Build Apps With This Magical Food Scanner--But Why?

We’ve only seen the beginning of “quantified self” apps when it comes to nutrition and calorie counting.

The morning after scoring a new sex record with the Spreadsheets app, you wake up feeling refreshed, checking your sleep quality reports with Sleep Cycle. On your walk to work, you check how many steps you’ve taken with Moves. More and more, our life stories can be told with simple algorithms which collect data about our lives. But even in the midst of all this self-quantification, the movement hasn’t provided any practical way to keep track of perhaps the most important input in the equation: what we eat. This is more relevant than ever, thanks to the FDA's recent release to ban artificial trans fat for good, people are becoming more aware of what they eat.

Last week when we wrote about TellSpec, the company was still short of its $100,000 funding goal, which it plans to deploy to manufacture a pocket gadget which analyzes ingredients and calories inside our food quickly and on the go. Finally, quantified-self nerds can keep track of what and how much they are eating, the caloric value of every bite, and its nutritional makeup. “It’s about time people know what they eat,” says Isabel Hoffman, CEO of TellSpec and mother to a highly allergic daughter.

As gym rats are fond of saying, fitness is 80% diet and 20% exercise. Now you can actually measure that 80%--but the real news here is that TellSpec is making their platform open to developers, who can build apps using the user-generated food data. As of today, the company has surpassed its Indiegogo goal by $33,000.

Inviting Developers To Jump On The Food Wagon

TellSpec is well aware that its data model is only as good as the apps behind it. On their campaign, they included the $690 developer option which comes with access to a well-documented API and a software development kit for Android and iOS, giving developers access to TellSpec data as a source of information for projects. A team of TellSpec’s engineers is also available to support a dev’s queries or any interfacing with the program.

With this option, TellSpec figures it can capitalize on different communities of food-focused users. Body builders could build models based on trans fats, sugars, and body mass index. Weight-loss counselors could build custom services which help people control their actual calorie intake. For the highly allergic or diabetics, information on ingredients and net carbs could prevent catastrophes. Another promising area: medical correlations that have never been seen before.

“An interesting conversation with a dentist revealed the idea of using TellSpec to monitor food intake to determine if there is any correlation between gum infections and a person’s consumption of Vitamin C,” said Melony Jamieson, a specialist behind the campaign.

This gadget could even make it possible to interact with multiple APIs, and Seamless and Urbanspoon could now include data on the calorie levels of a restaurant’s food. Folks could keep food diaries on their Facebook timelines. Epidemiologists could extract the data and correlate disease with food much earlier on.

“One really cool idea that would help all developers would be a tool to integrate our data, which includes calories per 100 grams, with a method to track total volume of food consumed. A person can track their net carbs and exact caloric intake. This would be a way to identify the food volume--perhaps by 3-D camera or a scale mechanism,” said Jamieson.

The Big Picture For Little Food Apps

TellSpec’s data strategy is to perfect the accuracy of food information by compiling everyone’s scans over time--and then improve research by sharing its data with medicine, says the company.

The sensor itself, which is a keychain-size laser and Raman spectrometer, works by pointing a light beam at the food, altering the energy states of the food’s molecules. The spectrometer inside the TellSpec counts the photons reflected off the food and based on their wavelengths determines the chemical compounds in the food.

The campaign roots its mission on changing the way people think about food, and they want to educate those unaware of harmful chemicals. During our interview, Hoffman emphasized why they did not follow the traditional route of venture capitalists and instead turned to crowdfunding. The big-data model that TellSpec expects will solidify their information is only possible through a large number of user scans. “It is an idea by the people and for the people,” says Hoffman.

[Image: Flickr user Sharon Mollerus]