As a biomedical computing student at Queen’s University seven years ago, Justin Lee knew he wanted to build his own “internet of things” device — but he didn’t want it to be any old “smart” lamp, toaster, or light switch. “I wanted to put a computer into one of the most ubiquitous objects in the history of the human race,” he says. He chose the cup. Then, he enlisted Yves Béhar, the esteemed designer behind Jawbone and the OLPC, to build it.
The result is Vessyl, a 13-ounce cup that recognizes any beverage you pour into it, displays its nutritional content, and syncs all your drinking habits to your smartphone. Let’s cut to the chase: while I only had an hour with a Vessyl prototype, I tried nearly a dozen beverages in it — and it successfully identified all of them. Within 10 seconds, the device, which currently resembles more of a Thermos than a finished product, recognized Crush orange soda, Vitamin Water XXX, Tropicana orange juice, Gatorade Cool Blue, plain-old water, and a few other beverages, all by name. Yes, this cup knows the difference between Gatorade Cool Blue and Glacier Freeze.
Vessyl can tell the difference between strong and weak coffee, Lee says, noting caffeine disparities. It can even measure the sugar, protein, calories, fat, and caffeine inside any beverage you pour into it, mass-produced or homemade. As you go about your day, the device tracks how much you’re drinking, and when you tilt Vessyl to its back, it displays a bright blue line that rises and falls to indicate your hydration level. Lee plans to ship Vessyl in early 2015 at a cost of $199.99, though preorders are available now for $99.
Building a smart cup made even more sense once Lee started thinking about the various ways we track our movement, but not what we’re eating. Even sleek apps like Up Coffee, which tracks your caffeine consumption, require you to input your consumption manually drink by drink. The big idea behind Vessyl is to provide transparency, automatically, about how terrible most of our drinking habits are. And Vessyl might just succeed. Many of us already carry around some kind of water bottle, after all, be it a Nalgene bottle or Kleen Kanteen, and Vessyl can take advantage of that habit.
“Consumption is as important or more important as what we track through exercise,” says Lee, “so we developed a sensor that could instantly analyze the nutritional content of what’s inside a beverage … on a molecular level.” Lee won’t say exactly how the sensor works. He likens it to the kind of sensor you’d find in a bottling factory that analyzes batches of liquid (or other foods) to make sure each batch is consistent. “It’s the kind of sensor you’d use for quality control,” Lee says, “and the sensor doesn’t degrade. It’s non-contact.”
There’s no hole, or singular point where Vessyl samples what you’re drinking — it just looks like an über-modern, but empty, cup. I press Lee for more information about how it works, but he won’t budge. “The details of the sensor we’re keeping pretty close to the vest,” he says, but notes that the device includes a processor and algorithms that match your beverage to one of thousands of beverages his team has tested with Vessyl. (And yes, Vessyl recognizes many kinds of beer and wine). Perhaps more impressive, however, is that Vessyl actually measures and displays the nutritional content of any beverage on the spot, even your homemade smoothie. In other words, Vessyl isn’t just drawing from its drink library when it displays nutritional data.