Tripping the dance mat fantastic

A 2008 Crescenta Valley High graduate has been nationally recognized for her work in developing an interactive game that encourages senior citizens to exercise by dancing.

Sarah Ferraro, now a junior at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, has been awarded an honorable mention in the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards 2011 competition for her work, which was backed by a $40,000 grant from Google.

The recognition comes from the Computing Research Assn., which hosts the annual competition as a means to further promote its mission of strengthening research and education in the field of computer science. It regularly attracts the top undergraduates in the field, including students from Harvard, Princeton and Tufts universities.

Ferraro, 21, worked alongside several fellow computer science students during the summers of 2009 and 2010 to develop “Senior Prom,” meant to promote physical activity among aging adults.

“It is an interesting project,” said Elizabeth Sweedyk, associate professor of computer science who served as the faculty adviser. “It has the potential for really doing something good for people.”

After securing the $40,000 grant, the team set about researching existing dance games — including Dance Dance Revolution and U-Dance — for their accessibility, usability and appeal.

“Dance Dance Revolution has been pretty popular with a younger audience…We were interested in seeing if a similar approach would be well received by senior citizens, and it they would want to play,” Ferraro said.

The team visited a nearby retirement community where they quickly determined that the steps were too fast paced for older users. Summer 2009 was spent developing a new game with a slower pace and a three-dimensional camera system that uses socks worn by the user to track their movements.

They also scrapped the contemporary pop music, replacing it with Frank Sinatra.

“We wanted to make it really easy to learn,” Ferraro said. “We used music that was more applicable [to seniors].”

The second summer was spent developing another game that featured a two-dimensional dance mat, similar to those found in games already on the market.

The team again visited retirement communities to put the prototypes to the test. They concluded that the games had some value, but might not hold seniors’ attention.

“They did have fun with it,” Ferraro said. “They tended to like the ones that were more challenging. We found a lot of people tried it and found it interesting, but weren’t really interested in playing it over and over.”

It was Crescenta Valley High School teacher and robotics team coach Greg Neat who pushed her to look at computer science as a career option, Ferraro said. Previously, she had thought of it as only a fun hobby.

Ferraro is scheduled to make a presentation on “Senior Prom” project at Google headquarters in April.

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