Can Smartphone Photos Help You Count Calories?
Finally, a good reason to snap photos of your food.
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Last month, we took an in-depth look at TellSpec, the handheld scanner that uses Raman spectroscopy to determine the caloric and nutritional content of food. Our verdict? While the technology is real, bringing it to market will be enormously difficult.
But that hasn’t stopped others from trying to turn mobile gadgets into cloud-connected calorie counters.
SRI International, the nonprofit research firm behind Apple’s Siri, is currently working on an app that will allow users to snap a photo of their meal and receive an estimate of its total calories.
Yes, it sounds completely unrealistic. After all, caloric content is not determined merely by volume or color; there are hidden factors to consider, like fat, oil, carbs, and protein. And what about stuffed foods? How can a photo of a donut tell you anything about the delectable cream filling? Don't worry: The researchers at SRI are well aware of these challenges.
Like the TellSpec, the app (currently dubbed “Ceres”) doesn’t perform the necessary calculations on its own. Rather, it sends data to the cloud for analysis. SRI’s Dror Oren explained to Gigaom that the app uses “context clues,” such as the user’s location and eating habits, to determine calorie counts.
Because it’s linked to the cloud, photos of a particular food item could be compared to others in the network, or to a registry of restaurant images. In that sense, the app could improve over time, like a wiki.
“If a human can recognize the food, so can the app,” Oren said. But even then, he maintained, the calorie count that the app decides on is merely an estimated range—not a precise calculation.
Both Ceres and TellSpec are impressively ambitious projects, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of their potential for success—at least in the near term. For now, I’ll be fine simply reading the calorie counts on food labels and menus.