Vessyl smart cup can tell Coke from Pepsi

This powerful, sensor-fitted cup identifies what you're drinking and tells you how it affects your health and hydration needs.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
5 min read


The phrase smart cup may sound like yet another jargon-laden marketing ploy for a device that connects to your smartphone, but doesn't do anything groundbreaking. The creators of Vessyl, a new product from San Francisco-based startup Mark One announced Thursday, want to change this perception around smart objects with a surprisingly novel piece of tech.

Their cup -- a slim, slightly hefty thermos-looking receptacle -- will not only identify and track what you drink and how much of it, but can do so on the fly as it senses the liquid type and breaks it down to its most vital components as soon as it interacts with the cup's sensor-filled interior. The ultimate utility with Vessyl is not to provide novelty, but to transform how we consume every ounce of liquid throughout the day.

Caffeine and sugar amounts, alongside calorie count and a proprietary metric for hydration called Pryme, are tracked through an app on your phone, and bits of that information are also displayed on a screen embedded within the cup itself. The display glimmers to life only when new liquids are poured in to notify you that, yes, you are drinking coffee -- and here's how much caffeine that particular brew will put into your system. A small pillar of light also tells you how drinking that particular amount of that particular liquid will hurt or help your level of hydration as well.

Instead of trying to crowdfund production via Kickstarter, or back the idea with venture capital funding, Mark One will sell the Vessyl through its website. An online pre-order campaign seeks to raise $50,000 and will deliver the first batch by early 2015. The initial pre-order price will be $99, but the cup will retail for $199.

The world of smart objects -- another way of saying items that can communicate with other, Internet-enabled devices, primarily through Bluetooth -- is part of a growing consumer and business shift that powers the Internet of things. That loosely thrown around phrase represents a world where all our home appliances, vehicles, and energy and operational systems interact in a unified web of information that, theoretically, changes our behavior and strives for efficiency. Whether it's a Nest thermostat, an August smart lock, or an Intel t-shirt, these connected devices are popping up left and right to varying degrees of necessity and popularity, the goal being to wire up every fabric of life.

Vessyl, one of the first fully realized takes on a computerized cup, and Mark One were born out of a partnership between biomedical computing specialist Justin Lee and Yves Béhar, the celebrated designer behind the Jawbone Up fitness wristband and Jambox Bluetooth speakers. Béhar is also the founder of the design firm Fuseproject, which conceptualized the final version of the Ouya game console and began collaborating with Lee on the Vessyl to bring the idea to fruition.


Lee, now Mark One's CEO, knew he needed serious design chops if he were to move his idea of a molecule-scanning cup from a university research idea to a full-blown product. At Queen's University, Lee studied a combination of life science, computer science, and chemistry.

"In the laboratory, people were making computer objects. Some people were putting computers into glasses, there was computers being put into a wristband form factor. For me, I wanted to put a computer into one of the most ubiquitous objects in human history, " Lee said. "The human race has been putting liquids inside of some type of vessel since the beginning -- and drinking out of it."

Not until 2008 did Lee find his way to San Francisco, where he said his team had its head down, trying to make Vessyl a consumer product. It was then that Lee decided to approach Fuseproject, where he met Béhar, eventually secured seed funding for the Vessyl, and has since embarked on a 7-year process of continuous iteration to bring the product to market.

Lee is reticent to say exactly what's going on inside the Vessyl, preferring instead to outline it as a complex set of sensors analyzing liquids on a molecular level.

"There are various ways that the algorithm is working to identify accurately what is inside the Vessyl," he said, choosing his words carefully. It leads you to believe that the team has logged dozens upon dozens -- possibly even hundreds -- of drinks into a some of database that matches a meticulously crafted beverage profile, though the technology may perhaps be even more technically confounding than that.

In fact, the startup, located in the South of Market district of San Francisco, looks like one half engineering haven and one half grocery store beverage aisle. Nearly every drink imaginable, from Mountain Dew and Monster energy drinks to Gatorade and Starbucks sealed espresso, can be found strewn about the office in varying amounts of emptiness.

"We've gotten weird looks at Safeway," Lee said.

With that variety at his disposal, Lee was able to illustrate how the Vessyl can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi, and can even identify specific brands of juices down to the most minute differences. For instance, it could differentiate between Tropicana orange juice with and without pulp, and instantaneously knew how much sugar was in each.

Whether or not the Vessyl can tell the difference between, say, two different types of whiskey or identify an off-brand soda -- or some completely new type of liquid Lee's team has never seen -- is unclear. Mark One, understandably, isn't jumping at the idea of laying out how the entire process from identification to calorie and caffeine analyzation actually functions.

The company also isn't divulging what the cup is made from beyond saying it's crafted out of a special kind of polymer -- one that presumably holds a dizzying amount of electronics one could observe if they cleaved the cup into neat layers. If you peeked inside the Vessyl while the app was whizzing along -- analyzation and identification took roughly 30 seconds with a Vessyl prototype, but is expected to be speedier with the finished product -- you could see a glowing blue light inside the cup.

While the mystery may be part of what makes Vessyl an intriguing product to an everyday consumer, Lee thinks it's the health benefits that will form the true appeal of his smart cup. One of the most overlooked sources of daily calories comes from the passive consumption of beverages, which Vessyl aims to shine a spotlight on.

"We're excited that people are thinking about consumption, and tracking consumption more," he said, noting that studies have shown that if you journal or track what you consume in a day, it's more likely that that conscious element will better help you stay in shape, or least identify what's going wrong. Mark One has already formed relationships with wearable fitness trackers, including of course Jawbone, for whom Béhar is still employed as chief creative officer.

"It's the complete picture. The calories that we burn is important knowledge," Lee added. "For us, as important -- if not more important -- is the things we consume. Not just calories, but the protein, fat, sugar. It's what we consume that has a really large impact on our physical health."