Cyber buddy is better than ‘no buddy’

A Michigan State University researcher is looking to give exercise enthusiasts the extra nudge they need during a workout, and her latest research shows that a cyber buddy can help.The study, which appears in the Games for Health Journal, is the first to indicate that although a human partner is still a better motivator during exercise, a software-generated partner also can be effective.”We wanted to demonstrate that something that isn’t real can still motivate people to give greater effort while exercising than if they had to do it by themselves,” said Deborah Feltz, a University Distinguished Professor in MSU’s kinesiology department who led the study with co-investigator Brian Winn, associate professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences.The implications from the research also could open the door for software and video game companies to create cyber buddy programs based on sport psychology.”Unlike many of the current game designs out there, these results could allow developers to create exercise platforms that incorporate team or partner dynamics that are based on science,” said Feltz.Using “CyBud-X,” an exercise game specifically developed for Feltz’s research, 120 college-aged participants were given five different isometric plank exercises to do with one of three same-sex partner choices.Along with a human partner option, two software-generated buddies were used — one representing what looked to be a nearly human partner and another that looked animated. The participant and partner image were then projected onto a screen via a web camera while exercising.The results showed that a significant motivational gain was observed in all partner conditions.”Even though participants paired with a human partner held their planks, on average, one minute and 20 seconds longer than those with no partner, those paired with one of the software-generated buddies still held out, on average, 33 seconds longer,” said Feltz.Much of Feltz’s research in this area has focused on the Khler Motivation Effect, a phenomenon that explains why people, who may not be adept exercisers themselves, perform better with a moderately better partner or team as opposed to working out alone.Her findings give credence that programs such as “CyBud-X” can make a difference in the way people perform.”We know that people tend to show more effort during exercise when there are other partners involved because their performance hinges on how the entire team does,” she said. “The fact that a nonhuman partner can have a similar effect is encouraging.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Michigan State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Software uses cyborg swarm to map unknown environs

Oct. 16, 2013 — Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed software that allows them to map unknown environments — such as collapsed buildings — based on the movement of a swarm of insect cyborgs, or “biobots.””We focused on how to map areas where you have little or no precise information on where each biobot is, such as a collapsed building where you can’t use GPS technology,” says Dr. Edgar Lobaton, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper on the research.”One characteristic of biobots is that their movement can be somewhat random,” Lobaton says. “We’re exploiting that random movement to work in our favor.”Here’s how the process would work in the field. A swarm of biobots, such as remotely controlled cockroaches, would be equipped with electronic sensors and released into a collapsed building or other hard-to-reach area. The biobots would initially be allowed to move about randomly. Because the biobots couldn’t be tracked by GPS, their precise locations would be unknown. However, the sensors would signal researchers via radio waves whenever biobots got close to each other.Once the swarm has had a chance to spread out, the researchers would send a signal commanding the biobots to keep moving until they find a wall or other unbroken surface — and then continue moving along the wall. This is called “wall following.”The researchers repeat this cycle of random movement and “wall following” several times, continually collecting data from the sensors whenever the biobots are near each other. The new software then uses an algorithm to translate the biobot sensor data into a rough map of the unknown environment.”This would give first responders a good idea of the layout in a previously unmapped area,” Lobaton says.The software would also allow public safety officials to determine the location of radioactive or chemical threats, if the biobots have been equipped with the relevant sensors.The researchers have tested the software using computer simulations and are currently testing the program with robots. …

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New tool enhances the search for genetic mutations

