Friday, September 30, 2005

Cyclescore on applying exercise to games

MIT's CycleScore has an FAQ:
What's the most unusual thing you've found in your research?

We wanted to make use of existing commercial games (rather than design our own), but our research showed that commercial games are too complex. They distract the user and result in sub-optimal workouts. They also have problems with discontinuity (i.e. if you adapt a commercial car game to a bike, what happens when the car in the game crashes? Why are you still pedaling? These kinds of logical discontinuities make adapting commercial games problematic.)

So we had to design games from scratch that would be simple but still fun, and that would motivate the user to push themselves without annoying them....

We've also found that the racing games typically co-opted by most exertainment startups don't work extremely well in the context of exercise. The problem is, the player is too aware of the fact that their pedaling corresponds directly to the speed of their virtual vehicle. They are constantly concerned about pedalling enough to win the race, which sounds good in theory, but in practice, it just leads to a tiring experience. Not super-motivational. We've found that if you disassociate pedaling from speed (and even movement), you're more likely to distract the player, increase motivation, but still create a solid exercise experience.

Agreed. This is why Prince of Persia is a better overall Kilowatt Sport experience than Grand Turismo. When the Kilowatt folks claim their controller gives you a more nuanced control range, the trouble is that standard games were designed for traditional control pads that don't have that nuance so it's mostly wasted on them. The optimum exercise-game experience requires designing the game and the controller together as a unified whole rather than bolting together mix-and-match parts.

One of the cooler CycleScore game ideas was to have the user pedal to recharge the weapon rather than to move the ship. Then the game can be tailored to ramp smoothly and require some certain minimum amount of exertion but no more than that; additional effort doesn't help win the game so there's no incentive to pedal yourself silly (and then collapse of exhaustion) trying to get a better score.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

That's Exertainment!

This rather appalling coinage comes from an actual product:
The Life Fitness Exertainment system was a collaboration between Nintendo and Life Fitness, a maker of exercise equipment...It was first scheduled to be released in the fall of 1995. The heart of the system in the original design was a special adaptor that allows Life Fitness Lifecycle to be connected to a Super Nintendo. With this setup, pedaling on the cycle is transmitted as digital information to the SNES.
There are two games that were released for the Exertainment system...Mountain Bike Rally and Speed Racer. In both games, players have the choice of either flat or hilly terrain, with hilly terrain offering more pedaling resistance. In Mountain Bike Rally, produced by Radical Entertainment, you have a choice of eight riders, bike type, steering ability, resistance, and courses. Races last several miles, making the game an endurance test. You can punch other riders in the game, which makes for some action other than pedaling. The game also features stuff like ramps, different riding surfaces, and guys throwing stuff at you while you're trying to bike. Speed Racer is essentially the same game that Accolade released in 1994, though I doubt they kept the platform action parts. Radical Entertainment kept the Boosters, gripping tires, and, naturally, the MACH 5, and they added some hills.
Yup, it's basically the Expresso Spark using the best home gaming technology that 1995 had to offer. Yeesh.

Exertainment. Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? Are you being sufficiently exertained? Is your home system extertaining enough?

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Exercise bike videogame controller roundup

Here are some products that allow one to control a video game by riding an exercise bike:

NeXfit MOG interfaces with a PC laptop, $1900 or $2300. Great commercial video here (768 kbs, Windows Media Player)

Cateye Gamebike is a bike controller for consumers, PS2 interface, $350

Cateye Gamebike Pro is meant for health clubs, connects to PS2, GameCube or XBox, $1200

Expresso Fitness "Spark" is a bike with a 17 inch screen and custom software aimed at health clubs, $4700

SimCycle is just a pedal controller, not a full bike, $272 at Amazon

NeoRacer is a bike controller with "adjustable magnetic (eddy current) resistance" for PS2 and PC, $220

The GamerCycle doesn't control videogames, it just inflicts exercise on passive viewers of any video media - when the user stops pedaling, the TV screen goes blank. $300

The MIT Media lab is working on a project called CycleScore. ( See also this Boston Globe article )

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An Unsolicited Testimonial

Ian Holmes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, likes my blog:
Games like Prop Cycle, Dance Dance Revolution and Mocap Boxing herald a new era of digital arcade entertainment where physical fitness is a byproduct of play. Products like Toysight (for Apple Mac's iSight webcam), along with fitness-oriented game controllers like Kilowatt Sport from Powergrid Fitness, have brought exercise games from the arcade to the desktop. Is this the future?

