A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

With the help of a phone app, it can count calories too

By Lisa Cleary
|  Tuesday, Dec 28, 2010  |  Updated 9:52 AM EDT
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A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

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Want to count calories and fat? There's an app for that.

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As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words.  But did you know that, thanks to a new smartphone app, it can tell you how many calories you’ve eaten, too?


At the start of next year, Japan’s NTT Communications Corporation will begin testing its Health Enhancement Assist Service, an otherwise spruced-up term for a phone-based app that calculates calories.  If you find yourself rolling your eyes at yet another dietary device with phone linking capabilities, pause for a second—because this app happens to be the first of its calorie-counting kind. 


The Health Enhancement Assist Service (ok, we’re just calling it the app here) touts the ability to calculate the calorie content of foods from a single photo snapped by a cell phone.  The app works by comparing the photographed dish to similar images stored in a general database.  It utilizes food image analysis algorithms developed by the University of Tokyo as well as pulls nutritional and caloric information from guidelines established by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries.


NTT Communications Corporation spokesperson Yasuko Oka stated, “This uses the world's first technology, recognizing the calorie of the food by only taking a photo.  We help users by investigating each food’s calories and calculating calories.” 


Not only will it calculate the number of calories you eat, it will also keep track of the calories you burn.  “Using location information and acceleration data from the sensors in the mobile phone, the service will gauge how far and how fast the user walks each day to estimate their daily metabolism,” Oka said. People will then be informed of their metabolic rate, so that they’ll know if and when they’ve burned off, for example, that 500 calorie burger they just ate.


Skeptics of this app question how accurately it will calculate dietary information, especially given the fact that it’ll be hard to ascertain how much sugar, for example, is mixed into a dessert.  The ability to measure portions is a potentially tricky factor.  Determining the real quantity of food in a plate piled high with noodles could be a real challenge.

Sandra C. Pinney, a dietician in NW D.C., questions how accurate this app might be.  “Even with nutritional labels and nutritional information on restaurant menus, there can be a wide margin of error," she said.  "With the photo app, I would guess that this margin of error could be even be greater."

But NTT Communications says that its photo technology will reduce the guess work in calorie counting.  The app is designed to take out the guess work.  “This system can notice the dish to eliminate counting the calories wrongly,” Oka said.

Even if the app isn’t accurate, it’s still a tech-savvy feature that’s got both foodies and techies a-buzzing.  One day, will there be an app that will link in to our genetic engineering through our phones, making us lose weight without even lifting a muscle? We can only hope.
 

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