Is that apple really organic? What is actually in that face cream? The new "HawkSpex mobile" app from the Fraunhofer Institute uses the existing technology inside your smartphone to check the credentials of all kinds of different products.
Thanks to apps like Think Dirty and GoodGuide, there's nothing new about using a smartphone app to take a closer look at organic cosmetics or fair trade foods. The apps let you scan the label of the product you want to check out and shows you how it shapes up in terms of their particular set of green criteria. But how can you be sure that the food you're looking at actually contains the ingredients that are listed on the label? Is there a way of knowing that an apple from the organic aisle really never came into contact with non-organic pesticides? A new app developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) wants to free consumers from having to rely on the list of contents - by checking what's inside a product with their smartphone. The app is called "HawkSpex mobile" and is estimated to be available by the end of 2017.
How Does HawkSpex Work?
The app turns your regular smartphone camera and its selfie-function into a simple hyperspectral camera, otherwise known as a light spectrometer. The camera illuminates the object with a series of different colours, and analyses the way that the light is reflected. It then measures the intensity of the reflected light and using an algorithm extracts information about the substances inside the scanned product. Referring back to a database, it identifies the different elements and can give users information about the level of pesticides or nitrates in a salad leaf, for example, or whether the coffee inside the packaging is actually the same as what is specified on the label.
The Israeli company scio developed a portable hyperspectral camera in 2016, that works in a similar way to HawkSpex. However, the 300 Euro price tage means it's not really designed for mainstream use. "What makes our app special is that users don’t need anything for a scan other than the camera already integrated in their smartphones," said Professor Udo Seiffert, Expert Group Manager at the Fraunhofer IFF.
Wikipedia-style Database Helps the App to Grow
HawkSpex isn't just designed for use in the food industry. The light scanner can analyse almost all kinds of materials - from car paint to cosmetics. In order to ensure that the scanned data is of use to consumers, the app obviously has to be able to give a name to all of the different substances and products. This is where a system similar to Wikipedia should help - with users able to contribute to the databank. "Once the app is launched on the market by the end of this year, active users will be able to contribute to the whole big thing and create new applications, for instance, that test pesticide exposure of heads of lettuce, by teaching the system such problems," says Seiffert. In other words: treated and untreated lettuce could be analysed with the app and the data sent to IFF. Researchers could then verify the measurements and release the function for all users. In that way, the database would continue to expand and become usable for more and more products.
Another possible advantage of the app: in order to label products, they're usually packaged in plastic first - unnecessarily and damaging to the climate. If this app makes it to market in a big way, as well as creating more transparency for consumers, it could also help cut down on a lot of excess packaging.
This article is a translation of the original article by Laura Wagener which appeared on our German language site.