Sophisticated palette: Visualant sees what the eye cannot

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“As human beings, we think we see what there is to be seen,” says Ron Erickson, CEO of Seattle’s Visualant Inc. Born of a conversation on the vanity of human perception, Visualant has 12 employees and annual revenues of $9.13 million. Its product is a device that allows humans to “see” what their eyes cannot naturally detect in ordinary objects.

The potential applications for Visualant’s technology are many. In addition to authenticating passports, driver’s licenses, currency and food products, it can be used in diagnostics by detecting color shifts in bacteria. Visualant’s sensor also has numerous environmental applications, starting with its ability to “see” contaminants in water. The key lies in being able to discern, in exacting fashion, the most minute color variations in a test subject. (The human eye has three color receptors; Visualant’s scanning device has more than 700.)

Erickson began developing the technology, spectral pattern matching (SPM), about five years ago with Tom Furness, the University of Washington’s “godfather” of virtual reality. Erickson describes a laboratory experiment in which SPM differentiated among 10 brands of vodka that were indistinguishable to the human eye. Shining light on the vodkas in specific wavelengths, the Visualant team looked at reflected light with simple, inexpensive photo detectors. Each vodka had a unique reflection.

Furness says Visualant can manufacture customized sensors to identify specific substances, such as cocaine. The dime-size scanners, like all of Visualant’s sensors, are “cheap and robust,” operating on the scale of tens of dollars, not thousands.

So far, Visualant has dealt mostly in security and authentication. Last year, it acquired Aurora, Oregon-based TransTech Systems to move Visualant’s defense applications into the marketplace. TransTech, which posted revenues of $10 million in 2009, provides Visualant with connections to defense agencies nationwide.

Erickson also has begun discussions about using Visualant's technology to certify gemstones, but the most exciting application, he says, is “the one I can’t imagine.”

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