Glen Raphael at thinks so. His blog is devoted to exercise games; and I say more power to the man. Tactile user interfaces, and particularly games, seem like a great way to get fit...
Ian goes on to suggest an idea he's been mulling over:
Using the CSAFE protocol (a standard API for exercise machines: bikes, treadmills, elliptic trainers, et cetera) to make a custom keyboard for playing online RPGs like World of Warcraft. Think about it: in those games you spend ages trudging from location to location on the world map, holding down the "walk" key while your brain atrophies and your back and neck develop permanent kinks. Wouldn't it be relatively straightforward, and ultimately healthier, to use CSAFE's cmdGetSpeed command to make your elliptic trainer effectively press the walk key for you? That is, hook your keyboard up to your exercise machine, so that walking on the machine translated to walking in the game. Given the amount of effort NIH expends to fight obesity, this kind of thing really seems to make sense.
Sounds like a good summer project. Any Berkeley biomechanics students out there?

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Monday, September 26, 2005

I have seen the future!

The trend toward videogames that involve exercise is well-established. Nothing can stop it now! [insert maniacal laughter]

I predict future videogame players will be lean, flexible, well-muscled, finely-trained athletes able to beat up football players and steal their lunch money.

In the meantime, I've ordered an EyeToy and a copy of Yourself!Fitness. Reviews to follow.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

DDR Extreme (PS2)

Mission Mode is fun!

My current primary workout game is Dance Dance Revolution Extreme for the PS/2. After you've passed 45 songs in Game Mode it unlocks "Mission Mode", in which you are given numbered mission assignments to complete.

If, like me, you've been a hardcore DDR player for years and are able to pass 7-footers with ease, this new play mode is really interesting. Because once you get good enough to play the upper end of the difficulty level - songs rated 7 or more on the DDR 10-point scale qualify - your brain works differently from the casual DDR player. You stop having to think about which foot to use when or how to do a particular pattern in time with the music; it's instinctive. You just find your groove and get into it; the connection between arrows on the screen and movements of the feet is hard-coded. Effortless. Playing DDR becomes like walking, eating, or breathing - something you don't have to think about to do reasonably well. It becomes hard not to dance a song correctly.

At which point DDR can get a little boring. Like walking, eating, or breathing, there's not much mental challenge left in it. Sure, there's still the physical challenge at the higher ends of getting in good enough shape not to collapse of exhaustion doing "DDR Max 300" or whatever. And there's still some mental effort in memorizing sequences and working through the trickier parts in Training Mode. But there isn't as much mental challenge as when you were just starting out.

Mission Mode forces you to start thinking again. Because to complete these missions you need to break all those instincts. You might even be required to play badly. Get "N.G." on every Freeze arrow in a song. End a song with the meter below 10%. Score a "C" on a song. Score within a point range that essentially disallows "Perfect" jumps - you have to jump sloppily to pass with such a low score. Avoid the up arrow but hit everything else. Miss all the double jumps.

Here's one that gave me a lot of trouble:
Mission #19: "Step on 1/8 beat unit arrows with the following results: PERFECT, GREAT. Don't step on other arrows."
So, I have to watch arrows go by and ignore them unless they are on the off beat? Yikes!

The missions can be fiendishly difficult and frustrating, but it feels great when you finally pass that one you've been stuck on. Check it out!

IGN review (with pics!)
DDR Extreme Bundle at Amazon

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Taiko Drum Master (PS2)

Kawaiii! This game is nauseatingly cute - the onscreen taiko drum has a face and gets sad when you do poorly. The "stage cleared!" voice is excited and happy for you; the "stage failed" voice is heartbroken. But if you have a sufficiently strong stomach, here's a fine music exercise game in which you pound a small drum with big Taiko-style arm movements.

