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NutriRay3D calorie counter
The NutriRay3D device uses a laser-mapping gizmo and a smartphone app to estimate the calories and other nutritional content on a plate of food. (Credit: University of Washington)

How many calories are on your plate? Engineers at the University of Washington have developed a gizmo that estimates the nutritional value of your meal with the mere snap of a smartphone.

NutriRay3D combines a smartphone app with a laser-mapping add-on: The app identifies what kind of food is in the picture, and the laser-mapper provides an estimate of each food’s volume. Then you get a real-time estimate of the calorie count and nutritional content.

The system gets around the toughest hurdles in nutrition tracking: Keeping an accurate record of what you eat, and figuring out how much of it you’re eating.

“If you’re trying to lose weight, there are a lot of cell phone applications out there, but you still have to measure or somehow guesstimate how much you’re eating,” UW electrical engineering doctoral student Sep Makhsous said in today’s UW news release.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCHiZz0xlpk

The first version of the device was created as a research aid for nutritional epidemiologists at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Now Makhsous and other researchers have started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to take NutriRay3d to the next level. Their goal is to turn the technology into a consumer product that sells for around $200.

NutriRay3D’s laser-mapper projects a grid of dots onto a plate or bowl, and the app estimates food volume based on variations in the picture’s dot pattern.

The inventors say the app identifies basic types of food on its own – for example, bananas or spaghetti. More complicated foods can be tagged using voice commands or smartphone taps. Then the app calculates the nutritional content by consulting a database of 9,000 different food types.

In initial user studies, the app provided estimates with levels of accuracy between 87.5 and 91 percent, according to the researchers.

Laser accessory
With Indiegogo funding, the research team aims to manufacture a small laser accessory module that connects to a smartphone’s power charging port. (Credit: NutriRay3D)

Last year, a Seattle-based startup called HealthSlate released a smartphone app that uses a different strategy for a similar goal. The HealthSlate app lets diabetes patients snap pictures of their food and send them to expert coaches who can provide nutritional feedback within hours.

NutriRay3D provides real-time, automated estimates, without the advice. But Alexander Mamishev, a UW electrical engineering professor who oversaw the device’s development, says merely making precise measurements of your nutritional intake can help keep you on a healthier track.

“Once you start measuring something, it becomes different from a simple observation. In the field of personal fitness, for instance, once people start measuring how many steps or miles they walk, it helps provide important feedback and build in new habits,” Mamishev said in the news release. “By turning general, vague estimates about how much people are eating into precise data, we can do the same thing here.”

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