Friday, March 17, 2017

Grad Research: Using Activity Trackers to Promote Daily Exercise

Zhao Zhao is a Carleton PhD student in Systems and Computer Engineering, who like many of us, recoils at the thought of exercise and loves playing computer games.

Zhao’s research hopes to help people like her, who may be reluctant to exercise, to become more active and to help them experience the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while making it a fun, rather than gruelling process.

Zhao Zhao

Important to this research is the concept of “gamification” which refers to utilizing the thinking and mechanics of games in a non-game context. It has been broadly employed in health and fitness as an attempt to promote exercise and more active lifestyles.

Specifically, it helps users to achieve certain fitness goals and increase engagement by adding game features to physical activity. Motivated by the popularity and availability of wearable activity trackers, like the Apple Watch and Fitbit, Zhao’s research focuses on using activity tracker-based games to promote daily exercise.

To research this phenomenon, Zhao actually designed and implemented a smartphone game application.

“Recently we conducted a 70-day long-term user study to further investigate the motivational effects of using our system for promoting and sustaining exercise engagement,” said Zhao.

After this study is completed, Zhao will use participant feedback to improve the game. She hopes to get the game to work with other popular wearable devices and to have the game available on Apple’s App Store so that it is available to a large group of users.

Zhao completed her undergraduate degree in Computer Science in China, and then came to Carleton and did her MASc in Systems and Computer Engineering.

“At the end of my Master’s program, I took one of Professor Ali Arya’s courses and found his research really interesting so I continued on to do my PhD with him,” shared Zhao.

Zhao credits Professor Arya for helping her during her research.

“My background was in computer science and engineering, yet I was very interested in HCI and user experience but actually had little knowledge about them,” she said.

“He spent a lot of time helping me with my studies, from hiring participants, to writing the questionnaires and he introduced me to many people to help me with the study.”

Zhao’s favourite aspect of the program is the diversity of disciplines that the students come from.

“I learned things from them about technology, psychology, art and design and was able to combine them all together in my project.”

“This kind of work could not be done just by myself, but with the help and support of all these great people, I was actually able to do it.”

This year, Zhao will be attending the ACM CHI conference – the top conference for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

—Written by Mitch Jackson

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