Virtual pets encourage kids to exercise


Obesity Initiative at UGA

A camper in the Georgia 4-H Summer Camp program plays with his virtual pet. Photo courtesy of Grace Ahn and Kyle Johnsen.

A camper in the Georgia 4-H Summer Camp program plays with his virtual pet. Photo courtesy of Grace Ahn and Kyle Johnsen.

People who own dogs may be more likely to exercise, according to a 2013 American Heart Association report. Now, researchers at the University of Georgia have found that virtual pets can also encourage kids to get moving.

The University of Georgia researchers developed a virtual reality experience that allows children to use their own exercise to increase the fitness of a virtual dog. As a child meets physical activity goals, he is able to teach his dog new tricks. The project, funded by a seed grant from UGA’s Obesity Initiative, was found to increase the physical activity of kids at a local summer camp by one hour per day compared to kids who used a goal-setting program without a virtual pet.

“Not only were we interested in developing the [virtual] dog, we were interested in making sure that this virtual dog would help children change behavior,” said Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, who was the principal investigator on the project. The endeavor was a collaboration between Ahn, UGA College of Engineering assistant professor Kyle Johnsen and faculty from UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

The researchers took the virtual reality system to the Georgia 4-H Summer Camp program at Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton, Georgia last summer. This field-testing site for the study was provided by UGA Extension. Children at the camp were given clip-on activity monitors, similar to a pedometer. By plugging the activity monitors into a computer kiosk, the kids were also able to access their own personal virtual pet. Each child set a physical activity goal for his or her pet, such as 30 minutes of exercise, using the computer system.

“The idea was that as the children exercise the virtual dog exercises with them,” Ahn said.

If the child exercised enough to meet the pet’s goal, the child was able to use the virtual reality system to teach his pet a new trick using vocal cues and hand gestures. As the child met more goals, he could teach the dog more complicated tricks – such as roll over, fetch and even moonwalk.

After three days, the children who were able to interact with and set goals for their virtual pet exercised an hour more each day than children who set goals using a computer system but no virtual pet. The findings were published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics and have also been accepted for publication in the Journal of Health Communication.

“What we think is happening is that they care about the virtual pet’s well-being,” said Ahn. “Once you recognize and realize that the virtual pet is becoming healthier because of you then you feel much more confident about your [exercise] abilities.”

In addition to providing an exercise buddy and a reward system, the virtual nature of the intervention allowed it to be personalized for each child.

“In virtual reality, you can track what people are doing very, very well and you can provide very detailed feedback, individualized feedback,” Johnsen said. “You can’t do that with other interventions like a commercial or a class.”

In the future, Johnsen and Ahn hope to continue their collaboration to see if they can achieve continued physical activity increases with longer interventions, such as 12 weeks or 16 weeks.

“I think this was one of those instances where the Obesity Initiative did a really good job in terms of pulling together very interdisciplinary people,” Ahn said. “It was a really big collection of different expertise that really brought this forward.”