Students win Obama app award

As part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to fight childhood obesity, the White House will award $60,000 to USC students and other contest participants who successfully created software applications that encourage physical fitness.

A $20,000 grand prize will go to a team of USC students — Erin Reynolds, Tony Tseung, John Banayan, Erik Nichols, David Villatoro, Rita Yeung, Joseph Kohn and Ross Danielson ­— who created an online application called Trainer under the guidance of three faculty advisers. Yeung is a Daily Trojan staff member.

Players of the game receive a customized creature with a fitness goal. Through the use of webcam technology and movement detection, the players and the creatures exercise together.

For instance, a player might be paired with a penguin who needs to lose weight. In order for the penguin to do so weight, the player has to exercise with it by picking from a variety of activities ­— such as running, swimming or skiing — and the player has to re-enact those movements specific to the particular sport he picked.

“Depending on how hard the player trains himself, the creature becomes more fit,” said David Villatoro, a USC alumnus of 2010 and one of the students who helped create the application.

The application also has a dietary component, allowing the player to feed his creature as he pleases — ideally by feeding him the same foods the player himself is eating.

“The best way to think about the game is as a combination of both Pokemon and Wii Fit,” said team member Erin Reynolds, a graduate student studying cinematic arts.

The initial idea for the game originated in January 2009 Experimental Game Topics (CTIN 492) class, where students must pitch ideas regarding how gaming systems can affect lives in regards to exercising and dietary needs.

Alumnus John Banayan, of the class of 2010, came up with the original concept, and worked with the rest of the team to develop the idea into what is now the Trainer application demo.

The winners divided the prize money among themselves, but also kept some of it for continuing developments. The group intends to turn the demo into a full game and hope to clinically test it to see what results Trainer will have, Reynolds said.

But the award still hasn’t sunk in for some of the contestants.

“We’re all in a little bit of shock — I know I haven’t absorbed the whole thing,” Reynolds said. “It’s very exciting that the White House is looking at video games; I think video games have a lot of potential to do good in the world.”

About 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents ages two to 19 are obese, according to a recent National Health and Nutrition and Examination Service.

Emily Luu, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences, said the platform for fitness education could be useful in the future.

“Because America is one of the fattest nations in the world, and we spend a lot of time playing video games, I think this is a great application because it combines both our desires to play video games and our necessity to exercise,” Luu said.