Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School Research Dean to Study Ways to use Robots to Encourage People to be Active

Her winning grant one of nine chosen by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation from 185 proposals
Eric Mankin
November 18, 2009 —

Maja Mataric', the USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor and senior associate dean who directs the USC Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems (CRES), will lead an effort to evaluate robots as exercise coaches for adults of all ages, with a particular focus on the elderly..

The grant is one of nine, totaling $1.85 million, announced November 5 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of the Foundation’s Health Games Research national program,

The Mataric’-led effort, entitled "Robot Motivator: Towards Adaptive Health Games for Productive Long-Term Interaction," will examine ”the influence of virtual social characters on people’s motivation to exercise,” according to the foundation's announcement.

Her study will use 70 volunteer participants, 20 of those aged 60 and older and living in a managed care facility, and 50 living at home and covering the adult age spectrum.  The participants will be divided into two groups. One group will have as their trainer a physical robot, who will demonstrate the moves they are to follow." (See demonstration video, below)

The other half of the subjects will be coached by the same robot demonstrating the same moves — but  on a video screen. The goal is to determine how important physical presence is to robotic exercise motivation among older subjects.

The Foundation called for proposals for one- to two-year projects based on “digital games that engage players in physical activity and/or motivate them to improve how they take care of themselves.”

Competition for the funding was intense: 185 proposals came in, in areas ranging from dance pad interactive recreations to a mobile phone system rigged with a breath interfaced designed to help smokers quit or reduce consumption.

The Viterbi School project is the only one of the nine that will use robots. Mataric’ has pioneered the development of “socially assistive robotics,” robotic systems designed to help caregivers in areas ranging from treatment of autism spectrum disorder to rehabilitation of stroke victims.

In addition to serving as Senior Associate Dean of Research for the Viterbi School and professor in its department of computer science, Mataric’ holds appointments in Neuroscience and the USC Keck School of Medicine department of Pediatrics..

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pioneer Portfolio
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. The Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio supports innovative ideas and projects that may lead to important breakthroughs in health and health care. Projects in the Pioneer Portfolio are future-oriented and look beyond conventional thinking to explore solutions at the cutting edge of health and health care. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org/pioneer.