Playing With Our Food

Made by Heeyun Choi Kim

As our world becomes increasingly more technologized, could our food one day become embedded with technology such that it reads, analyzes, and reflects our biometric data?

Created: February 5th, 2019

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Intention

 In Alex Rothera and Jimmy Krahe’s exhibition piece “Playful Self,” they explore the possibility of a future where mundane objects could be smart and reactive to stimuli coming from our bodies. With recent innovations already capable of tracking measurements of our health state, such as the FitBit and Apple Watch, it is possible to gather and show data about our bodies. I want to further question the possibility of a future where even our food could somehow gather, analyze, and reflect biometric data as it is --and has been-- consumed. Through my design, I intend to recreate this possibility to a certain realistic extent, to raise questions about how far we should let technology into our lives. How much more and in how many more ways should we digitize our memory and interfere with how we make efforts to keep track of our habits?

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Prototype

My prototype was going to involve a Makey Makey, a creative tool that allows you to interact with objects and your computer. I would connect the device to my computer and several conductive food, like bananas and citruses, since it only works with objects that can carry electric currents. Upon touching one of the objects, I would then be able to display a screen containing biometric information of how it affects and changes my body. The screen would thereby show, for instance, calories consumed, blood glucose percent changes, heart rate changes, warnings or “comments” on particular significant effects a food has on the body, etc.

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Precedents

The “Playful Self” exhibition piece made me think about how differently we might interact with objects in the future. More specifically, even the most mundane objects could become direct gateways of access to data, instead of obtaining information through a digital screen. The way we interact with the tangible world around us as the technologized world becomes evermore ubiquitous is changing and will continue to change. Based on this thought, I wanted to explore how food could also do the same or similar processes that the objects in “Playful Self” did, and start thinking about how our relationships with food could further change.

Regarding responsive objects relating to our experiences with food, I looked into the concept of a smart fork that can detect what one is eating and provide feedback on how one is progressing on eating healthier meals: the “Uninvited Guests” video shows how numerous mundane objects, including forks, that have become technologized can cause friction within our daily lives. Like the fork in “Uninvited Guests,” my design would detect the food and respond with warnings or comments about the food being eaten, which would be sent to be communicated with the user through a digital screen. However, I wanted to track how foods changed your body as you ate them, providing constantly-changing feedback onto the display screen. This would avoid the possibility of “fooling” the fork by surrounding it with certain foods that you were not actually eating, as the man in the “Uninvited Guests” video does.

HAPIfork is yet another similar real product that helps people control their eating habits and thus their experiences with food. The electronic fork monitors and tracks the user’s eating habits, and is capable of alerting them if they are eating too quickly. Using a USB or Bluetooth, the HAPIfork can show your progress through a screen and coach you on your eating to further improve. Likewise, I envisioned my design to also show progress on eating habits addressing, for instance, fruit consumption and nutrient consumption progress to address a deficiency of it. Not only did I want my design to merely reflect the biometric data in one’s body, but I also sought to incorporate analysis and interpretation of that data. 

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Process

Because I cannot create a device that could be ethically and safely embedded into food and detect and report my biometric data, I focused on recreating the process by touching food connected to an electric system. This system would show an image of the biometric data displayed on my computer screen to create the illusion of interactivity, although I did not use any biometric information gathered from real life. I also did not have access to a Makey Makey device, so I replaced it with an Arduino Uno, a breadboard, wires, resistors, and alligator clips to build a system that would achieve the same processes that a Makey Makey would. Using this electric system meant that I had to limit the food I would use to those that are conductive, but I wanted to be able to use any kind of food, since this conceptual biometric-data-tracking device in our foods would hypothetically be able to be incorporated into any food products. As such, I used conductive clips attached to food product containers --a cookie bag and yogurt cup-- to then connect to the Arduino. Additionally, the DIY Makey Makey guide and code taken online uses an Arduino Leonardo, so the code had to be adjusted so that it would be compatible with an Arduino UNO, which was the only Arduino type available. 

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Open Questions and Challenges

During this project, I wondered about the implications of food having the capacity of reading our personal biometric data and analyzing it. Food could have the ability to access memory stored about what and how we eat. Today, diet culture is a heavy driving force in people’s lives, whereby some are so strongly affected by it that they develop eating disorders and seriously affect their mental and physical health. Current trackers like food-and-activity-tracking applications, FitBits, Apple Watches, and more, are double-edged swords, as they can help people better understand their health to them improve it but also cause them to become unhealthily obsessed by the numbers. A device embedded in technology providing direct, continuous feedback similar to what FitBits do could amplify this situation. Because of how personal the data shown would be, it can be much more accurate and precise on how certain foods affect your body. However, because of how much more personalized and accurate the information is, certain people may become more conflicted with how they interact with food, and further feed unhealthy food thoughts and habits.

Besides affecting our relationship to food, attaching technological devices onto our food raises ethical questions. Should we allow our food to collect invasive data about how our bodies change during food consumption? Should it be able to direct us towards “healthier” habits, as though it was coaching us like a nutritionist would? There is a lot of memory-tracking happening in our world today, and tracking yet another aspect of our lives could only serve to further overwhelm us with digitized data and drive us to rely on technology to remind us of our habits, instead of us making the effort of keeping track of our own practices.

