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Researchers who know new technology

Knowme Networks has been developed by researchers at USC Viterbi and the Keck School of Medicine. (Graphic/Katie McKissick)

Cellphones are capable of doing more than calling, texting and playing Angry Birds — they can help monitor a person’s health.

In a collaboration between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Keck School of Medicine of USC, researchers are testing an interactive system that allows teenagers to manage their physical activity levels. USC Viterbi faculty members Murali Annavaram and Shri Narayanan are collaborating with Keck School Professor Donna Spruijt-Metz, with the help of USC Viterbi’s Gaurav Sukhatme and Gisele Ragusa, to develop the system called Knowme Networks.

Here’s how it works: Each participant in the study is fitted with a sensor — secured with a band around the chest — that sits just above the sternum and monitors heart rate. When worn on the hip, a cellphone provides data from the built-in accelerometer to track movement. The chest sensor and the cellphone are calibrated to sense the difference between laying down, sitting, playing video games, walking slowly, walking fast and running.

The cellphone software displays a countdown clock that starts at two hours. If the participant has not been active by the time the countdown reaches zero, he or she receives a text message that says, “Move.” If more time elapses and the sensors don’t register any activity, a researcher who is monitoring the incoming data in real time sends a personal text message with a suggestion or encouragement, such as “Go for a walk down your street” or “Walk up and down the steps in your house.” It takes 10 consecutive minutes of activity to restart the two-hour countdown clock.

In a recent study conducted over the course of one weekend, the teenage participants decreased their sedentary time by an average of 200 minutes, compared to a weekend where Knowme was not used.

What’s next for the technology?

Annavaram plans to start a similar study that will monitor air quality’s effect on lung function. Participants will be outfitted with a clip-on air quality monitor that will send data to their cellphones. As they move to various environments throughout the day, the participants will blow into an air expirometer that gives them a three-digit lung function score. They will enter this number into their smartphone, which then connects it to the current air quality in the immediate environment. Over time, trends will emerge that show how air quality is affecting lung function for each individual.

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