McCormick students develop app to encourage healthy eating

Courtesy of Dennis Ai

The JiveHealth app, created by McCormick senior Dennis Ai and McCormick sophomore Christian Yenko, is one of 10 semifinalists in the Partnership for a Healthier America’s End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge.

Amy Whyte, Reporter
January 8, 2013 •

A pair of Northwestern students is currently in the running to present the app they developed at a summit featuring first lady Michelle Obama.

McCormick senior Dennis Ai and McCormick sophomore Christian Yenko are in the process of developing an app, JiveHealth, designed to encourage kids to form better eating habits by making healthy eating a part of game play. The startup, which Ai founded, is currently a semifinalist in Partnership for a Healthier America’s End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge.

Ai’s project is one of 10 semifinal honorees chosen to compete for three spots at the PHA Summit in March. Attendees at the summit will present their ideas to Obama, the PHA chairwoman and other stakeholders in the private sector who focus on healthy eating practices.

The three finalists will be chosen through voting on PHA’s Facebook page. Other semifinalists include Define Bottle, a reusable water bottle that creates fruit-flavored water, and Move With Me, a series of video exercise classes designed for kids.

Ai said he thinks the fact that JiveHealth is an app will make it stand out from its competitors.

“There’s nothing else that’s technology-based,” Ai said. “Once we put it on the app store, JiveHealth would be accessible to everyone.”

Ai decided to develop the app in part due to his own struggles with childhood obesity.

“By fourth grade, I was the fattest kid in my class,” Ai said. “Getting picked last for sports teams, kids making fun of you ... even parents whispering behind your back. It hurts, especially when you’re just a kid.”

The idea of making a mobile application formed this summer, when Ai realized how addicted he had become to a computer game.

“I thought to myself, ‘This game is so powerful, it’s got me glued to my computer, typing things on a keyboard for hours at a time,’” he said. “Why not use that power for good?”

Though the app is still in development, the group plans to have a prototype ready by March. They plan to create a game in which players can make their avatars faster and stronger by feeding them healthy foods and recipes. Players will be able to feed their avatars by taking pictures of meals that they are eating in real life.

“We want to create a situation where the kid really wants to eat this food and actually has it in their hands,” Ai said.

In order to develop the technology necessary for the app to be able to recognize what kind of food a child is eating based on a picture, the group is working with Northwestern’s computer science department under the advising of electrical engineering and computer science Prof. Ollie Cossairt.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Cossairt said. “I think it’s something that if it can get in the hands of kids, it could really educate them about the types of things they’re eating.”

Ai said he hopes the app will help kids change their behaviors and eating habits.

“I want to help kids not go through what I went through,” he said.

A previous version of this article stated that the contest had 75 initial entries. This is incorrect. The Daily regrets the error. 

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