May 11, 2012

High tech breakthroughs to end obesity and save lives

From cell-phone games that inspire kids to exercise more and snack less, to video cameras that film remote enemy territories and describe what they see in words to military-surveillance teams miles away, computer science projects at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University are targeting national issues.

At CU, Katie Siek and students are exploring ways people can use today’s electronic gadgets for tracking health information. They hope to help end the nation’s obesity crisis (which research shows disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic groups) by boosting the use of Personal Health Records (PHRs), an idea backed by health experts but in need of fine-tuning.

With PHRs, patients can self-monitor health and maintain control of their information when they see different doctors. Siek’s students are working with two low-income Denver neighborhoods to: 1) find what would motivate residents to enter health information (such as cell-phone games for kids) and what special exercise and dietary obstacles they face (such as no parks in neighborhoods). To maintain a presence in the communities, the students tutor youth weekly, bringing a greater dimension to the project’s value.

“My students are incredible,” Siek said. “They don’t just pop in for research and pop out. And the kids in that community get to see college students and talk to them and find out about engineering. Then my students come back to the lab all excited, saying: Now that’s not going to work; we need to do x, y and z.”

Siek has had one student go on to work in the electronic medical-records area, and she has had students in a side class invent potentially marketable games, most notably a stationary bike that controls a video game by pedaling: The faster you pedal, the better you do. The game won the People’s Choice Award at the Engineering Design Expo. The PHR project, largely funded by the National Science Foundation, is a collaborative effort with the University of Denver.

At CSU, a team led by Bruce Draper is making inroads into the unthinkable: creating a program that can allow a computer to “learn,” thus deciphering what it “sees” and then dictating that information in human language. Funded by an initial $625,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the project is called Mind’s Eye and has an ultimate goal of taking soldiers out of dangerous territory.

In the past, computer-vision systems relied on traditional engineering techniques to try to pull information out of pictures. “The key aspect of (Draper’s) work,” said Darrell Whitley, chair of CSU’s computer science department, “Is that he is looking at how the brain processes information and trying to use computation based on that biological model. It is a very different approach.”

While creating applications that can save military lives remains the focus, Draper’s technology can have multiple applications, such as monitoring play areas or federal buildings, and even improving image searches on the web. His work, which involves a number of graduate and undergraduate students, has also led to a spinoff company called NeoFilter Labs in Fort Collins.


From cell-phone games that inspire kids to exercise more and snack less, to video cameras that film remote enemy territories and describe what they see in words to military-surveillance teams miles away, computer science projects at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University are targeting national issues.

At CU, Katie Siek and students are exploring ways people can use today’s electronic gadgets for tracking health information. They hope to help end the nation’s obesity crisis (which research shows disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic groups) by boosting the use of Personal Health Records (PHRs), an idea backed by health experts but in…

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