Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Your Cell Phone as Fitness Coach?

UbiFit Phone Display
UbiFit display on a cell phone.
Different colored flowers grow
for different activities,
and butterflies appear when the
user reaches weekly goals.
excerpts from a news release of the University of Washington, "Track your fitness, environmental impact with new cell phone applications," by Rachel Tompa, Nov 19, 2008

Planning on gobbling a few extra treats this holiday season? Soon, your cell phone may be able to help you maintain your exercise routine and keep the pounds off over winter months, without your having to lift a finger to keep track.

Researchers at the University of Washington and Intel have created two new cell phone applications, dubbed UbiFit and UbiGreen, to automatically track workouts and green transportation. The programs display motivational pictures on the phone's background screen that change the more the user works out or uses eco-friendly means of transportation.

The applications are designed to change people's behavior for the better, said Sunny Consolvo, a recently graduated UW Information School doctoral student and one of UbiFit's creators. In a three-month field experiment, people using UbiFit with the background display kept up their workout routines over the winter holidays, a period when people typically slack off on exercise, while people without the display let their regimen slide.

Current versions of UbiFit and UbiGreen use an external sensing device (the Intel Mobile Sensing Platform) clipped to the user's waist. The device includes an accelerometer to sense the user's movement. The programs could run on phones with built-in accelerometers, such as the iPhone and the new Android G1, with no need for external equipment, Landay said. UbiGreen also relies on changing cell phone tower signals to determine whether a person is taking a trip.

UbiFit displays an empty lawn at the beginning of the week, and flowers grow as the user works out during the week. Different kinds of workouts yield different colored flowers. Users set weekly workout goals and are rewarded with a butterfly when the goal is met. Users can also enter workout information manually if the sensor made a mistake, they forgot to wear it, or they did an activity that the sensor does not detect.

This background display proved motivational, said Consolvo, who is a researcher at Intel Research Seattle. "[It] was definitely one of the biggest wins of our study," Consolvo said.

UbiGreen automatically logs a trip that involves walking, running or biking using accelerometer data, and uses cell phone tower signals to determine if someone is riding in a vehicle. UbiGreen displays a tree on the cell phone's background that grows leaves, flowers, then fruit as the user makes green choices. Icons light up when a choice saves money, incorporates exercise, or allows the user to multi-task. A green bar and number also display how many pounds of carbon dioxide each trip saves compared to a car ride.

UbiFit and UbiGreen could be released to the public within the next year or two, Landay said, especially as phones with built-in accelerometers become more common.

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