The controller senses hits to the drum head and hits to the rim. There are a variety of tunes to choose from at various difficulty levels. Scrolling graphics tell you when to hit what. Start out on the easiest mode; these songs can be hard rhythmically. Red Octane has a nice third-party controller or you can use the standard one, it's not terrible.

Exercise Type: Aerobic, arm and shoulder muscles.

Only available for PS2, though there are other drumming games for other platforms.

Taiko Drum Master with Drum (Amazon)
Taiko Drum Master 2 (Amazon pre-order)
Gamespot review
Gaming Age review

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Mocap Boxing

Mocap (motion capture) Boxing uses the same sensor array as does Police 911 but adds an extra rail to detect punching motions. Plastic protective boxing gloves are provided. To avoid major punches, crouch or shift your weight to make your character duck, dodge right or dodge left. To hit your opponent, make a punching motion during the times he is identified as vulnerable.

This is an exhausting full-body exercise! Punching will tire your arms; crouching will tire your legs.

If you just want to do well in the game it's possible to cheat a bit. When the game requires you to hit your opponent 30 times in a row to knock him out, you will get quite tired and sore if you throw full punches. The cheat is to just wiggle your fist in place in the proper location to trigger the sensor repeatedly. But for the best workout you should scrupulously treat this like a real fight, throwing real punches and dodging appropriately.

Unfortunately, the game logic is weak; you can't hit the opponent except when target areas are specifically identified and it really doesn't matter how fast, hard, or accurate your punches are. So it's not useful from a martial arts perspective. But it is fun and energetic.

Exercise type: There are both aerobic and resistance/weight training aspects. The gloves you lift and wave around are heavy plastic.

(Konami/2001) klov entry

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Kilowatt Sport

This controller turns nearly every game you play into a workout. It's a strain gauge; it measures the amount of force you exert against a metal bar in various directions and translates that into analog joystick movements. Many games use one joystick to move a character around on the screen. With a Kilowatt device, you can use whole upper body strength rather than a few thumb muscles to manipulate that joystick.

The controller doesn't move; you push against it. Or pull, or some combination of the two. How much force does it need? As much as you want. You can set the resistance requirements on a scale from 1 to 20; I just got mine and currently play at around level 5.

Racing games seem like a natural for this. In Grand Turismo you can map the controller such that you push forward to accelerate, pull back to brake, and push right or left to steer. But with racing games the exercise is too monotonous - you end up pushing forward at full strength continuously for long blocks of time. This gets tiring fast, like holding a pushup position indefinitely. Other games provide a better mixture of physical movements. I really enjoyed Prince of Persia: Sands of Time - it provided an especially good gaming experience when the Prince was dragging or pushing heavy objects around. Arcade classics such as Sinistar, Bubbles, and Marble Madness work well too.

Exercise type: resistance training, mostly upper body.

Advantages: Play any videogame that uses the analog controllers and get a workout.

Disadvantages: All current Kilowatt models are expensive and take up a lot of physical space - about as much as an exercise bike. The cheapest one is about $500, discounted. The Sport is smaller than most but costs $800 and is inconvenient to adjust. PowerGrid has announced development of a cheaper, smaller version that will be used in a seated position and may cost as little as $200 but this has not yet been released.

PowerGrid gives essentially no guidance as to how to use the thing other than configuring the controls to work with a few specific games. They say you should change games and controller positions often, but don't suggest how high to put the controller or the backrest to exercise specific muscle groups or avoid injuries. I'm guessing the reason for this is that they don't really know which exercises are more or less effective or risky than others. The single "white paper" on the PowerGrid site merely demonstrates that using the Killowatt involves significant physical exertion.

Conclusion: So far, I love it! If I'm going to spend hours playing a videogame I'd much rather it require some physical exertion than veg out on the couch exercising nothing but fingers and thumbs. If you have the space and the means, I highly recommend this peripheral. Still, you might want to wait for the price to come down a bit more. And be on the lookout for actual studies that might dispel or confirm lingering concerns about RSI...
PowerGrid's "white paper"
New York Times review of Kilowatt Sport

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Police 911

Sensors in an overhead rail determine where your head and shoulders are so the game can adjust the point of view of the character accordingly. Thus, it's a shooting game where you can physically dodge behind cover. Crouch behind an onscreen railing, pop up to get off a few shots at the bad guys, then crouch again. Shift your bodyweight right or left to get behind cover of a nearby wall or to reveal the perfect headshot.

