Technology augmented human capability

Last week Robert Scoble took a tour of SRI International a research lab which looks at how technology can be used to augment our human capabilities.  I think this is going to be a big trend over the next ten years or so, although it has yet to really get started.  SRI has spun out a number of startups, including Siri, the personal assistant for your iPhone which Apple acquired last year for a rumoured $200m.

On the tour Scoble saw prototypes of apps which increase our powers of self observation or straight forward cognitive capabilities, including augmented reality training apps with computer generated characters, a iPhone ‘magic mirror’ which brings the changing room mirror to ecommerce, an iPhone voice translator, and, my favourite, and iPhone app which calculates the calories on your plate using info from the camera alone (embed below).

For over a year I have been using Daily Burn to keep a record of the calories I eat and whilst I’ve stuck at it the process is simply too much hassle for most people.  They have done a good job of building a user generated database of foods that speeds up the data entry considerably, but there is still a large amount of searching and raw data entry required, plus you often have to guess the weight of the food on your plate which is a source of considerable inaccuracy.  This app from SRI aims to take out a lot of the hassle and inaccuracy by identifying the food automatically and calculating the volume and weight of the food using the data from pictures taken at a number of different angles.

If it were easier to count calories then I think many more people would do it, and hence the potential for this sort of app is huge, both commercially and in terms of the benefit it would provide to society.  Obesity is a big problem and many people simply don’t realise how much they eat.

That said, judging by this video this technology is a long way from being ready for the mainstream.  As Scoble points out the app currently requires the user to take five pictures of the food rather than use the video camera and automatically pull the stills, the food recognition has yet to be built in, and I’m guessing that the early iterations will have a host of practical problems e.g. dealing with foods that aren’t physically separated on the plate.

A big part of my job is forming a view on the timing of markets and much as I’d love apps like this to be investable today it looks to me that most of the commercial opportunities for technology driven human augmentation are still a little way away.  I’m on the look out for signs it could be sooner though.

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