Building Interactive Environments

  • Rabindra A. Ratan
  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
  • College of Communication Arts and Sciences
Rabindra A. Ratan

Rabindra (Robby) Ratan wants you to be happy— and healthy. And he has co-developed urWell™, a free, downloadable software app (compatible with iPhone™, iPad™, and iPod™ touch), to help you get there.

Dr. Ratan's research focuses on the ways people interact with technologies and the behavioral results of those interactions. In 2011, while he was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, he co-founded Tech urSelf™ with Belinda Liu, who is now CEO of the San Francisco-based company.

The Tech urSelf™ urWell™ app includes several self-tracking and self-reflection tools aimed at helping people better understand themselves. The app is based on the philosophy that everyone can grow from self-reflection and thus improve their sense of fulfillment, happiness, and well-being.

The urWell™ app is the result of a chance meeting on an airplane between Ratan (when still a Ph.D. student) and Liu in the summer of 2010. During the course of their conversation, Ratan and Liu realized they shared an interest in recording and reflecting on data about their lives, as well as an entrepreneurial spirit. They also recognized that the tools to do the kind of self-tracking, self-reflection, and analysis they were interested in either didn't exist or were inadequate. So they decided to team up and, with some additional technical expertise they hired, developed their own self-reflection software tool.

As Ratan explained it, "urWell™ is about self-awareness, so the technology itself is designed to promote self-awareness, which I think is integral for improving happiness or reducing depression— however you want to frame it—increasing wellness. It's almost as if the technology is intended to turn the user into a personal scientist or their own psychologist. The technology is a life coach. You enter the data and the technology guides you through a path to self-discovery."

According to Ratan, "there's an entire niche of people called the 'quantified self' movement or 'quantified selfers' who will track everything—calories, weight of their food, anything that they can write numbers for, and they go to meet-ups and share their data. They're highly motivated. And I imagine most people are not highly motivated or technologically capable of that level of tracking. So the vision behind the app was to provide easy tracking."

The urWell™ app was officially launched in May of 2013 and has not reached wide distribution as yet, so it is too early for Ratan to evaluate the impact or benefits of it. However, he noted that so far, "the people who have gotten into it deeply say they like it and they do glean insights about their lives."

About the collaboration, Belinda Liu said, "Robby was instrumental in getting our urWell™ lifestyle tracking app off the ground. We co-created the initial design of urWell™ based on his background in mobile gaming and social science research. Robby also developed an elegant solution to calculating and visualizing the user's lifestyle and wellness trends in the app. Because of the simple design and functionality of urWell™, we won a $40K startup grant with Startup Chile to further expand on the product and share our work with the global startup community in Chile."

Ratan has continued his involvement in this project, providing expert advice on refinements to the software product to Liu and her team of experts from various fields, including wellness experts and the software industry.

Car Talk

Improving the Driving World in Tangible Ways

Beyond the urWell™ app endeavor, Ratan sees his role as using the theories he develops about communication in virtual worlds and video games to help create technologies that can improve the world in tangible ways, such as by reducing car accidents.

Currently he is interested in the way people communicate with each other, either through their cars or through in-car social media. Ratan said that, while at the moment, "we can't communicate with others safely when we're on the road, I think this is about to change dramatically both because the car will drive itself—giving us more time and attention available to talk to other drivers—and because the apps that we use on our phones will be geared more toward interactions with drivers and other features of the road."

His "Avacars" project, which focuses on this topic, involves his SPARTIE (Social and Psychological Approaches to Research on Technology and Interactive Environments) research group. The SPARTIE group includes both graduate and undergraduate students and aims to use their research and game development in this area to improve driver safety and efficiency.

With the help of MSU institutional supports such as MSU Business-CONNECT, Ratan is seeking external partners among automobile manufacturers to participate in this research. While getting the right external partner can be a challenge, Ratan remains both hopeful and persistent, and sees the benefits of community engaged scholarship for all parties involved. "I entered academia thinking that everyone works like this or at least this is the best way to do it—work with external partners and try to make an impact on the world," he explained. "I think it makes things a little more fun and meaningful."

  • Written by Catherine A. Gibson, University Outreach and Engagement

Like this Magazine? Join our mailing list