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Vol. LXIV, No. 1
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010
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Viocare to Pilot Mobile Phone Application Promoting Healthy Eating at Restaurants

Dilshanie Perera

Imagine walking into any restaurant and having your phone indicate what the best choice on the menu is for you, given your prior dietary history and current fitness goals.

That future is now thanks to Princeton-based business Viocare, which specializes in developing healthcare technology for wellness. Through a contract award from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute (NCI), the company is developing an application for mobile phones that can call up restaurant menus via GPS navigation, and point out the healthy meal options tailored to individual specifications.

Viocare President and Founder Rick Weiss plans to test out a prototype of the application in February in 15 Princeton restaurants with nine subjects armed with smart phones. If successful, the project would be a candidate for a phase II grant with the possibility for national distribution on various mobile phones.

“In general, when you track what you eat, you eat better because you become more self aware,” Mr. Weiss explained. “The whole idea of VioDine is that they’ll use one of our other tools called VioScreen, which is a diet assessment tool. It takes 30 minutes, and we get a full dietary history, and we collect a profile of the individual...and we’re also collecting barrier information — what you struggle with, where deficiencies are — and you elect what you want to do, say lowering your saturated fat intake or increasing your fruit and vegetable intake.”

With this data, the application will be able to suggest menu options that best meet the individual’s dietary goals. “It’s really personalized. That’s the whole trend with medicine in general — personalized health for personalized wellness,” Mr. Weiss said.

The pilot application, VioDine: A Mobile Healthy Dining Locator, will analyze four menu items at the Original SoupMan, Olive’s Cafe, Tico’s Eatery and Juice Bar, the Alchemist and Barrister, Cox’s Market, the Calico Grill, the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, Mediterra, Teresa Caffe, and Eno Terra. Two other restaurants are in the process of finalizing agreements, and there are still three spaces available for Princeton Borough or Township eateries that are interested. Call (609) 497-4600.

Mr. Weiss noted that the normal cost for a dietary analysis of menu items is $995, which will be completely funded by the NIH award.

Viocare is no stranger to developing innovative technologies. For the past 16 years, the company has been awarded 17 grants from various bodies, including NIH and NCI. The community-based healthy lifestyle program Princeton Living Well was born out of conversations with area restauranteurs, the Health Department, and was funded by NIH monies. Residents can set up profiles, calculate their body mass indices, record and track personal data and statistics, earn reward points to be used at local businesses, access information about health, diet, and wellness, and interact with the community of members for free at www.princetonlivingwell.com.

Last year, Viocare partnered with the Sarnoff Corporation to develop a mobile phone-based food tracking system. The Mobile Food Intake Visualization and Voice Recognizer (FIVR) allows users to take a photograph of their plate of food, and immediately receive data identifying the foods and portion size while estimating the amount of calories the individual would be consuming.

The long-term vision of the mobile phone applications would combine them with physical activity habits, such that users could wear a band around their wrist or leg that would track movement and calories burned and communicate that data to the mobile phone, Mr. Weiss suggested.

“Everything we’ve done, all of these projects, always have something pretty far out from an innovation standpoint,” Mr. Weiss admitted. “I tend not to try to do something that is the same.”

The VioDine phone application is being built with the assistance of New York-based Frog Design, and a usability expert from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will run the first phase of the study in Princeton.

“It’s a lot of moving parts, but it all fits together with getting people motivated and involved, and identifying better, healthier options for food and physical activity. Building community is a very, very important aspect of it too,” Mr. Weiss said.

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