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This Tooth Sensor Puts Wearable Computing In Your Mouth

From reminding you to stop eating to reprimanding you for saying "like," this tooth-based device could change our lives.

If a Fitbit wristband can monitor your sex life, it was probably only a matter of time until scientists came up with this: An embeddable tooth sensor that can track your eating, smoking, and (potentially) speech habits.

Hao-hua Chu, a researcher and professor of computer science at National Taiwan University, says he was inspired to apply computer science to oral hygiene by his daughter, who saw a dentist regularly for cavities. Before the wearable tooth sensor, Chu helped design a camera-based game that could detect when kids brushed their teeth.

Screenshots from Chu’s toothbrush game.

The tooth sensor, however, goes directly in the mouth. When Chu and his team at National Taiwan University tested the system by embedding the sensor (which works by employing accelerometers) on eight volunteers’ molars, they found that the tool classified subjects’ behavior (coughing, drinking, chewing, or talking) with up to 94% accuracy. Chu’s team has also designed a removable set for folks with dentures.

In September, Chu’s team will present the sensor at Zurich’s International Symposium on Wearable Computers, but right now they’re exploring potential applications. "People are basically eating too much these days. This is an important issue in the U.S. and in Taiwan," Chu notes. If the sensor could be connected with Bluetooth, for example, people could have a no-cheat system of monitoring their diet through a health app on their phones. Or, maybe the sensor could hold a person looking to quit smoking responsible for a sneaky cigarette. Plus, if the tool can further specify speech patterns, maybe future parents will have an evidence-based method to once-and-for-all eliminate the valley girl "like" from kids’ rhetoric.

All this is, like, very well and good, but the development of wearable computing also raises an important question: If third-party trackers and marketers have access to personal health data through mobile apps, what happens when your oral habit data is up for grabs? As that data gets more and more specific (or, optimized, as others might argue), it also gets increasingly creepier to realize your information is potentially beyond a comfortable level of personal control.

"How do you protect this data? This certainly needs more thought," Chu says, though he notes his sensor has yet to address that problem in app-form. "This is a general question with regard to personal privacy."