Is TellSpec a TellScam?

A few days ago, we published a news article about a crowdfunded food scanner called TellSpec, which was said to be capable of "seeing" allergens in everyday foods and alerting the user to them. That story generated feedback from readers who were, shall we say, skeptical.

And rightly so. Our article was based on TellSpec's Indiegogo fundraising campaign and subsequent information from the inventors who are now busy perfecting their device for initial field testing. Some skeptics wrongly point out that this means they have no product and shouldn't have asked for funding. I say "wrongly" because this is how most crowdfunding sites work: people with ideas solicit funds from others, who evaluate a presentation and choose whether or not to contribute funds.

What is questionable, however, is whether the whole idea of a TellSpec-type scanner is feasible in the form and function purported by its inventors. Most recently, the scanner was called into question in the Atlantic when Olga Khazan mentioned likely health scams masquerading as new inventions for investment on crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

From the beginning, TellSpec was called into question by those who wondered how technology that, in science labs, takes up huge amounts of space and requires large amounts of resources to operate, could be compressed into a palm-sized device running on tiny batteries. The James Randi forums hosted one such debate.

Since funding was received, however, the originally-proposed scanning technology has been pulled by TellSpec inventors and replaced with another, more commercial version that may or may not be capable of delivering the scanner's hoped-for capabilities.

Given the mixed stories of seeing working prototypes (such as this account here) and questions about the science and people behind the scanner, we know one thing for certain: Caveat emptor always applies.

Will the TellSpec scanner work when it does come to market (if it does)? We won't know until later this year or early next. Until then, we can at least hope that something like this becomes available to those who must daily worry about what it is they're eating and what could be in it.

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