It started years ago as a gizmo created for a GamePipe student videogame called "PetPal," by a team of USC Viterbi School computer science students led by GamePipe Laboratory director Mike Zyda. On July 19, the gizmo, which takes physical activity carried on by players and has game characters perform the same actions on screen — received a U.S. patent. The students and Zyda are now looking for – and expect to find – game developers who want to license it.
The device, officially designated as a “System for Encouraging a User to Perform Substantial Physical Activity,” has U.S. Patent number 7,980,997 and carries the names of Zyda and three former students. One of these, Dhruv Thukral, is now working in the game industry in Los Angeles; the other two, Wei-Chung Chang and Shu-Fen Lin, are doing the same in Taiwan.
In 2007, Thukral, Chang and Lin were a team working in GamePipe on a project funded by health insurer Humana, aimed at games that would encourage healthy habits in users. At the game's center was an animated pet character, a dog, that could become happy or unhappy, depending on food choices, attention including strokes and petting, tricks and many other interactions.
What pushed these interactions into another dimension was a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensor, ingeniously adapted by the students from existing devices, that was specialized to sense the precise activity carried on by the user and measure its intensity. The output from this sensor was connected via a Bluetooth connection – the same used for wireless peripherals – to the game platform, initially an iPhone.
The iPhone used a special algorithm written by the team to convert the signal received to animated activity by the "PetPal" avatar on the screen. The first draft copycat dog would run, jump, and ride a bicycle, a repertory that has since expanded. If the user worked long and hard enough, tangible rewards came to the game character.
The patent is wide-ranging, covering computer games that utilize sensors configured to detect the magnitude of a gamer's physical activity. Using this invention, game developers can create games that offer rewards and penalties in proportion to actual exercise.
"We expect this patent will garner significant interest from potential licensees because the technology opens up such compelling possibilities for game design," said John Sweet, USC Stevens Institute for Innovation Senior Manager for Technology Advancement and Licensing.