Virtual pets can help fight obesity in kids

Virtual pets can help fight obesity in kids

Placing children into a mixed reality — part virtual environment and part real world — has great potential for increasing their physical activity and decreasing obesity risk, according to a new study.

Sixty-one kids, 9-12 years old, set goals for the amount of physical activity they wanted to complete throughout the day over a course of three days. They wore an activity monitor to track their activity.

Children were split into two groups but only one group was allowed to train, exercise and play with an obese, virtual dog.

Researchers from the University of Georgia found the group of children allowed to interact with the virtual pet averaged 1.09 hours of additional physical activity per day when compared to the group without the pet.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, one of the lead researchers on the project, said one of the goals for designing the pet was to make sure that it did not just have a “cool effect.”

“We didn’t want children to approach the virtual pet and say ‘wow that’s really cool’ and then forget about it,” she said.

“We really wanted them to integrate the virtual pet into their individual lives, their social lives and then bring it in as a part of their environment that enables them and encourages them to engage in physical activity,” said Ahn.

The children assigned to interact with the virtual pet were told that their physical activity would be used to improve the health of their individual dog, which they got to name and choose the colour of its collar.

The interaction with the pet as well as the goal setting and checking was done using a kiosk. The kiosk setup included a TV, a desktop computer and a Microsoft Kinect motion controller.

Kyle Johnsen, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, said the active interface was chosen so the children could interact with the virtual pet as if it were real.

The children’s goals and current amount of physical activity are shown on the screen. All physical activity was done outside and away from the screen.

The children could return to the kiosk and insert their activity monitor to check if their goal had been met and to set a new goal.

For the group with the virtual pet, if their goal had been met, their dog would give them a congratulatory message and allow them to use controls to cause the dog to perform a trick.

The study was published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Visualisation and Computer Graphics.

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