Tech & Science

Gadget Lust: Pass the Vibrating Fork, Please

1.31_NWO305_Fork
01/31/14
In the Magazine
Fork Marissa Rothkopf Bates

Just as you should never tell an angry person to calm down, you should never tell a hungry person to eat more slowly.

But that is exactly what the HapiFork did to me. Which is why I finished eating my chicken and rice with a spoon.

The HapiFork, a Bluetooth-enabled electronic fork that measures how quickly you eat, has emerged from the Kickstarter kitchen with a brain and, it seems, more of a conscience than I have.

With its well-intentioned slogan ("Eat slowly, lose weight, feel great") the Hong Kong-based HapiLabs offers our nation of car-meal-inhaling human vacuum cleaners a tool to make us all healthier, more aware slo-mo eaters. The HapiFork will reform you with "vibrations" that buzz gently against your lips when you eat too quickly. If this sounds a little too Clockwork Orange for you, rest assured that the vibration occurs when you don't allow 10 seconds between forkfuls of food. Apparently, I am not supposed to feed myself in one continuous motion, but rather to stop between mouthfuls, chew my food appreciatively and even make conversation with my tablemates.

Of course I should eat more slowly; on this point, the HapiFork folk and my mother are in agreement. Eating more slowly not only lets you appreciate your food, but allows your brain to register satiety, which typically takes up to 20 minutes. Eating too quickly increases the likelihood of indigestion. As my mother liked to say: "Why did I spend all that time cooking for you so you could just gobble it up in five minutes?"

The HapiFork looks a little clunky and high-tech with its brushed aluminum handle, but it's easy enough to adjust to. The handle stores the electronic key which houses the data recorder and accelerometer. The electronic key is easily removed so the fork can be washed, but beware, unsheathed from the fork handle, just lying there on the counter, it bears a striking similarity to a home-pregnancy test - or at least it did to my poor husband. Not a Hapi moment for him.

Before eating with the fork for the first time, I had to program it to understand my eating style. I had mastered slovenly and dyspeptic, but the HapiFork was suggesting whole new modes, such as Data Lover, which is for someone who wants precise measurements of their meals and is willing to use a plastic knife to cut their food to avoid the false fork readings the clash of a stainless steel knife could cause. There's Scooping, or American style, which means your fork tines are curved up as you stab your bits of food. Because I am pretentious, I opted for Picking, which is for European-style eating, where the tines are turned downward as the food is gently skewered. I was hoping it would make my homemade American meal taste more continental.

I ate cautiously the first time, gingerly bringing the HapiFork to my lips, afraid of what would happen if I ate too quickly. I was soon distracted by one of the profound conversations that occur at our dinner table, and just as my son was making his final pitch for a pet bottlenose dolphin, I squealed. I hadn't allowed 10 second between mouthfuls! The light on the end of the fork flashed red, and the fork put the zap to my lips. The Hapi literature describes it as a "vibration," but it felt like a short, intense buzz - what I imagine it must be like to kiss a light socket. The look on my face made everyone at the table burst out laughing.

The rest of the meal was quiet, while I tried to keep from angering the fork, and my kids watched me intently, hoping for more cheap thrills at mommy's expense. In fact, it was my children who encouraged me to continue using the fork over the next few days, and I don't think it was out of a concern for my health.

The fork comes with its own carrying case, and you are encouraged to dine with it wherever you go. I took it to a local falafel place, and I got many odd looks from my fellow diners. I am not sure they noticed my fork. I suspect they were reacting to the facial tics that occurred with each zapping. What do you want from me? Falafel should be eaten when it's hot, so I was eating fast. Also, I was embarrassed and wanted to flee.

There are different modes, include a simple tracking one that lets you eat without evil vibrations disturbing your dinner, but still records the number of bites and length of your meal. This could help hard-core dieters put off by the vibrations. They can analyze their intake stats later and guilt-trip themselves at their leisure or, if they're willing to sit with their mobile device on the table, use the Bluetooth capability to upload their bites in real time to an app that will alert them when they eat too fast.

For all its evil cleverness, the fork attacks only part of the problem. It doesn't know what you're putting on it: You may learn to eat leisurely, but if it means you're taking your time demolishing a chocolate layer cake, it defeats the purpose. Also, I realized I eat a lot of food with a spoon - and more than I should admit with my hands. (As for how many foods I eat face-first, well that's my business.) So for controlling my calorie intake, it's not that effective.

The HapiFork did make me realize what poor eating habits I have. After using it for a few days, I uploaded my information to my personal Hapi.com dashboard on my laptop. Laid out in front of me, in cheery, bright colors, was a summary of my "performances," which is the euphemism we use in HapiLand for meals. You may or may not be impressed to find out that my longest "performance" was 22 minutes long. Average fork servings per minute were two, and it usually took 25 forkfuls of food to finish my dinner. I have a 68 percent success rate and a 32 percent "overspeed" ratio, which I think means I still eat too fast.

I learned that I was eating breakfast in four minutes, and dinner in eight (and I'm sure it would've been faster if the kids hadn't been laughing so hard at me). And thanks to the HapiFork, I made a deal with myself to eat more slowly and to avoid overeating. I know I will keep that promise because if I don't, I have to go back to using the HapiFork.

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