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Ph.D. candidate creates gamified health app



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Daehyoung Lee, a Ph.D. candidate, stands Nov. 12 in front of the School of Public Health. Lee helped develop PuzzleWalk, an app to help people with autism stay active. Joy Burton Buy Photos

Two years ago, Ph.D. candidate Daehyoung Lee took a class in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering.

For a final project, he was tasked to create an app prototype. He created a health app designed for a specific population, and he chose those with autism. Then PuzzleWalk was born, a gamified, behavior change mobile app that promotes physical activity for people on the spectrum. 

Research done by Lee, his team and others at IU show that people with autism have high occurrences of health issues such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension due to an inactive lifestyle. PuzzleWalk motivates these people to become more physically active through gamification of exercise and behavior changing techniques that directly tie their daily steps to the amount of game time they get, Lee said. 

On top of simply encouraging people to exercise for gameplay, PuzzleWalk also promotes self-monitoring of one’s performance, provides instruction on how to achieve target behavior through the app, gives rewards for progress and provides user feedback, Lee said. 

“People are encouraged to increase their daily steps in order to increase their daily play time,” Lee said. 

PuzzleWalk employs spot the difference as one of its gamification techniques. PuzzleWalk allows users to choose one of 100 major cities across the world and pick different pictures from each city to play with. Currently, spot the difference isthe only game within the app, but Lee hopes to add more with future development. 

“If you like spot the difference, you will like this app,” Lee said.

Spot the difference is an easy game that can be played by everyone on the spectrum, even those who have intellectual disabilities, Lee said. 

Once the final project assignment was over, Lee wanted to continue working on and developing the app. Lee and his team, Dr. Georgia Frey, Dr. Patrick Shih, Dr. Scott Bellini, Dr. Donetta Cothran, Dr. Andrea Chomistek and Dr. Jaroslaw Harezlak began seeking funding for more research and professional development of the app. The IU Collaborative Research Grant allowed for this, and the team was able to use the grant to send the app to professionals at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis for development. 

“The professional development of the app is very important because the visuals are very important,” Lee said. “People with autism are often more drawn in by visuals and are better at spatial tasks.” 

Lee’s team does not want to stop developing the app now, because it can still go far. The next step for the team is to apply for a National Science Foundation grant in order to get the app developed further, which can cost up to $20,000, Frey said. Lee would like the app to be more interactive and include more games. His team also thinks that shifting the focus from increasing physical activity to decreasing sedentary behavior would be most effective in helping shape a healthier lifestyle for these people, Frey said. 

In the future, Lee and his team hope to track the long-term effects of the app’s use in people’s lives, including the differences in their physical and mental health. The hope for the future is people with autism will have healthier lifestyles with more physical activity which will hopefully decrease anxiety, Lee said. 

“We want people with autism to live the happiest and healthiest lives possible,” Lee said. “We really want to make a good difference for them.”

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