Smart fabric can recognize the food you put on the table

It could also help you remember your earbuds before you leave.

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the summer harvest, ripe and juicy apples, lies on the table covered with a linen tablecloth
Tatjana WAGNER via Getty Images

Wouldn’t it be helpful if a food tracking or recipe app could determine what you’re eating just by detecting what’s on your table? You might get your wish. Researchers at Microsoft and multiple universities have developed Capacitivo, a smart fabric system that can detect food, drinks, and other objects based solely on touch. The cloth uses a combination of a capacitive electrode grid and machine learning to gauge both the material and shape of a given item.

This works with some containers, too, including glasses and bowls.

The researchers initially wove the technology into a tablecloth, and envisioned it as particularly helpful for cooking. An app could suggest a meal based on what’s sitting on the table, while a diet app would know what you’ve had to drink. Scientists also imagine Capacitivo serving as a memory tool. It could remind you to take your earbuds before you head out the door, or remind you to clean up if you leave an empty food bowl.

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The initial project has limits. It doesn’t recognize metallic objects, and won’t work as well with books or other square-edged items. It likewise has problems with credit cards and other items that don’t have a clear capacitance footprint. Certain drinks don’t produce reliable results, so you shouldn’t expect your tablecloth to tell an IPA from a stout.

Don’t expect a smart tablecloth in the near future, then, although the technology should get better over time. The team hopes to detect metal, deal with less-than-ideal placement and enable touch input, among other upgrades. If all goes well, it could lead to a truly seamless smart home where you don’t have to rely on smart scales, scanning or other clunky methods to detect what’s in your kitchen.

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