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Claremont Graduate University wins National Science Foundation Grant to create virtual health coach

The system uses sensors placed throughout a person's home and on their body to gather health data. The data are fed into a computer, which monitors for health risks. The system then sends persuasive messages to the user to promote healthier choices.

Samir Chatterjee
PRLog - July 30, 2010 - CLAREMONT, Calif. -- A laboratory led by Claremont Graduate University (CGU) Professor Samir Chatterjee has received a $149,619 grant to develop smart computer systems designed to help people make healthy lifestyle choices.

The National Science Foundation awarded the grant to Chatterjee's Network Convergence Lab to advance research in the field of persuasive sensing technology. Chatterjee teaches in CGU’s School of Information Systems and Technology.

The project is initially aimed at helping people who are ill or elderly and could have profound effects in the health care field.

Chatterjee and his partners in the project envision a system in which electronic sensors are placed throughout a person's home to monitor living conditions and habits. Additional sensors are placed on the test subject's body to measure physiological data such as temperature, blood pressure, and pulse.

Data from the sensors are fed into a computer, where they are compared against established medical benchmarks to look for abnormalities or detect the onset of diseases. The system then creates and delivers customized lifestyle recommendations to users to persuade them to improve their health.

For example, sensors could be placed in an obese subject's sofa, refrigerator, television, and bed. If sensors detect excessive trips to the refrigerator, too much time spent on the couch, or too little exercise, the system might attempt to persuade the user to go outside for a walk. Likewise, positive behavior would elicit positive reinforcement.

“The idea is to make sense of the data, summarize it in an easy to use way, and present it back to the user so he or she can lead a healthy lifestyle,” Chatterjee said.

The laboratory has completed a three-month pilot program in which it tested an early version of the system on a 68-year old woman who suffers from mild obesity and diabetes.

In the first month, researchers collected data from the woman and her home to measure her normal routine and health status.

During the subsequent two months, researchers provided her with persuasive feedback in the form of a daily digital newspaper about her health.

The program produced immediate results. She exercised more, spent more time outside and watched less television.

While the woman understood the basic rules of healthy living, the system helped her turn abstract concepts into concrete goals, Chatterjee said.

“Some people need this sort of external trigger,” Chatterjee said. “This system is a virtual coach. It’s always there for you.”

The development of the sensor systems is almost complete. The bulk of the funding from the NFS grant will be used to design complex software that will analyze the data for purposes of detecting health risks and providing persuasive feedback to the user. No similar software currently exists.

The grant will also help to compare through random control trials how this data-rich system performs against more basic commercial devices such as Intel's Health Guide.

The lab will continue to work with its current test subject and researchers hope to soon wire the home of a second person.

The National Science Foundation awarded the grant through its highly-competitive Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program. The program supports high-risk high-reward exploratory research that "involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives."

Chatterjee believes a successful system could help to drastically reduce health care costs for aging baby boomers. By providing them with rich medical information in their homes, they may be less likely to go to hospitals and emergency rooms for relatively small or easily correctable health issues.

Kaushik Dutta, a professor in the Department of Decision Sciences and Information Systems at Florida International University, Miles Moore, CEO of AWS Inc., and CGU SISAT graduate student Alan Price are partnering in the project.

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About Claremont Graduate University: Founded in 1925, Claremont Graduate University is one of the top graduate schools in the United States. Our nine academic schools conduct leading-edge research and award masters and doctoral degrees in 24 disciplines. Because the world’s problems are not simple nor easily defined, diverse faculty and students research and study across the traditional discipline boundaries to create new and practical solutions for the major problems plaguing our world. A Southern California based graduate school devoted entirely to graduate research and study, CGU boasts a low student-to-faculty ratio.

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