Those who prefer an evening behind a computer screen rather than on a treadmill might soon be shedding the pounds while enjoying their favorite games, thanks to a new breed of high-tech diversions that blend exercise with pleasure.
A University of Houston researcher is developing computer games that combine cutting-edge motion sensors with couch-potato-friendly amusements such as video races and logic puzzles to change the way people integrate physical activity into their daily lives.
The games are designed with the inactive in mind, said Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard Pfeiffer Professor of Computer Science. Hitting the gym for a regular workout regimen might be too much to expect. These games encourage small, everyday lifestyle changes such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or tending the garden instead of watching television.
Financed by an endowed fund and a National Science Foundation grant, the project aims to create the motivational framework for increasing people’s everyday physical activities. The games have caught the attention of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. James Levine, a Mayo physician and leading authority on obesity, will gauge the games’ effectiveness in a large trial experiment this summer.
According to Levine, a longtime collaborator of Pavlidis’, the lack of daily mild exercise is largely responsible for the world’s obesity epidemic. More than 1 billion people worldwide are overweight.
The games can be played on any handheld PDA. To measure physical activity, Pavlidis, his Ph.D. student researchers and lab staffers developed a lightweight, wearable sensor that detects movement like running, walking, bending over or even foot tapping. The data is transmitted to the PDA via a wireless connection, and a player can see his game avatar move in real-time to his movements.
So, for example, in the race game, the player’s physical activity propels the avatar around the track – the more active the player is, the faster and farther he goes. Gamers are linked by cellular phone networks so they can compete against multiple users in the next cubicle or in the next state.
The game can run all day in the background as players go about their routines. They are earning points and propelling their avatars as they stroll to the deli for lunch, get up for a coffee break or walk the dog. Players are notified periodically throughout the day of their standing in the race and a winner is determined each day.
Because brainier couch-potatoes might soon tire of a straightforward race game, Pavlidis is working on more mentally challenging diversions. This month he rolled out a new version of Sudoku, a logic-based numbers puzzle that has become wildly popular among young people. Players must fill out a partially completed numbers grid with strict constraints on repeating the numbers.
In this adaptation of Sudoku, the points players earn through physical activity can be used to fill in another square on the grid, providing clues to solving the rest of the puzzle. Pavlidis and his assistants – first year Ph.D. students Konstantinos Kazakos and Yuichi Fujiki and staff engineer Colin Puri – soon will be unveiling more games designed to appeal to a variety of age groups. Eventually users would be able to play several games simultaneously, moving their physical activity points between games.
Soon, the sensors also will be able to instantly measure calorie loss. Watching the calories burn off as they go about their day will keep players motivated and help them gauge their progress, Pavlidis said.
While there is still some tinkering to be done before these devices could be marketed to consumers, the games have been a hit with early test groups – even among those not easily impressed with new gadgets.
The games got rave reviews from players at an April academic gathering of computer scientists, Pavlidis said. One middle-aged professor became so engrossed she began racing around the conference room to win the game.
“When you see the avatar move when you move, you really become connected to the game,” Pavlidis said.
Pavlidis first became aware of the huge potential of everyday activities in 1999 after working with Levine on a study that found chewing sugarless gum during waking hours can burn off twenty-two pounds in a year.
These new games promote a more active lifestyle by becoming part of players’ normal routines, Pavlidis said. The allure of computer gaming and competition with other users encourages players to make small lifestyle changes that can add up to big health benefits.
The concept, termed Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, was taken to heart by a computer science student who was one of the first to try out the devices. Through gaming and other habit adjustments that increased his everyday physical activity, the student lost forty pounds in five months.
“Because of the way we live today people are sitting all the time, so moving more is always a good thing,” Pavlidis said.