From the Nintendo Wii to Sony’s EyeToy, the home entertainment industry is seeking to motivate kids to get out of their chairs and move around when they play video games.

Stung by charges that video games are contributing to what some call an epidemic of obesity in America, the industry is hoping virtual reality can transform a passive activity into a physical one like shadow boxing with virtual targets or playing ball with remote teammates.

Mooi Choo Chuah also worries that a diet of video games, computers and movies is converting America’s kids into couch potatoes and “small muscle athletes.”

But Chuah, associate professor of computer science and engineering, wants to go a step or two further than Nintendo and Sony.

She wants to push physical fitness by liberating kids from their consoles and reconnecting them with the real world – and with each other.

Chuah and her undergraduate students have designed a mobile smartphone application that mounts a two-pronged attack on America’s sedentary lifestyle.

“If you want to entice kids to run around and engage in physical activity,” says Chuah, “you have to do it in a fun and social way.

“You need two things – competitiveness and an element of surprise.”

A virtual treasure hunt – played in the great outdoors

Chuah’s new mobile app, called WiFiTreasureHunt, combines treasure hunting with social networking and sensors.

When you click on the WiFiTreasureHunt app, your smartphone generates a map with, say, 10 locations chosen randomly from your immediate vicinity. Three sites might have a treasure – a coupon for a healthy snack or points that can be used to buy a ticket to a batting cage or skating rink.

The app prompts you to press your thumb against your phone’s camera. A pulse-reading program calculates your heartbeat and displays it on the phone screen. To begin a game, you send your heartbeat and starting time to a remote server where your personal data – age, weight, gender – are stored.

The remote server will tell you if there are other online users you may want to invite to your game. You and your friends can devise your own strategy for visiting the sites and looking for the treasures.

Each time one player visits a location, the map on everyone’s screen will be updated to reveal if that location contains a treasure or not. The game ends when all the treasures have been discovered. You and the other players are then prompted to measure your heartbeats again.

The starting and ending heartbeat readings, the time it takes to complete the game, and the locations visited by each user will be sent to the remote server for tallying. Your group can invite other groups to play the game for a week or a month; in this case, the remote server will tally the data for all the groups and identify the winning group at the end of the competition duration.

“WiFiTreasureHunt is like playing a video game in real life,”says Chuah. “You interact not just with the computer, but with the environment and potentially your friends as well.”

Chuah has consulted with Judy Lasker, professor of sociology, on Fitness Tour. Several undergraduate students, including Steve Sample ’11 and Gregory Jakes, have helped with software programming.

Chuah’s next step is to test the app with human subjects, starting with college students. She also plans to add a barcode scanner program that will tell users the calorie content of the snack food they eat and suggest more healthful alternatives.

Further down the road, Chuah and her group will conduct a large-scale test to compare the exercise benefits between a control group using WiFiTreasureHunt and a group playing Wii games.

“Our goal is to design games with educational value and to do this in a way that is exciting and can help people,” she says.

An assist for special-ed teachers

In a related project, Chuah is developing a mobile-health smartphone app for autistic children and their teachers. Her collaborators include Linda Bambara, professor of special education, and Michael George, director of the Centennial School, a special-ed facility run by Lehigh.

In a computer science senior design project Chuah recently supervised, Michael DiBlasio ’11 designed an autism social alert system that correlates environmental stress factors with typical autistic behaviors. The system collects and analyzes accelerometer readings from a child’s phone to identify behaviors such as leg shaking or hand clenching that can occur in response to loud noises or other sudden changes in a child’s environment.

“Autistic children have short attention spans,” says Chuah. “They might not react well to strangers or to other unexpected stimuli. If we can correlate these events with misbehaviors, we can play an audio clip on a child’s earplugs. This could be the child’s mother or someone else with a soothing voice who can give guidance for proper behaviors.”

The autism application contains a feature that automates the data that teachers are required to record, potentially reducing their workload and freeing them to spend more time with students.

Chuah’s past research has been supported by NSF, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance, the Army Research Laboratory and DARPA. She recently submitted an NSF proposal to conduct research into the system and security design of a mobile healthcare system.