BU Student’s Innovation and iPhone Application: PhotoCalorie

Ignorance is bliss. Just ask my face every time I read a nutrition label.

As of late, my eyesight has been failing with my 21–almost 22 years–and I couldn’t be happier. Without squinting, I can hardly read the fun-ruining label on the back of the Pop Tarts box, and life is good.

However, Larry Istrail, a Masters student in the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, has worked with Dr. Mark Boguski and Dr. Vince Fusaro from Harvard Medical School (both have Ph.D.’s and Boguski has his M.D. in addition) and Adam Marcus from MIT to develop PhotoCalorie, a revolutionary iPhone application that essentially allows you to know the nutrition value of almost any food item just by taking a picture of it.

Despite my mixed feelings about the inherent evil of nutrition labels, I think this application is actually pretty awesome.

The PhotoCalorie Process

BUQuad: What is PhotoCalorie?

Larry Istrail: PhotoCalorie is a free iPhone food journal created to help people monitor their nutrient intake and become more aware of what they are eating.

BQ: How does it work?

LI: Just take a picture of your food, enter a short description, and we do a ‘Google I’m Feeling lucky’ type search to find a good estimate of your meal’s nutrition information.

BQ: Tell us about the development process.

LI: The idea for this first came from Dr. Mark Boguski at Harvard Medical School. He envisioned using the iPhone technology and built in camera to create an interactive food journal to make people more aware of their eating behavior. He recruited me and Vince Fusaro, Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School, to help, and we started this project in June.

Vince started programming the iPhone app while I worked on creating a food database of common foods as well as from foods from common food chains and restaurants. But we had no good way of connecting the iPhone app to the database. We wanted to eliminate the tedious food search of the other food journals. They require you to search for each food item separately, and you have to find the exact food from a drop down menu of about 100 similar foods, which itself can be very imprecise. We wanted the iPhone to do this search for the user.

But to do this, we needed more help. None of us had the skills required. And then I realized one day that my cousin, Adam Marcus, is getting his PhD at MIT right now in databases! So I called Adam, and he joined our team. He programmed the algorithm that would take the description a user would write in the iPhone app and search through our food database to find the nutrition content.

BQ: What obstacles did you have to overcome?

I suppose the biggest obstacle we all have to overcome constantly is balancing this with all our full time commitments. For me, going to class and working and being a resident assistant, as well as working on PhotoCalorie and my master’s thesis has been challenging.

BQ: Why should people download this app?

Whether [you] want to lose weight, build muscle or just be more aware of what you eat, PhotoCalorie can help. If you look at any diet website or book, the first they will say is keep a food journal to keep you on track.

Another feature we feel separates us, is the few steps needed to enter a meal. All other food journals currently available force you to search each item of your meal separately, which is very tedious. With PhotoCalorie, you can just type of all the foods in your meal separated by commas and we will find the nutrition for the entire meal.

BQ: Why should people care about PhotoCalorie?

LI: I think the potential for PhotoCalorie is endless. As a food journal, it requires a fraction of the steps other journals require. Also it is more personal since the pictures you take are the actual food you ate. Also once you take a picture and search for the nutrition once, we store them in a food catalog in the app. That way, since people tend to eat similar things every day, they can just add the item from the catalog to the current date and time. No need to take a picture again.

Finally if you are interested in nutrition and health research, I maintain a blog at PhotoCalorie.com, which can also be accessed through the app, where I describe recent results from diet and exercise studies to help users make informed decisions on what to eat or how to exercise.

If Lindsey Frick owned an iPhone, PhotoCalorie would be her second purchase after the T-Pain Auto Tuner.

About Lindsey Frick

Lindsey Frick writes Ad Avenue, an advertising column, for the Quad.

View all posts by Lindsey Frick →

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