George Mason University
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George Mason University

Student using virtual reality technology to improve efficiency of fast-food restaurants

August 20, 2020   /   by Nanci Hellmich

“My goals are to minimize the average waiting time for customers and minimize the cost of the food.”

— Yongqi Zhang, PhD student in computer science

Yongqi Zhang, a PhD student in computer science

Yongqi Zhang, a PhD student in computer science, is using virtual reality technology to help improve the efficiency of workers at fast-food restaurants. Zhang received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program award.

In an ideal world, fast-food workers would serve customers more quickly while diners could safely social distance at tables in the eating area.

Yongqi Zhang, a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science, is doing research that could help restaurants do both. “Fast-food workers do so many tasks, and we want to distribute those tasks fairly while at the same time maintaining efficiency,” she says. “My goals are to minimize the average waiting time for customers and minimize the cost of the food.”

Zhang is using virtual reality technology to track human behavior in a virtual environment and then analyzing the results to develop optimization approaches to facilitate the movements of employees in the workplace. 

She will also use optimization algorithms to help redesign restaurant layouts so diners can use eating areas while social distancing. These algorithms could be applied to other workplaces as well, she says.

Zhang received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program award for her work.

Her research might one day be used by fast-food chains and other workplaces to redesign their environments to become more efficient, says Zhang's adviser Craig Yu, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, who does virtual reality research.  “Her techniques could be used to enhance our living environments as well, for example, making an apartment more comfortable, a playground more fun, and a grocery store more convenient and profitable.”

Zhang is building on her undergraduate research where she used optimization techniques to improve exergame design and player experience. Her work was published in two professional conferences and was recognized by a Best Paper Honorable Mention Award from the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), the premier international conference of human-computer interaction.

She says her “goal is to integrate advanced artificial intelligence, optimization, and machine learning techniques into novel virtual reality applications and computational design tools. I hope my findings can have a great impact on the future of work, entertainment, and everyday life.”

"Her techniques could be used to enhance our living environments as well, for example, making an apartment more comfortable, a playground more fun, and a grocery store more convenient and profitable.”

— Craig Yu, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Yongqi Zhang's adviser

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