Cellphone cameras are kind of an afterthought in the U.S., fun for snapping off a picture of Great Uncle Harold blowing out the candles at his 93rd birthday party, or occasionally handy for a few seconds of grainy Zapruder-esque amateur news video. But that’s hardly the case in Japan, where cell cameras are like an extra appendage used for a host of applications not available in the West. You can translate English words you photograph into Japanese characters, instantly buy practically any item you see for sale anywhere, or, with breathlessly-covered QR code technology, get a huge amount of information about any product or service you point your lens at, just like you were clicking a hyperlink to find material on the Internet.
Now weight-conscious cell jockeys in Japan are even putting their phones to work to help them shed pounds. The premise is pretty simple: Take pictures of the meals you eat, send the picture to a professional nutritionist, and receive tips on how to improve your diet. It’s lower-tech than some of the other applications, but health officials are hopeful it could help stem the increase in weight-related diseases the country has seen recently. Maybe it’s something we should explore here in the U.S. as well. Hundreds of Japanese already have signed up for the program—so by weight, that’s the equivalent of at least a few dozen Americans who could benefit from it.—Doug Cantor
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.