Food by VICE

This Wearable Tech Necklace Wants to Listen to You Chew

How one machine listens to the sound we make when we chew different foods to analyze data and make us healthier humans.

by Gareth May
Oct 6 2016, 12:01pm

We're approaching peak wearable tech.

There's now a newfangled garment for all (heavily monitored) walks of life. Want to catalog your sleeping patterns or track the movements of your favorite pet? There's a techy bracelet for that. How about a wig that records blood pressure, a sensor patch that listens to trees, or a thrust-counter for your penis? They're all in the patent pipeline.

Currently, the Fitbit is the most well-known example of self-monitoring equipment. The wristband uses an accelerometer and altimeter to measure exercise and sleep patterns, while feeding information on calories burned and hours slept to an app users download to their phones.

READ MORE: Future of Food on MUNCHIES

The Fitbit also allows you to log your daily meals, while working towards "an estimated goal based on caloric intake and burn," with that goal set to "lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight."

One in seven people in Britain own a fitness band and if you're one, you probably own a Fitbit or its San Fran sister wearable, Up from Jawbone. You're also probably health-conscious and damn anal about your calorie intake.

Aren't we all? Well, no. We're not.

As anyone with a muffin top can testify, it's not really a matter of the calories in each individual muffin that counts—it's the amount of those individual muffins that you eat.

It's all about habit. That thing around your wrist can beep as much as it likes, but if you want another muffin, you're having another muffin. And if you're eating half a cow every other week, chances are that muffin top isn't going anywhere, no matter how many calories you burn.


Wearable fitness tracker, the Fitbit. Photo via Flickr user Mike Mozart

As full-time personal trainer, Jonny Rees recently told dedicated wearable technology site Wareable, "As a general rule, if someone's a little bit overweight, I reduce their carbohydrates and increase their proteins and good fat. When they get leaner, and if they're going for something specific, that's when tracking calories comes in. At the start, the counting is generally unnecessary. Making better food choices and exercise will make the biggest difference."

For those members of the "quantified self" movement—a small but fast-growing community of people that measure, log, and share various informatics relating to physical and mental health—self-tracking is their bible. But as much as Fitbit and Up provide data on calorie intake, they don't really offer a human insight into why we eat what we do, nor how we feel about it when the habitual hunger dissipates.

At the Quantified Self Europe conference in 2012, software designer Robin Barooah told the crowd how he'd shed 20 kilograms by keeping tabs on his post-lunch mood using a selection of flashcards that expressed how he felt about each food. Once he'd collated the data, he adjusted his diet accordingly, skipping the meals that dampened his mood.

Self-tracking can be particularly helpful for people with diabetes. In 2012, at the San Diego Quantified Self meet-up group, professional cyclist James Stout, who has Type 1 Diabetes, explained that by measuring what he eats and how it affects him, he is able to eat anything he likes—from poutine to coconut. His awareness has freed up his diet, not contained it.

"I recognized the sound of eating a cracker. That's the light bulb to inspire the innovation."

Indeed, Apple has spotted a gap in the market for medical monitoring, launching the Dexcom G5 Mobile CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitoring) System for the Apple Watch earlier this year.

And why wouldn't they? In 2015, investment in digital health soared to $4.5 billion, with $489 million pumped into wearables and bio-sensing (Jawbone took $300m alone) and $407m on personal health tools and tracking. It's estimated that the weight loss and management market will be worth $206.4 billion by 2019.

If only someone could nail the dietary wearable, they'd be swimming in the monetary equivalent of maple syrup.

Susan Roberts, director of the Boston-based Energy Metabolism Lab at Tufts University, is one of the people pushing the boundaries of diet apps. She's working closely with the Spoken Language Systems Group at MIT to create a voice-recognition food tracker.

Roberts told MUNCHIES that the idea came from the basic need to make tracking food easier, offering something more functional than the current apps that are based on typing in your food.

"Self-monitoring helps people stay on track, but doing it the conventional way takes time and is boring, which limits its usefulness and who will do it," she says. "A natural spoken language version will be easier and more fun and that should make weight management easier too."


A prototype of the AutoDietary food-tracking system. Photo courtesy University at Buffalo.

Roberts' app is at a preliminary stage right now, but one that could be seen on the market sooner is the AutoDietary, a wearable tech necklace created by Wenyao Xu, an academic at University of Buffalo.

The AutoDietary tracks calorie intake by "listening" via a microphone to the sound we make when we chew different foods. This is then relayed to a smartphone which analyzes the data to find out how healthy the food is and feedback info on what to and not to eat. The device has been tested on 12 people with the results published in IEEE Sensors Journal, with a food and drink identification score of 85 percent.

What's unique about Xu's invention is that it truly monitors eating patterns, such as when you last drank water and how much you've snacked that day. No extra input is needed from users and there is zero opportunity to cheat, as the necklace logs every meeting between foodstuff and throat.

Xu told MUNCHIES that he came up with the idea for AutoDietary while teaching a class, when a student noisily eating crackers interrupted him. "I recognized the sound of eating a cracker," he says. "That's the light bulb to inspire the innovation."

READ MORE: This App Lets You Eat the Food Restaurants Throw Out at the End of Service

AutoDietary's built-in microphone can currently hear biting, chewing, and swallowing sounds and the smart necklace can recognize more then 40 different types of food in the sound library—and the list is growing all the time.

Xu believes that dietary wearables will soon succeed conventional diet apps and that the consequences won't just lead to a loss of weight. Long-term positives could include the reduction of risk factors for chronic disease and an increase of awareness for the heritable and environmental factors to dangerous eating behaviors.

"Diet apps [that chart nutritional intake] are still popular because they're available on any Smartphone, but when wearables become affordable, they will replace them," he says. "Our smart necklace can know your eating habits, if you eat breakfast on time and when you eat dinner, and this can provide the assistance to intervene with obesity and many serious diseases such as diabetes."

"It will be transformative."

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.

Weight Loss