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Using smartphones to modify behaviour

Posted: 27 Dec 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:University of Michigan  smartphone  app 

Beyond its primary purpose as a communications device, smartphones offer a plethora of functionalities that generally falls under the category of distraction. However, a University of Michigan engineering professor sees potential for them to be used as the opposite. What if they could act as mentors in mindfulness, helping users stay attentive in order to achieve particular goals?

That's the challenge Jasprit Singh, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, put before students this semester. In a course called "Imagine, Innovate, Act!" students from engineering, art, music, health fields and a variety of other backgrounds designed mobile apps to help users set and meet wellness milestones. The definition of "wellness" was broad, encompassing creativity and learning in addition to physical and mental health.

Singh, who grew up in New Delhi, is an applied physicist who works on semiconductor devices for high-powered RADAR, electric vehicles, smart grids and solid-state lighting. He is also a yoga devotee and instructor with studios in Ann Arbor and Santa Barbara, Calif. This course, in a sense, bridged his disparate disciplines.

Jasprit Singh

Singh: Technology can be a great behaviour changer.

"In our culture today, we often don't have scarcity of food or gadgets or knowledge. The scarcity has shifted to mindfulness," Singh said. "We may know we should do something, but we are not always able to do it. The goal of this course was to bring harmony between what we know and what do."

Humans forget. Under stress, we can fail to take the steps we intend to, Singh stated. But smartphones don't operate that way.

"And there are a billion of them in use today worldwide," he said. "They could deliver reminder technologies, or they could observe, teach, anticipate or help users perform best practices on a regular basis."

The apps the students developed in this first class focused on delivering messages to users at a set time or place. An app called Balance, targeted to senior citizens, offers easy and routine access to short exercise videos that could improve coordination and prevent falls. WeeAddition guides women through pregnancy. Joggle is a collaborative art, poetry and music app that could encourage creativity.


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