Treat Yourself: IBM Patents System to Reward Healthy Eating
IBM's system could reward people for making the right food chocies at supermarkets and restaurants.
CREDIT: Tyler Olsen Shutterstock
When IBM engineers realized they had begun packing on the pounds during weekly meetings at restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday's, they naturally decided to think their way out of the problem. Their vision led to a patent filing based on an Internet system capable of dangling on-the-spot rewards to encourage healthier eating habits when choosing what to eat at restaurants and supermarkets.
That was in 1999. More than a decade later, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally awarded IBM a patent on "Providing Consumers with Incentives for Healthy Eating Habits" in December 2011. But the basic idea remains the same — giving small rewards for making the right eating decisions based on personalized recommendations from nutritionists, family physicians, or even vegan and kosher guidelines.
"Being engineers, we weren't sports jocks," said Mike Paolini, an engineer with the "Master Inventor" title at IBM. "Instead of drinking Muscle Milk and pumping iron, we turned our brains to the idea of changing our behavior through positive reinforcement."
Here's how the as-yet-undeveloped system could work. A smartphone might use its camera to scan a food identification tag — such as a coded bar on a menu or grocery store shelf — and send the information to an app or online database that matches the food against a health index. The health index would allow the system to figure out the best food choice and assign certain rewards for the best foods.
Rewards could include anything from cash deposits in an employer's payroll account to "points" exchangeable for certain items. The electronic incentives could be tailored to each person's health and exercise history, what they recently ate and even the time of day.
There is also the possibility for "negative" disincentives to discourage people from, say, snacking too much at odd hours of the day. But Paolini emphasized that using any such system would be voluntary, adding that he used an in-house version of the reward system to get his own weight down and keep it down.
"It's an opt-in system that's very different from being shoved down your throat and controlling what you do," Paolini told InnovationNewsDaily. "It's another tool like a gym membership is a tool — you get rewarded and maybe even compete with your buddies."
The idea is designed to work well with similar IBM patents on attaching RFID tags to food in a supermarket or restaurant, a mobile device system that helps people shop for food, and a network of wirelessly connected exercise machines that share health information.
Similar reward-based systems have emerged in the age of social media with the "gamification" trend of making life's hard chores more pleasant. A company called Earndit ties into location-tracking services such as Nike Plus and Foursquare as a way of rewarding exercise.
But IBM won't be fully developing and commercializing its better-eating idea itself, even after waiting 10 years for the patent to grind through legal challenges at the U.S. Patent Office. Instead, it wants to license the basic system architecture to partner companies willing to transform it into a consumer technology.
"We build the tech and let other companies build the solutions," Paolini said. "This is basically engineering the plumbing for a smarter, healthier way of living."