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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.
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.)
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.
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