-the-counter pills while we were at the booth, and no matter what type it was — coated capsules, liqui-gels, or just regular old pills — the spectrometer identified the drug within seconds.

Photo credit: Digital Trends / Bill Roberson

Photo credit: Digital Trends / Bill Roberson

It can also identify a variety of different foods, household chemicals, and jewels — and Consumer Physics has only gotten started. Their database is only going to get bigger from here on in, so Scio’s range of potential uses will continue to expand over time.

Unfortunately it’s not available yet, but we expect it to hit the market by the middle of 2015. We’ll keep you posted!