The Internet of Things just got a whole lot more intimate. Smartphone and smart home, meet the smart tooth. Tufts University researchers have developed a tooth sensor that, when affixed to one of your chompers, can track what you eat and transmit the data to a connected device.
The tiny sensor measures just 2 square millimeters, making it about the same size as Drake’s infamous diamond tooth implant. But what it lacks in karats, it more than makes up for in cutting (and chewing) edge technology. That isn’t to say that this smart tooth tracker doesn’t have swagger. Made up of two outer rings of gold, and an inner layer of bioresponsive silk, the sensor acts as an antenna capable of transmitting a range of radiofrequency waves. Different stimuli – in this case food – each elicit a unique electrical response in the sensor, which in turn broadcasts to smartphones or other computers.
The current first-generation sensor is fairly limited in its abilities. Researchers say that while their maiden model can only detect glucose, salt and alcohol, in time they hope to expand that list to a far greater range of chemicals and nutrients. But even with its initial, restrained abilities, there are immediate applications for such a sensor. It isn’t difficult to imagine diabetics in particular – some of whom must check their blood sugar levels with invasive pin pricks multiple times a day – finding an oral glucose tracker tremendously helpful. Those with high blood pressure, celiac disease, or other food-borne allergies could similarly find such a device useful.
“If you can evolve the sensor and engineer it to have a database of food consumption, then you could think about nutrition management,” Fiorenzo Omenetto, a professor of engineering who led the research, tells Smithsonian. “That could be reminding us that we’re indulging too much in sugar or something like that.”
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Perhaps most promising of all though is such a device’s potential to help track caloric and nutritional intake, to aid in dieting, weight loss and healthy eating. Smart phone app stores are littered with dozens of calorie-counter programs. But the fatal flaw in most of these programs is that they rely predominantly on guesswork when it comes to portion size. A smart-tooth sensor that takes the human error out of nutritional intake would no doubt revolutionize the dieting industry and the entire human experience of eating and drinking. In a world where Apple Watch wearers opt in to tracking their pulse throughout the day and Fitbit users competitively share their daily step count, it isn’t difficult to imagine that a smart tooth would be an immediate buy for huge swaths of the population.
Nutritional tracking tech is definitely a growing field of science. This year’s International Consumer Electronics Show saw the debut of two futuristic pieces of technology light years beyond anything currently available to those watching what they eat.
LinkSquare’s 2oz smart scanner wowed audiences with its ability to immediately decipher the chemical composition of nearly anything waved before it. With the wave of this magic wand, individual species of fish can be determined in an instant, and foodborne illnesses like Salmonella or E. Coli can be detected before diners ever take a bite. Samsung too unveiled some seriously snazzy tech. The company’s Bixby virtual assistant showed the world that it was capable of accurately counting calories of a meal with a single photograph.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the Tufts team’s tooth implant as having the potential to bridge the gap between other futuristic food-tracking technologies. But researchers say there are quite a few hurdles standing in the way of a consumer-ready product. Chiefly among them, designing an implant durable enough to stand up to continued wear and tear within a human mouth. Saliva, by its nature, is corrosive upon anything foreign entering your mouth. And then there’s the brutal act of actually chewing and tearing through a single meal, let alone 1,000 of them each year.
But there’s reason to be optimistic for those of you looking to upgrade your personal style with a tooth implant. The Tufts team says fashion-forward implants shaped like flowers could be in the future. For those of us who aren’t looking to steal Drake’s style however, don’t fret. The sensor will work just as well when worn on the backside of your teeth.