Aug. 25, 2013 — Concealed within the vastness of the human genome, (composed of some 3 billion base pairs), mutations are commonplace. While the majority of these appear to have neutral effect on human health, many others are associated with diseases and disease susceptibility.Reed Cartwright, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, along with colleagues at ASU, Washington University and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, UK, report on a new software tool known as DeNovoGear, which uses statistical probabilities to help identify mutations and more accurately pinpoint their source and their possible significance for health.Improvements in the accuracy of mutation identification and validation could have a profound impact on the diagnosis and treatment of mutation-related diseases.”These techniques are being considered in two different realms,” Cartwright says. “The first is for pediatric diseases.” Here, a child with an unusual genetic disease may undergo genomic sequencing to see if the mutations observed have been acquired from the parents or are instead, unique to the child. “We can identify these mutations and try to detect which gene may be broken,” he says.The second application is for cancer research, where tumor tissues are genetically compared with normal tissue. Many now believe that the identification of a specific cancer mutation may eventually permit clinicians to customize a treatment for that tissue type. “We are developing methods to allow researchers to make those types of analyses, using advanced, probabilistic methods,” Cartwright says. “We actually model the whole process.”Indeed, the method described provides the first model-based approach for ferreting out certain types of mutations. The group’s research results appear in today’s issue of the journal Nature Methods.One of the primary goals in genetics is to accurately characterize genetic variation and the rate at which it occurs. Searching for DNA mutations through genetic sequencing is an important ingredient in this quest, but many challenges exist. …

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New technology reduces, controls CT radiation exposure in children: CT scan radiation reduced by 37 percent

June 19, 2013 — Patients at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are being exposed to significantly less radiation during CT scans because of new technology that allows doctors to more tightly control radiation doses. The first-of-its-kind imaging software reduced overall radiation exposure from CT scans by 37 percent, according to two new studies published online today in the journal Radiology.The imaging software — developed and currently in use only at Cincinnati Children’s — mathematically determines the lowest possible radiation dose for the patient before a scan is performed, according to the study led by David Larson, MD, radiology quality and safety director at the medical center and principal architect of the technology.Used with existing CT scanners, the new software allows radiologists to precisely control the amount of radiation based on the specific size of each patient, while still producing diagnostic-quality images. The software provides radiologists with the correct scanner settings before the CT scan is performed, and then monitors each scan slice-by-slice, to confirm that the right dose was used.”Radiologists have had to rely on a trial-and-error approach to optimizing CT radiation dose. This model allows us to more accurately walk that fine line of precise dosing,” said Dr. Larson. “Even though modern CT scanners adjust the dose based on the size of the patient, they do not necessarily adjust it to the exact image quality radiologists need. This way we can not only specify what image quality and dose are appropriate, but we can also predict the scanner settings needed to achieve those levels.”During the quality-improvement study involving more than 800 patients, Dr. Larson and his team asked radiologists to score CT images to determine an acceptable amount of “noise” — or unwanted random signals.”Image quality is what determines the appropriate radiation dose — the challenge is to find the threshold where the dose is as low as possible, but the images are still clear,” Larson added. “The right balance results in images that may be a little noisy but are good enough to provide an accurate diagnosis.”Larson believes the new system can have broad-scale impact on how CT scans are performed. He adds that though the approach was developed in pediatrics, it is also applicable for adults.”Image quality depends on patient size, not patient age,” Larson said. …

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Mapping a room in a snap: Four microphones and a computer algorithm are enough to produce a 3-D model of a simple, convex room

June 17, 2013 — Blind people sometimes develop the amazing ability to perceive the contours of the room they’re in based only on auditory information. Bats and dolphins use the same echolocation technique for navigating in their environment.At EPFL, a team from the Audiovisual Communications Laboratory (LCAV), under the direction of Professor Martin Vetterli, has developed a computer algorithm that can accomplish this from a sound that’s picked up by four microphones. Their experiment is being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “Our software can build a 3D map of a simple, convex room with a precision of a few millimeters,” explains PhD student Ivan Dokmanić.Randomly placed microphonesAs incredible as it may seem, the microphones don’t need to be carefully placed. “Each microphone picks up the direct sound from the source, as well as the echoes arriving from various walls,” Dokmanić continues. “The algorithm then compares the signal from each microphone. The infinitesimal lags that appear in the signals are used to calculate not only the distance between the microphones, but also the distance from each microphone to the walls and the sound source.”This ability to “sort out” the various echoes picked up by the microphones is in itself a first. By analyzing each echo’s signal using “Euclidean distance matrices,” the system can tell whether the echo is rebounding for the first or second time, and determine the unique “signature” of each of the walls.The researchers tested the algorithm at EPFL using a “clean” sound source in an empty room in which they changed the position of a movable wall. Their results confirmed the validity of the approach. A second experiment carried out in a much more complex environment — an alcove in the Lausanne Cathedral — gave good partial results. …

