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LinkSquare wants to identify everything, but has trouble with bourbon

Stratio's LinkSquare is a pocket spectrometer that scans objects to try to verify their identity, detect freshness and more. But in initial tests, it's having problems.

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The LinkSquare is a pocket spectrometer that uses light to identify objects.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Not sure if that steak you bought five days ago is still fresh? A $299 handheld device called the LinkSquare wants to give you more knowledge about what you're about to eat, drink or buy by analyzing food, liquor, medicine -- or jewelry, or any other item that you want to double-check for freshness or authenticity, according to its creator, a company called Stratio. ($299 converts to about £215 or AU$385; Stratio ships internationally.)

The Stratio LinkSquare is a spectrometer, a device that uses light to analyze the structure of an object. It fits in your hand and is reminiscent of those fat crayons you used in elementary school. The LinkSquare has a small square window at its tip that shines a light on the object in question, then records the wavelengths it receives back in what's called a spectral fingerprint. Every material has a unique spectral fingerprint, and the LinkSquare uses machine learning to recognize that fingerprint and show you the matching result on a companion app.

There's a growing number of companies that have brought the technology of spectrometers out of the lab and into your pocket. A German lighting manufacturer called Osram has created a chip that can turn third-party devices like your smartphone into a scanner with the same capabilities as the LinkSquare. The Osram chip has appeared in other scanners like the Scio, which has been used to analyze food and provide nutritional information. And German appliance manufacturer Bosch has created a concept device called the X-Spect, a scanner that can identify fabrics and stains and send cleaning instructions to internet-connected Bosch washing machines. (We've asked where the LinkSquare's maker sourced its chip and will update this once we hear back.)

Right now, there are limitations to what the LinkSquare can do. In the LinkSquare app (available for iOS and Android), you have to download applets that make sense of the spectral fingerprints the LinkSquare picks up. There are only about 20 applets available that can do tasks such as identify Pantone colors; find the percentage of cacao in chocolate products; detect the freshness of beef, tuna or salmon; and verify that a Viagra pill is really Viagra. If there's not an applet for the item you want to investigate, you'll only get the spectral fingerprint, which isn't really helpful (unless you have a background in spectroscopy). 

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I used the Spirits applet to try to see if LinkSquare could correctly identify a sample of Eagle Rare bourbon. This was the result.

Screengrab by Ashlee Clark Thompson/CNET

Some preliminary testing with the LinkSquare left me disappointed with what the scanner can do. I downloaded the Spirits identification applet to see if it could recognize some bourbon we have in the CNET Appliances office (don't judge us, we're in Kentucky). The app told me to lay my phone flat and put a shot glass that contained my spirit of choice on top of it (I used a little Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey). Then, I had to point the LinkSquare into the glass, and the app dimmed my phone's screen. The app analyzed the liquor, then said it had high confidence that the liquor was Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whiskey. I tried the same thing with a sample of Uprising American Single Malt Whiskey, and the LinkSquare app identified it as Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Maybe I'm being too nitpicky about bourbon, but I was disappointed with these results. I'll do more thorough testing of the LinkSquare's app and report back.

Not only are some of these early results questionable, but the use cases for the LinkSquare are pretty slim since there are less than two dozen applets. Sure, it would be handy to be able to tell if a piece of salmon is past its prime, but I could probably get the same result by giving it a whiff (a much less desirable option, but an option nonetheless). I'm eager to see additional applets that will do more with the information the LinkSquare picks up.

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