Testing Kickstarter’s Appetite for a Digital Fork and “Positive Punishment”

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Do you find yourself wolfing down your food and paying for it later in the form of heartburn and other health problems? Do you wish you could learn to pace yourself a little better between mouthfuls?

There’s an app for that. Actually, there’s a whole utensil for that—the HAPIfork, from Hong Kong-based HAPIlabs.

The battery-powered, Bluetooth-enabled gadget gives new meaning to the term “feedback.” It measures the time between bites of food, and if you’re eating too fast, it vibrates in your mouth.

The gustatory gadget attracted gobs of media attention back in January, when the company showed off a prototype at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But now, for the first time, the company will get a chance to measure real market demand for the device, which it’s pitching as a behavior modification aid. It’s turning to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in an effort to raise at least $100,000 to complete design and tooling work on the HAPIfork and move it into mass production.

HAPIlabs announced the start of its campaign this morning. If you pledge $89 through Kickstarter, you can reserve your very own HAPIfork as a reward, with delivery expected by the fourth quarter of 2013.

Andrew Carton, US president of HAPIlabs, says the Kickstarter campaign isn’t just a way to raise funds for manufacturing or pre-sell a bunch of units. He says the company also hopes to build a community of advocates who can help HAPIlabs test the devices on a large scale, and even send back data to test the startup’s hypothesis that smart utensils can help with a range of health problems.

Andrew Carton, U.S. president of HAPILabs

Andrew Carton, U.S. president of HAPILabs

I met Carton and the HAPIfork’s inventor, Jacques Lépine, at a coffeeshop in San Francisco this week to give the gadget a test drive and hear the story behind its creation. Lépine, a biomedical engineer and intellectual property consultant who lives in France, said he knew for years that he had a habit of eating too fast. He even knew that eating fast puts people at greater risk for acid reflux—i.e., heartburn—and that learning to slow down at meals can lead to weight loss, since it gives the brain more time to react to hormones that signal satiety.

But nothing he tried worked. One night about six years ago, he says, he finished his dinner in five minutes while his wife continued to eat at a more leisurely pace. She looked at him and asked, “What are you going to do now?” His answer: “Maybe I will make my fork intelligent.”

Lépine was serious enough about the idea to form a company around it—Slow Control—in 2008. But it took a while to figure out the winning combination of sensors and feedback signals to make a smart fork practical.

Lépine tried putting an accelerometer into the fork’s handle to count forkfuls, but that led to lots of false positives, since people tend to gesture with their utensils. And he tried using a beeping sound as the warning signal when the interval between forkfuls grew too short, but that proved distracting amidst dinner conversation.

In 2012 Lépine connected with Fabrice Boutain, a serial entrepreneur who had previously founded nutrition coaching sites Anxa.com and Aujourdhui.com and had recently started HAPIlabs to develop wireless devices to boost consumer health and fitness. Together with his Miami-based partner Carton, the founder of Crackberry.com and a network of other community sites for mobile-device users, Boutain agreed to develop and distribute Lépine’s gadget under the name HAPIfork. The company has operations in Hong Kong, Miami, Paris, Manila, and Redwood City, CA.

In the final prototype—the one HAPIlabs now hopes to take into production—each forkful is registered through capacitive sensing. When the metal end of the fork touches the eater’s lips, a circuit embedded in the handle detects a small change in capacitance, just the way a smartphone’s screen does when you touch it with your finger. If the interval between two successive forkfuls is too short, the fork vibrates, giving the user an inaudible but unmistakable message to slow down on the next bite.

I tried it over some raisin-pumpkin cake, and the buzz was just serious enough to be noticeable, but not so vigorous that it was annoying. In the language of operant conditioning, the HAPIfork’s vibration would be called “positive punishment.” And while this form of feedback is not quite as politically correct these days as its opposite—positive reinforcement—it may be even more effective for changing bad habits. Lépine says that after just a few weeks of using the HAPIfork, rapid eaters learn unconsciously to slow down and avoid the aversive stimulus.

But the fork isn’t just doling out feedback—it’s gathering data. As a user eats, the HAPIfork captures information about the time of day, the intervals between forkfuls, and the total forkfuls per meal. All of that data can be sent via Bluetooth to a computer or mobile device, where it’s displayed on a dashboard that shows users their progress toward slow food nirvana.

The electronic parts of the HAPIfork can be removed from the washable section.

The electronic parts of the HAPIfork can be removed from the washable section.

Lépine believes these two forms of feedback—the buzzing fork and the personalized dashboard—can help HAPIfork users combat a whole range of health problems. One is reflux, which is known to be exacerbated by fast eating. But there’s also research suggesting that rapid eaters are at higher risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.

That may be because people who wolf down their food too quickly keep eating past the point they really should: they aren’t allowing time for cholecystokinin and other satiety-signaling hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract to reach the brain.

But Lépine and Carton say the controlled, large-scale, long-term studies needed to prove all these hypotheses have never been done, in part because monitoring subjects’ eating rate has always been a difficult, labor-intensive task requiring scorers to watch videotapes of people eating. But the HAPIfork could change all that—especially if early adopters agree to share their data with the company, which promises to turn it over to clinical researchers.

In fact, if you’re really eager to contribute to the science of slow food, you can get in on HAPIlab’s beta testing program by upping your donation to $300. Contributors who pledge at that level or higher will receive the first production units of the device, according to the company’s announcement today. (For the fashion-conscious, the fork comes in blue, green, and pink, and the electronic guts slide out of the handle so that the fork portion can be plunked into the dishwasher.)

HAPIfork inventor Jacques Lepine

HAPIfork inventor Jacques Lepine

The HAPIfork has generated its share of guffaws—it even earned a satirical wag of the finger from Stephen Colbert, who asked, “What is the point of consumer technology that keeps you from consuming? Frankly, it’s un-American.” But the company thinks the global media interest is a sign that people are ready to curb their eating habits. “We believe this is affirmation of the growing consumer health awareness movement to gain better control of issues impacting weight and digestive issues as well as more serious issues such as diabetes and other chronic conditions,” Boutain said in a statement.

Update, 4/18/13: Just one day after launching its Kickstarter campaign, HAPIlabs is already more than one-quarter of the way to its goal. As of 8:00 am Pacific time today, the company had raised $26,917 toward its goal of $100,000. The most popular pledge category—$89, which earns the giver a HAPIfork as a reward, with delivery projected in September—had attracted 214 backers.

Update 4/21/13: The HAPIlabs Kickstarter campaign is now at almost $64,000. In other news, Health 2.0 reporter Laura Montini, who joined the coffee meeting with HAPIlabs last week, has published her own report about the HAPIfork. It includes an audio version with a cameo appearance by yours truly.

Update 6/15/13: The campaign, which ended June 1, surpassed its goal. HAPIlabs collected $134,743 in pledges overall.

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One response to “Testing Kickstarter’s Appetite for a Digital Fork and “Positive Punishment””

  1. JimBerry says:

    Amazing designs and concepts too..I am just astounded by the idea of digital fork..It is favorable and seems to be working.Would like to congratulate HAPIlabs’s crew members for this intellectual tool..