Star Trek tricorder for real? New tech puts a spectrometer in your phone

I’ve always wanted a Star Trek tricorder … a mobile sensor unit that tells you all about the world around you. Now a company in Germany, Trinamix, has partnered with Qualcomm to deliver mobile spectroscopy in mobile phones.

No attachments required. All onboard your smartphone.

The first applications are in skin care and cosmetics, but the tech can also sense what is on your plate to help you record your diet, or tell you the composition of just about anything around you.

In this edition of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with Dr. Wilfried Hermes, the director of IR sensing for Trinamix.

Here’s the Forbes story for this episode …

And scroll down for the full audio, video, and transcript …

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Read: Trinamix partners with Qualcomm to deliver mobile spectroscopy in phones

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Is the day when we’ll have all Star Trek tricorder functionality in our smartphones almost here? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

So, I’ve always wanted a Star Trek tricorder, right? It’s basically this mobile sensing platform that the crew of the Starship Enterprise used to examine everything. Don’t tell Trekkies, but that’s, of course, fantasy. Perhaps however, not for long … we might almost be getting there in reality, thanks to some new tech from a company called trinamiX and one of the biggest companies in mobile, Qualcomm.

To get the scoop, we’re chatting with Dr. Wilfried Hermes. So, Wilfried, what have you built?

Wilfried Hermes: So, we built a spectrometer — a spectrometer which can be integrated in future into [a] smartphone — a spectrometer, an NIR spectrometer. It’s about, yeah, the technology which is used [for] years in industry, and what we did is we miniaturized it and it fits now to the palm of your hands.

And we go one step further, to integrate it into [a] smartphone.

John Koetsier: Excellent. So you’re using onboard sensors, correct? Somebody doesn’t have to attach something, you’re using onboard sensors on the phone already. Do most phones already have that? 

Wilfried Hermes: No, it’s an optical sensor. We send out light with a light source, it’s reflected by the target, and then we get our spectra. These spectra, we compare with different data sets and then we get out the results. So it’s an optical message you can think about.

It’s like a camera for the invisible. 

John Koetsier: Very, very cool. How sensitive is it and what kind of range does it have?

Wilfried Hermes, Director Business Unit IR Sensing, Trinamix

Wilfried Hermes: Hmm. So how should I answer this question? What you can do with an NIR spectroscopy is you can measure different molecules. You can really measure all organic molecules down to a level of, let’s say, one volume percent. And what we developed is we developed the full fingerprint, the wavelength bench[mark]. So we start from 1,000 nanometer to 3,000 nanometer and that’s the range where molecules have say a fingerprint. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Wilfried Hermes: With your human eyes you cannot see that.

So human eyes, let’s say, they could see colors like blue, yellow, red. You can look up to 800 nanometers, and we can cover up to 3,000 nanometers getting the complete information out of the molecules.

John Koetsier: Excellent.

Wilfried Hermes: So, to answer your question, the range is organic molecules down to 1%. 

John Koetsier: Wow. Wow, very cool. Okay. So we’re going to get into how this can be used, what people can do with it, how you see commercial applications, all that other stuff in just a moment. But you’re announcing a fairly major partner today, Qualcomm, which is obviously one of the largest companies in smartphone tech, mobile tech, the technology that goes into the devices that we all use. Talk about why that matters and what Qualcomm is going to bring to this partnership. 

 Wilfried Hermes: As you pointed out, so Qualcomm is one major player in the ecosystem, it’s a world leader in wireless technology. And we are proud that Qualcomm today presents our NIR spectroscopy solution at their tech event in virtual Hawaii. So we work together here bringing our vision of spectroscopy to smartphones. We work here together and, yeah, we’re happy that Qualcomm announced it today. 

John Koetsier: What is Qualcomm doing with you? You’ve got the technology. What is Qualcomm providing? Are they providing some hardware, some software, some calculation? What’s the part that they are doing? 

Wilfried Hermes: I cannot go in all the details due to a non-disclosement agreement, but what I could say is, of course, we need for our application we need a computational power world-class processor. And that’s what Qualcomm is having in their hand, the Snapdragon, which we need to get fast and actionable results out of our spectra.

John Koetsier: Excellent. So it’s funny, it’s amazing, new technology is coming out all the time. Incredible things, and we often see that it’s first implemented in the beauty and fashion industry. This is no different — the beauty and fashion industry strikes again. Your first application is in skincare, correct? What is it doing? 

Wilfried Hermes: Okay, so yeah, that’s correct.

We measure the moisture lipid level of skin. So you point your spectrometer to your skin and then you get the information … what is your moisture level, what’s your lipid level.