Due to all the crouching, this game is an excellent leg exercise. You're essentially doing squats a significant fraction of the time. When not squatting, the standing and shifting weight right and left is nice for balance and flexibility as well as exercising other leg muscles.

Upshot: It won't burn as many calories as DDR, but Police 911 is uniquely well designed to strengthen the quadriceps.

Konami attempted a PS2 port in 2001 using a custom sensor but the project was cancelled prior to release; there is no home version of this game currently available.

(Konami/2000) Killer List of Videogames entry

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This arcade game is like a "spinning" class at the gym only much more fun. The controller is a stationary bicycle complete with working handlebars. Like so:

Onscreen, your efforts control a pedal-powered hanglider that navigates a fantasy world popping balloons and trying not to crash into things. The glider needs to maintain forward momentum or it stalls, so you need to keep pedaling. It is possible at times to build up speed and then coast for a bit. Unlike most games with a timer or racing component, this one rarely encourages the player to travel as fast as possible. Instead, it imposes the natural real-world constraint that faster planes have a reduced turning radius and tend to overshoot their targets. Playing well demands a nice mix of fast, slow, and no pedaling.

Exercise type: aerobic, legs.

Disadvantages: there's no home version and it's hard to find in US arcades. Since you can't control the resistance level, the exercise component might get to be too easy if you play a lot; it doesn't scale in difficulty as easily as some games.

(Namco, 1996). Screenshots can be found at the Killer List of Videogames.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Dance Dance Revolution

Four large buttons are arranged in a cross pattern on the floor - front, back, right, and left. As music plays, a stream of graphics tells you when to jump or step in order to press specific buttons in time with the music. Improve your rhythm and impress your friends while you get in shape!

It is a phenomenal workout. Fun, highly aerobic, and it scales well; no matter how good you get there will still be songs you find challenging. Start out in "easy" mode with 1-foot songs and gradually work your way up to harder versions - the scale goes up to 10-footers. By the time you master all the songs on one game - if you ever do - there will be a sequel with new complications and harder songs to master.

If solo mode is too easy, try "double mode" where all eight buttons are used or move to higher challenge levels on the songs you already know.

I first played DDR in Hong Kong around 1998, a few years before it showed up in the US. Video arcades are huge in Hong Kong; near Kowloon Park you can find one on almost every block. At first you'd find one "dancing game" per arcade but eventually they caught on to such a degree that you could find entire rooms of dancing games, complete with fans aimed at the playing stage and a disco ball overhead.

Variants: DDR Solo adds two more buttons on the diagonal - front-right and front-left. Various competitors have used other button layouts.

You can get home DDR versions for Playstation or XBox and you should. I recommend spending the extra money for a serious "soft pad" such as the Ignition from Red Octane. (The cheaper pads tend to slide around on the floor, bunch up, and give false positives, making for frustrating gameplay).

Conclusion: If you are at all interested in videogame-based workouts - and if you aren't, why are you reading this? - you should start by playing DDR both at home and in arcades. (My current favorite home game is DDR Max 2 for the PS2, but they're all good.)

ddrfreak - contests, tips, general info
ddrnation - sells all things DDR-related
Red Octane - makes several cool DDR pads
Konami DDR Gateway - official manufacturer site

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What's all this, then?

This is a blog for people who want to get in shape by playing videogames.

I was an "early adopter" of exercise games because I was working in Hong Kong when the first Dance Dance Revolution was released there. I got hooked, lost over 10 pounds, and wanted to keep playing it in California where, at the time, nobody had ever heard of it. Thus, I imported bootleg versions of DDR for the Playstation to play with game pads I bought from street vendors at the Temple Street night market. When I wore out those pads I switched to a Konami Soft Pad found at a Japanese import store... While continuing to feed my DDR habit, I've branched out into other exercise games. I seek them out in arcades and often buy the games (and their wacky associated peripherals) for home use. By now I've played dozens of such games and there seem to be more coming out regularly, almost too many to keep track of.

Thus, a blog.

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