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Lancaster University Researchers Make Exercise an RFID-enabled Game

A research group is using RFID tags and cell phones to play a real-life version of Pac-Man, and to develop ways to encourage London commuters to adopt healthy habits.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 27, 2008A Lancaster University research group known as Mobile Radicals, and a U.K. health advisor, with funding from Royal Parks, have teamed up to develop a way to use RFID to coax an increasingly sedentary population off their couches.

Pac-Lan eats a pill by touching its RFID tag with a handset.
The system, known as Health Buddy, employs RFID-enabled Nokia phones to track users' movements as they walk around Hyde Park or other sections of London, then transmit the data to a Web server. Users can chronicle the distance they walk and calculate the number of calories burned. In the future, they might also earn rewards, such as coupons or financial discounts, for getting fresh air and exercise.

Health Buddy is not yet commercially available and has, to date, been used only in pilots. Its developers first intend to study the system's benefits on users' health habits in summer 2008, then make plans for a full-scale deployment in London or other parts of the United Kingdom. Health Buddy enables people to track their movements by tapping RFID cards against mobile phones installed in weatherproof boxes in public places. With a GPRS connection in the phone, data about the users' movements can be transmitted to a server, which will then chronicle their activity on a Web site.

London physician William Bird, strategic health advisor for federal environmental conservation group Natural England and chair of health group Outdoor Health Forum, has been behind a series of federally funded programs designed to get British residents on their feet and outdoors. Bird has organized Health Walk, a nationwide program that has spurred 13,000 walks so far, and Green Gym, another national program that combines environment conservation with exercise.

An NFC-enabled phone displays the game's playing field.
Last year, Bird came across Pac-Lan, a game that uses NFC-enabled phones to draw video gamers outdoors. Developed by Paul Coulton, director of Lancaster University's Mobile Applications Research Group, Pac-Lan encourages players to come away from their computer screens and play a physical game that requires exercise but, Coulton says, has all the elements of the Pac-Man videogame.

Instead of guiding a munching ball-shaped computerized character through a maze on a video screen, players must dash through the Lancaster University Campus using their mobile phones to track each other, and to tap 13.56 MHz passive RFID tags attached to plastic discs that represent "power pills" analogous to those that Pac-Man eats in the videogame. The tags contain NXP Semiconductors' Mifare chips, which comply with the ISO 14443 and Near Field Communication (NFC) standards.

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