What can you do with this information? So think about that you in the morning or the afternoon would like to have a cream on your hands. You need a body lotion, and then you get the arm lotion which fits to your habitus of your skin. So you get the recommendation for action, which kind of cream of lotion you should need. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. So you’ve got totally customized, personalized — in fact, in-the-moment customized — exactly what you need based on what your skin wants right now. Does that take multiple measurements? Is there something different for the face, for the hands, other things like that? 

Wilfried Hermes: It is different. So the skin differs to each other, so the moisture lipid level. But for each position where you need different hand cream or different skin/face cream, you have to make one measurement and you get out the receipt within a second.

John Koetsier: Yeah. What other health implications do you think this technology could have? I mean, you’re obviously being able to scan and see the skin and composition, other things like that. Are there other things that you think that you can determine in the future?

Wilfried Hermes: Sure. So you’re asking now for health. The second one is not in the area of health, it’s in the area of food, but also related to health.

So here we measure micro ingredients of food. We measure protein levels, carbohydrates, fat content of different food.

When it comes to [the] health industry, we are working on — which is a bit on the longer way — is on biomarkers of humans. So, skin is a surface, and then we can also look into the humans and get out information about what’s going on in us. 

John Koetsier: Really interesting what you mentioned about measuring the composition of food, because I track a bunch of things with my health. I use an Apple Watch to track my fitness levels. I use an app to track what I eat and how many calories I ingest and stuff like that.

But it’s imprecise, you know, how much is it exactly? And is what I’m eating exactly the thing that I’m entering in this app that has a defined list of what you might have and … the holy grail here is an app that you simply point your phone at, the camera at, at what you’re going to eat and it tells you how much it is, what it is, knows what it is, knows how many calories it has.

Do you foresee something like that being possible with some of your technology? 

Wilfried Hermes: Exactly. So what you pointed out, what the Apple and the Androids have already, is on the way to what we are going.

And what they are missing is a sensor which can look into the food into the molecules, and this is what we are doing. So we bring now the spectrometer into the smartphone, and then you can add this information to the apps which are already there. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. I’m looking forward to that. That’s near magic almost, of course any advanced technology is like magic in some way. So those are a bunch of health implications, food implications. What other things could this be used for? I mean, determining what matters around you, there seem to be a ton of uses for that sort of technology, correct? 

Wilfried Hermes: There are a lot of applications and use cases around. We cannot do everything — also to point it out clear here.

And what we do right now is, for example, we measure different plastics. Think about sorting plastics and then put them back into the loop for sorting and recycling. We are measuring caffeine content of coffee. What kind of coffee is inside? What is the content? We are measuring, think about if you give your toys to your kids. Is there plasticize there in the toy? Yes or no.

So … a lot of different applications.

Go to the supermarket and think about the meat which is in front of you. Is it from pig? If it’s from the cow, what is the ratio? You can measure your textile — is it out of wool? It is out of cotton. This is already possible right now. We are working on it to bring it to smartphone[s], but you already can buy it right now. We have a handheld spectrometer which fits in the palm of your hands. It’s connected to the smartphone and these use cases which I mentioned, you can use already right now.

John Koetsier: Wonderful. Wonderful. So you’re building it into the smartphone at least to some degree. What other sensor technology do you think will be built into smartphones over the next few years? 

Wilfried Hermes: This is a good question … to answer it in two ways. One way is trinamiX, the company where I’m working has two technologies. One is IR, the other one is 3D measuring depth information. And I see this technology in smartphone[s] as well.

As a chemist, I think we are on the way and you pointed out in the beginning, we are on the way to [a] tricorder. But this is only one step. What I would like to see, and what I believe will come in future, is more analytics — lab analytics into smartphone[s]. So here we’re talking about IR spectroscopy, but we can think about also X-ray and MRI — it’s not possible today, but I see this will be the trend in future, to bring the laboratory to everyone.

John Koetsier: Amazing. Amazing. So, Wilfried, this podcast is about tech that’s changing the world, and innovators who are shaping the future. What are the most important implications of this technology in your opinion? 

Wilfried Hermes: Mmm, so what we do is we make the invisible visible. You get information with our technology about molecules. Never possible to all consumers before. We make the invisible visible.

We bring the lab to everyone. 

John Koetsier: Wonderful. Excellent. Well, Wilfred, you’ve been a trooper. This was challenging. You guys were fiddling with tech the whole time as we were trying to get ready for this thing. I know from personal experience that doing a show or a podcast, or going on stage when you’re fiddling with your tech is not easy, it is challenging. I do appreciate it. Thank you for joining us on TechFirst.

Ah, we may have lost Wilfred. I’m not entirely sure, but whether we have or haven’t, thank you as well, the audience, for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. You can get a full transcript of this podcast in about a week at The story at Forbes will come out right after that. Full video, of course, is always available on my YouTube channel. Thank you for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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