December 28, 2006

The Orange County Register

Fishes and fitness

By Greg Hardesty

Scholar says computers can get users off their duffs, on their feet.

IRVINE – See the computer screen. See the cute fishy. See the cute fishy get nice and plump.

See the 24-year-old graduate student smile.

A plump fish is good.

A plump person is – well, not optimal.

It sounds like a paradox: Sit in front of your computer screen and get in better shape.

But that's the type of research Silvia Lindtner has immersed herself in as a doctoral student in UC Irvine's Department of Informatics.

That funky-sounding discipline, part of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, focuses on the relationship between computers and their use in real-world settings – what scholars call "ubiquitous computing.''

Hence, plump fish. Just stay with us for a while.

Lindtner of Long Beach was part of a team within a Siemens Research lab that developed an interactive computer game, Fish 'N' Steps, which links a player's daily footstep count to the growth and activity of animated fish.

In the Fish 'N' Steps game, the more a player walks, the bigger her fish grows. Linked to a community of other players, a player can become the biggest fish in the virtual pond.

Experts recommend walking 10,000 steps a day, or about five miles, to maintain aerobic health.

In a study released at an informatics conference in September – the UbiComp 2006, at UCI – the research team from Siemens found that the players' awareness of their own physical activity level increased and that the majority of the participants in the study were able to improve their physical activity, measured in steps per day.

"This is all about enhancing people's everyday lives through technological and artistic artifacts," Lindtner says.

Her research, completed just before she started her doctoral program this fall, dovetails into a major mission at UCI's Department of Informatics: discovering ways to further integrate technology into people's daily lives.

In Lindtner's case, that translates to "playful interactions with computing."

She explains: "YouTube (a Web site where people post homemade videos) is a good example of how computer users are becoming creators of a larger collaborative piece."

The Internet is not so much about individuals doing things on their own anymore, according to Lindtner.

"We are becoming a part of a bigger community," she says.

And some people are becoming too big.

Which brings us, again, back to the plump fish.

* * *

Lindtner worked on the Fish 'N' Steps project with her colleagues in the User Experience department at Siemens Corporate Research Inc. in Princeton, N.J.

Her team's idea was a twist on the Tamagotchi "digital pet" that created a sensation when manufacturer Bandai introduced it in 1996. The "health" and "happiness" of the handheld virtual creature depended on how well the user took care of it by responding to prompts for food, play and sanitation.

In a 14-week study with 19 participants, Lindtner and her colleagues found that Fish 'N' Steps – which is not yet commercially available – served as a catalyst for promoting exercise and for improving players' attitudes toward physical activity.

"In general, the game seems to have served its purpose: Created initial excitement, increased participants' awareness of their levels of physical activity and provided motivation to increase the activity level in a fun and engaging way," Lindtner and her colleagues wrote in their paper.

An increasingly sedentary lifestyle – like sitting in front of a computer – is one factor behind the worldwide epidemic of obesity, researchers say.

In the paper presented at the Conference on Ubiquitous Computing, Lindtner cited research that says individuals change their behavior gradually – such as lifestyle changes that lead to weight loss – by advancing along a series of steps.

Steps like the ones taken in the Fish 'N' Steps game.

By wearing a pedometer, downloading the data and watching a virtual pet grow, most participants in the Fish 'n' Steps study increased the number of steps they took each day.

Also, a participant's daily walking goal affected the appearance of his or her fish. The fish would smile in the case of sufficient progress, and would shed cute little animated tears when a person wasn't walking enough.

One participant reported an increase in the number of steps, to 7,000 per day from 5,000.

"It motivated me to start exercising," the participant told researchers. "Before, I wasn't doing any kind of jogging. The game made me realize that I need to exercise more. My goals have now increased."

* * *

Lindtner didn't grow up an exercise freak, and today doesn't consider herself one – although she's paying more attention to walking.

"I've walked 3,000 steps already!" she said just after lunchtime on a recent weekday.

Lindtner was born and raised in Salzburg, Austria. Her father formerly worked in the automotive business and now is in the insurance field, and her mother is a technician.

Lindtner got her first computer when she was 12.

"It was a gray box," she says. "I didn't really like it at the beginning."

At the time, she was most interested in writing for her high school magazine, and subjects like philosophy and psychology.

But a summer job at a local Internet service provider sparked her interest in computers and technology, and a high school course in informatics sealed the deal.

She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in media technology and design from a university in Hagenberg, Austria, then went to work for Siemens in the company's Munich and New Jersey offices before deciding to pursue her doctorate at UC Irvine.

* * *

For Lindtner and other scholars in UCI's Department of Informatics, how people use computers in their daily lives is a ripe field for research.

One of her mentors at UCI, professor Bonnie Nardi, became so immersed in studying players of World of Warcraft that she became an enthusiast of the world's most popular massive multiplayer online role-playing game.

Nardi and other professors and students in the Department of Informatics continue to probe how players of computer games collaborate.

In the meantime, Lindtner is taking classes in media art to see how that field clicks with computers.

"I want to create a bridge between art and technology,'' Lindtner says.

She's not sure if Fish 'N' Steps will become commercially available.

But as she prepares to rush off to a meeting, Lindtner checks her belt-hoisted pedometer.

"My old average was about 4,000 steps a day," she says with a grin. "I'm averaging about 10,000 steps a day now."

Somewhere, a plump fish is smiling.
Fishes and fitness