Gadget Hears What You’re Eating

Your Fitbit can tell how many calories you’re burning, but no gadget so far can tell you how many you’re taking in

2 min read
1980s man holding a banana to his ear.

Your Fitbit (or whatever it is the activity-enlightened wear these days) can make a pretty good guess at how many calories you’re burning through. And it can do it without any input from you. But if you want to keep track of how many you’re putting in, you’ll still need to do some work yourself, even if it’s only choosing from a menu on an app.

Inspired by that asymmetry, State University of New York at Buffalo computer scientist Wenyao Xu and colleagues at Northeastern University in China developed Autodietary, a necklace-like gadget that attempts to tell what you’re eating.

The device senses sounds from your neck to categorize your meal. It then digitizes and segments the audio data and sends it to a smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. Software on the phone uses machine-learning techniques to analyze differences in sounds as the first three mechanical parts of the digestion process—biting, chewing, swallowing—take place. Each type of food yields a sonic signature distinct enough that so far Xu’s team can tell the difference between apples, carrots, potato chips, cookies, peanuts, walnuts, and water with about 85 percent accuracy. (It was best at identifying water, worst at peanuts.)

imgThe goal of Autodietary is to become a full-service analysis and tracking fool for what you eat and how much of it.Image: University of Buffalo

To get that far required a good deal of work. Xu and his team started by studying how people eat—how many times they chew things, how quickly they chewed—in order to properly program the device. The system also had to be able to filter out the noise of other body sounds, says Xu. Once they got it working, they also had to reduce its power consumption—inserting an eating-sound-activated trigger into the system, so the device won’t waste power while you contemplate your next forkful.

imgMicrophones on the neck pick up biting, chewing, and swallowing sounds. Engineers hope to miniaturize the part of the system that digitizes the sounds and sends them to a smartphone via Bluetooth for analysis.Photo: Univeristy of Buffalo

And there’s more to be done, according to a report that appeared in IEEE Sensors Journal last month. Xu and his colleagues intend to reduce the size of the processing and transmission portion of the device to about the scale of a USB fob. They also hope to use the system to categorize more types of foods and even figure out the volume of food you’re eating.

“Our ambition is to categorize all foods,” says Xu. “But sound may not be enough.” They’ll need to incorporate other types of sensors to tell the difference between very similar foods. After all, Corn Flakes probably sound just like Frosted Flakes, but the latter would make a big difference to your diet.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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