Moreover, we tend to have highly memorable experiences with food, since they are multisensory interactions with reality with several more triggers to remembering them that could be activated. More specifically, such memories tend to be of meals shared with loved ones. Could a device tracking how and what we eat embedded in our food change our interactions with others we share meals with? Being able to better see the direct effects of certain foods on us can educate us and help us make healthier food choices. But when we crave fast food or high-caloric food with little nutrition value, could we become more driven to feel guilt and try our best not to eat them, or think about how badly they affect our bodies? As someone who knows people with eating disorders, I am aware that thinking about how food affects one’s body is an obsession for most that interfere with how they share moments with loved ones around food. Bonding through food --whether manifested in cooking or eating together, or preparing a dish for someone else-- is a beautiful time to share culture and express affection to loved ones. Further meddling with food so that we have easier access to how it biometrically changes us could interfere with that.

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Reflection

As an engineer, I tend to think in terms of problem-solution and design for practicality. However, in the making of this project, I became comfortable with asking heavy, answer-less questions and critically design to further stir more questions, rather than to solve a problem. My design is more conceptual than practical, especially because I do not currently have the skills required to really embed technological devices into food that would be safe to consume. Having built this project with the goal of effectively portraying my idea interactively, rather than with the goal of solving a real world problem, is what I wanted to get out of this project; I was able to question the world around me and ponder about future possibilities in a critical way that exposes frictions and issues we would otherwise not think about in our day to day lives.

Regarding technical skills learned, I familiarized myself with Arduinos and Processing. Although I cannot track blood glucose or cortisol levels while consuming a certain food without invasively measuring the data, I could track heart and breathing rates externally with existing equipment. Using the information gathered over a certain period of time, I could create a video or GIF that would show that progression, instead of using a still image to display on the screen with randomized numbers standing in as the fake biometric data. 

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Attribution and References

Ferrecchia, Simone. “DIY Makey Makey with Arduino Leonardo.” Wikifab, 20 Aug 2018, https://wikifab.org/wiki/DIY_Makey_Makey_with_Arduino_Leonardo#Step_1_-_Wiring.

“HAPIfork.” HAPI, https://www.hapi.com/product/hapifork.

Jain, Anab, Jon Ardern, Jonathan Flint, Alexandria Fruhstorfer. “Uninvited Guests.” Superflux, 2015, http://superflux.in/index.php/work/uninvited-guests/#.

Rothera, Alex. “Playful Self.” https://alexrothera.com/Playful-Self

Stinson, Elizabeth. “Using Biometric Data to Make Simple Objects Come to Life.” Wired, 7 Apr 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/04/using-biometric-data-make-simple-objects-come-life/.

Wilson, Mark. “A Tea Set That Feels Your Stress.” Fast Company, 27 Mar 2015, https://www.fastcompany.com/3044257/a-tea-set-that-feels-your-stress.

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Code for the DIY Makey Makey using Arduino UNO

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#include <movingAvg.h>


// Original values were 200 and then 600
const int PressedMaxThreshold = 550; // 200
const int ReleasedMinThreshold = 650; //300
const byte PinCount = 6;



const byte InputPins[PinCount] = {A0, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5};
const char KeyCodes[PinCount] = {'d', 's', 'w', 'a', 'z', 'e'};


struct TouchInput
{
  byte analogPin;
  char keycode;
  movingAvg filter = movingAvg(20);
  boolean wasPressed = false;
};


TouchInput Pins[PinCount];


void setup()
{
  Serial.begin(115200);


  for (int i = 0; i < PinCount; i++)
  {
    Pins[i].analogPin = InputPins[i];
    Pins[i].keycode = KeyCodes[i];
    Pins[i].filter.begin();
  }
}




void loop()
{
  for (int i = 0; i < PinCount; i++)
  {
    float currentAverage = Pins[i].filter.reading(analogRead(Pins[i].analogPin));
    boolean previousState = Pins[i].wasPressed;
    boolean currentState = previousState; // Default if in the dead zone
//    Serial.println(currentAverage);

    if (currentAverage < PressedMaxThreshold)
    {


      currentState = true;      // Pressed

    
    }
    else if  (currentAverage > ReleasedMinThreshold)
    {


      currentState = false;      // Released
    }

    

    if (currentState != previousState)
    {
      Serial.println(Pins[i].keycode);
//      if (currentState)
//        Keyboard.press(Pins[i].keycode);
//      else
//        Keyboard.release(Pins[i].keycode);
    }
    Pins[i].wasPressed = currentState;
  }
}
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Processing Code for the Visual Elements

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import processing.serial.*;

Serial myPort;  // The serial port
PImage image1;
PImage image2;
PImage image3;
PImage image4;
PImage image5;
char currentState;
void setup() {
  // List all the available serial ports
  printArray(Serial.list());
  // Open the port you are using at the rate you want:
  myPort = new Serial(this, Serial.list()[2], 115200);
  size(2736, 1824);
  background(0,0,0);
  image1 = loadImage("raspberriesyogurt.jpg");
  image2 = loadImage("banana.jpg");
  image3 = loadImage("almonds.jpg");
  image4 = loadImage("chocochipcookies60op.jpg");
  
}

void draw() {
  
  while (myPort.available() > 0) {
    int inByte = myPort.read();
    currentState = char(inByte);
    
    if (currentState == 'd') {
      background(0,0,0);
      image(image1, 0, 0);
    }
    else if (currentState == 's') {
      background(0,0,0);
      image(image2, 0, 0);
    }
    else if (currentState == 'w') {
      background(0,0,0);
      image(image3, 0, 0);
    }
    else if (currentState == 'a') {
      background(0,0,0);
      image(image4, 0, 0);
    }

  }
 
  
}
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Example Images of Biometric Data from Consumption of Different Foods Displayed on Screen

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As our world becomes increasingly more technologized, could our food one day become embedded with technology such that it reads, analyzes, and reflects our biometric data?