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Automated ‘coach’ could help with social interactions

June 14, 2013 — Social phobias affect about 15 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and surveys show that public speaking is high on the list of such phobias. For some people, these fears of social situations can be especially acute: For example, individuals with Asperger’s syndrome often have difficulty making eye contact and reacting appropriately to social cues. But with appropriate training, such difficulties can often be overcome.Now, new software developed at MIT can be used to help people practice their interpersonal skills until they feel more comfortable with situations such as a job interview or a first date. The software, called MACH (short for My Automated Conversation coacH), uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech, and behavior analysis and synthesis software, to simulate face-to-face conversations. It then provides users with feedback on their interactions.The research was led by MIT Media Lab doctoral student M. Ehsan Hoque, who says the work could be helpful to a wide range of people. A paper documenting the software’s development and testing has been accepted for presentation at the 2013 International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, known as UbiComp, to be held in September.”Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” Hoque says. “How we appear and how we convey our feelings to others define us. But there isn’t much help out there to improve on that segment of interaction.”Many people with social phobias, Hoque says, want “the possibility of having some kind of automated system so that they can practice social interactions in their own environment. … They desire to control the pace of the interaction, practice as many times as they wish, and own their data.”The MACH software offers all those features, Hoque says. …

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Weekends are the best time to buy airline tickets, study finds

May 22, 2013 — While folk wisdom has its place, the “folks” may not be so wise when it comes to shopping for airline tickets, say researchers at Texas A&M University.

“There’s been this industry folk wisdom that says Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to purchase airline tickets,” says Steven Puller, an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M who specializes in industrial organization. “But we couldn’t find any systematic analysis to back that up.”

Rather, he says, the weekend is the best time to book airline tickets because airlines are more likely to discount fares on Saturday and Sunday.

In the study “Price Discrimination By Day-Of-Week Of Purchase: Evidence From The U.S. Airline Industry,” published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Puller and co-author Lisa Taylor, a former Texas A&M graduate student, found that tickets purchased on the weekend were, on average, 5 percent cheaper than similar tickets purchased on weekdays.

“We find that when you control for a large set of factors — the day-of-week of travel, whether the ticket was refundable, the number of days in advance that the ticket was purchased, how full the flights were, and other factors — that tickets purchased on the weekends were sold, on average, for a 5 percent discount,” Puller explains.

The study further finds this weekend purchase discount is greatest on routes with a mix of both business and leisure customers. There is not much of this type of discount for leisure destinations such as Orlando or Las Vegas, Puller notes.

The researchers suggest, although do not definitively conclude, that this weekend purchase effect reflects a common practice known as “price discrimination.”

This happens when the same service is sold at different prices to different buyers, in this case, based on the day of the week that an airline ticket is purchased.

Puller says the airlines try to play the odds when deciding how to price flights.

“Take a route that serves both business and leisure travelers,” he explains. “If the business travelers primarily purchase tickets on weekdays, then the typical traveler buying on the weekend is more likely to be a price-sensitive leisure traveler than a business traveler. There is an incentive for the airlines to lower fares on the weekends to try to entice the price-sensitive leisure traveler to buy a ticket.”

But how do the airlines know if a particular buyer is travelling for leisure or business? “They don’t,” Puller contends. “They’re playing the odds.”

The researchers conducted the study by looking at a historical archive of actual tickets purchased on all major airlines. Puller says the study compared tickets with similar characteristics rather than simply looking at the cheapest fare available.

“If you’re a traveler who just wants to get from point A to point B for the cheapest price possible, then these findings may not apply to you,” he notes. “But many people do care about these factors.”

The researchers only studied round-trip flights with nonstop service. The study did not examine first-class airfare or the holiday travel periods around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

Puller says these results could have implications for other industries that have the ability to change prices daily based on the types of customers who purchase on a specific day. “The software systems that are used in airline pricing are used in other industries such as cruises, hotels, car rentals,” he explains. “We’ve only analyzed airline pricing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if similar pricing practices are used in these other industries as well.”

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