That’s a trickier technological challenge. Which helps explain why, at January’s CES conference in Las Vegas, a startup called HAPIlabs attracted so much attention with its first gadget. The HAPIfork encourages you to eat more slowly — which can translate into eating less — by monitoring how quickly you shovel your fork into your mouth and vibrating gently if your pace is too torrid. Even Stephen Colbert took notice.
The HAPIfork still isn’t available for sale, but it’s making progress: on April 17, HAPIlabs launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $100,000 it needs to proceed. (More than $48,000 has already been pledged as I write.) One day before that, I got to try out a prototype unit myself, during a Vietnamese lunch in San Francisco with Jacques Lepine (the fork’s creator), Andrew Carton and Fabrice Boutain of HAPIlabs.
(Side note: if you owned a Palm Treo smartphone back in the day, as I did, you may remember Carton as the proprietor of the wonderful Treonauts, one of the first and best blogs devoted entirely to one tech product.)
I’m close to an ideal prospective HAPIfork customer. I know that I usually eat at too brisk a clip, and it bugs me. Without reading research on the subject, I suspect I could take off at least a few pounds if I slowed my roll. And as a gadget nerd, I just like the idea of a fork equipped with technology such as Bluetooth, microUSB and a capacitive sensor — or at least I’m willing to give it a try without going into reflexive snark mode.
At first glance the HAPIfork does look odd and ungainly — except for the tines themselves, it resembles an electric toothbrush. You also need to turn it on before you start chowing down. (The battery, rechargable through the USB port, lasts for two weeks.) But as I ate with it, it felt fine in my hand and I didn’t feel too self-conscious.
Which is not to say that I forgot I was using a most unusual fork. That was the whole point of the meal, and the subject of most of the table conversation. I was keenly aware that my goal was to wait at least ten seconds between bites, so I rarely set off the vibrating reminder to slow down. (It’s mild indeed — neither painful nor startling — and you can adjust the desired interval between bites.) The experience, while interesting, wasn’t quite a real-world test.
But I did get a sense of how well the HAPIfork’s tech worked. For the most part, it did exactly what it’s designed to do: the fork detects when it makes contact with your mouth, times the intervals and rattles briefly if appropriate. The only malfunction occurred when I ate some noodles — as they flopped around, they sometimes confused the fork and caused false-positive vibrations. HAPIlabs says that a software update will fix this glitch.
The fork sports Bluetooth, letting it zap the data it collects wirelessly to apps for iPhone and Android; you can also upload data to a PC via a USB cable. Once you’ve done one of these transfers, you can analyze stats such as how many bites you’re taking per meal and how often you take a bite without adequate pause. Even though HAPIfork’s software can’t tell you how many calories you’ve consumed, it should be able to help you drive that number down if you put your mind to it.
Making the HAPIfork work at all wasn’t easy. Inventor Lepine first started on the notion of a gadget to encourage slow eating back in 2004 and experimented with other approaches before focusing on the fork — and then spent years refining it. He hopes to use HAPIfork to collect aggregated data on its users’ eating style for study by experts.
HAPIlabs plans to ship HAPIforks to Kickstarter benefactors who pledge at least $89 in the third quarter of this year. Then it intends to begin selling them for $99 to other consumers. I’d like to give it a more extended test drive once it’s available.
And already, after just one meal, it’s had some impact on my eating. As I’ve consumed further food this week, sans HAPIfork, it’s still been on my mind — and I’ve been doing a better job of pacing myself. It would be pretty cool if it turns out that using a HAPIfork results in a permanent change to its users’ mealtime behavior, whether they’re eating with this idiosyncratic utensil or an old-fashioned piece of silverware.