NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A demonstration of the NEAT-o
Game is available on the Web at http://www.cpl.uh.edu/Neat-o-Games.
WEIGHT LOSS GAME LOOKING FOR ‘NEAT-O’
UH Professor Hopes Everyday Moves Inspire a New Addiction
HOUSTON, September 12, 2007 – Finding a way to motivate
the billion people in the world who are overweight to lose excess
pounds can be an overwhelming task, but a University of Houston
professor is meeting that weighty challenge with a challenge of
Ioannis Pavlidis, a UH computer science professor, and research
assistants Yuichi Fujiki, Kostas Kazakos and Colin Puri, have developed
a computer game that translates physical activity into video games,
such as races and logic puzzles. Dubbed Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
(NEAT-o) games, they can be played on any hand-held personal digital
assistant (PDA) with users wearing a lightweight, wearable sensor
that detects movement like running, walking, bending over or even
That data is then transmitted to the PDA via a wireless connection,
and the player can see his or her game avatar move in real-time
to their movements. For example, in the race game, the player’s
physical activity propels the avatar around the track – the
more active the player is, the faster and farther the avatar goes.
“When you see the avatar move when you move, you really become
connected to the game,” Pavlidis said.
Capitalizing on the buddy system for working out, users can link
to other gamers by cellular phone networks and compete against multiple
users in the next cubicle or the next state. The game can run all
day in the background as users go about their daily routines while
earning points and propelling their avatars as they walk to the
copy machine, take coffee breaks or walk the dog.
The lack of daily mild exercise is largely responsible for the
world’s obesity epidemic, according to James Levine, a Mayo
Clinic physician and leading authority on obesity. Levine coined
the ‘NEAT’ term to cover all physical activity that
is not conscious exercise. Since hitting the gym for a regular workout
might be too much to expect for those returning to the fitness fold,
these games encourage small, everyday lifestyle changes, such as
taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking a few spaces
away from a store entrance versus driving around to find the closest
“We hope the games can increase physical activity, add a
dosage of everyday fun and embed NEAT in the modern lifestyle,”
Pavlidis said. “We expect an almost ‘addictive’
behavior resulting from this game, much like the habit of playing
solitaire during breaks is an everyday ritual for many people. Because
of the way we live today, people are sitting all the time, so moving
more is always a good thing.
“The allure of computer gaming and competition with other
users encourages players to make small lifestyle changes that can
add up to big health benefits,” Pavlidis said.
A computer science student who was one of the first to try out
the devices lost 40 pounds in five months. The games also have been
a hit with early test groups and received rave reviews from players
at an April academic gathering of computer scientists.
Along with the straightforward racing game, Pavlidis also recently
rolled out his version of Sodoku, a logic-based numbers puzzle that
has become wildly popular. In this adaptation of Sodoku, the points
players earn through physical activity can be used to fill in another
square on the grid, providing clues to solving the rest of the puzzle.
More games designed to appeal to a variety of age groups are in
Levine’s lab at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is gauging
the games’ effectiveness in a large trial experiment that
began in June. Financed by an endowed fund and a National Science
Foundation grant, Pavlidis hopes the game will be available to the
public before the end of 2008.
About the University of Houston
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