Friday, March 31, 2006

Fight Exercise Boredom With Podcasts!

Yourself!Fitness is certainly the most effective videogame workout I've found. There is a lot of variety, it uses time effectively, it's easy and it covers just about every type of exercise you need. can get a little boring. Much of the problem is that it's not really a game so you're not being challenged to win or beat a high score. At first there's the challenge of learning all the new exercises and improving your Physical Challenge scores and unlocking new areas, but now that I'm coming up on 70 workouts that sort of stuff has tapered off. The novelty has worn as well, and the cheesy MIDI songs were already annoying after the first week.

I love my regular 45-minute workouts, but I was starting to feel unproductive doing them. So as of today I've hit on a new strategy: Podcasts!

Now that I know all the exercises down cold, I don't really need to hear Maya's description or the music to play along. So I tried turning down the sound and playing other music, music I actually like, but it's distracting to exercise when the beat of the music isn't the same as the rhythm Maya is following. What I can do, though, is listen to podcasts. Whether it's instructional or just for fun, a good spoken program distracts me from the exercise and makes me feel more productive - stimulating the brain as well as the body. So I turn the TV volume way down, turn my computer volume up, watch Maya, and do my exercises while I listen to, say, the Penn Jillette talk radio show downloaded via iTunes. It's a great combination!

So, what do you do to keep workouts interesting?

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Maya is Victorious!

At the end of each exercise segment Maya asks "how was that?" Possible answers:

"No sweat!"
"I was working hard."
"I couldn't keep up!"

In the early days of using Yourself!Fitness - the honeymoon period - workouts were easy. It took quite a few "no sweat!" responses before they became uniformly challenging. But having reached that point - having improved my conditoning and tailored the workouts to match over the course of 50 sessions - I slacked off a bit. Forsaking Maya, I flirted with Kinetic's Anna and DDR and even - gasp! - not actually exercising.

When I returned to Maya, she did not forget being slighted - she is a (virtual) woman scorned! What's that, you say? No, it couldn't be that I got flabby and lazy. No, I'm convinced Maya made the exercises harder, on purpose, out of spite.

Tonight's "Core" workout kicked my ass. Crunches? Bring 'em on! Squat/Lunge Combo? No problem. But then the loooong Plank Twist, the Leg Raises, the V-Ups and finally three Bicycles in a row clinched it: I'm out of my depth.

Help! I couldn't keep up!

Maya took pity on me and agreed to make it easier next time. She's so forgiving.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Amazing Breast Penetration!

In the New York Times article on virtual trainers I mentioned a glitch in Yourself!Fitness: sometimes a weight passes through Maya's breast rather than in front of it. At the time of the interview I couldn't remember which exercise it was that had that, um, feature. Could I have imagined it? Nope, it just came up again tonight. So for the record, it is:

Upright Rows (15) (with hand weights)

On the upward movement of the row, the left weight and her left hand pass through Maya's left breast. As glitches go, it's amusing.

So let's hear it for sloppy motion capture!

[kermit voice]Yaaaaaaaay![/kermit]

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Video Game Brain Therapy

More on using videogames to exercise the mind. Here's the recent CNET story:
Doctors pronounced Ethan Myers brain dead after a car accident dealt the 9-year-old a severe brain injury in 2002. After he miraculously awoke from a nearly month-long coma, doctors declared he would never again eat on his own, walk or talk.

Yet, thanks partly to a video game system, Myers has caught up with his peers in school and even read a speech to a large group of students.

"I'm doing the exact same things as them. I'm getting buddies and stuff," said Myers, who had relearned to walk and was reading at a second-grade level before his video game therapy began in May 2004.
CyberLearning's Smart BrainGames system, which Myers still uses, targets symptoms arising from brain injuries, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities.

Priced at $584, the system is built on NASA technology that used video games and neurofeedback to train pilots to stay alert during long flights and calm during emergencies. It is compatible with Sony's PlayStation 1 and 2 consoles as well as Microsoft's Xbox, which video game-crazed kids are quite familiar with.

Users wear a helmet with built-in sensors to measure brain waves. That data is relayed to a neurofeedback system that affects the game controller.

Car racing games work best with the system, which rewards users by telling the controller to allow them to go fast and steer with control, doctors said. When patients' brain waves aren't in "the zone" the controller makes it harder to accelerate and steer.

Families generally pay $2,000 to $2,500 for a six-month supervised program with one of CyberLearning's 55 licensed health professionals trained on the Smart BrainGames system.
Read the whole thing.

The software Ethan used can be purchased at where they say:
Imagine playing a race car game. You are racing in time trials or against other players. As you improve your focus, your car goes faster. If your focus wanders you lose ground to the other racers. Your brain is the accelerator, your calmness the steering.

Using patented NASA technology, S.M.A.R.T. BrainGames provides the only true fun, interactive training experience in neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is just like exercise, the more you do it the more you benefit. Although many people recognize the benefits of exercise, too few exercise regularly because it is more chore than fun.
That certainly sounds familiar!

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Can I Play Games With CSAFE?

Q: "My new Precor elliptical machine has a CSAFE interface. Are there any games that can utilize this interface? What is it used for?"

A: CSAFE (Communication Specification for Fitness Equipment) enables many cardio machines to be part of a local area network. This is useful in a commercial gym setting but isn't used much at home. I don't know of any games that use it.

CSAFE includes stereo audio input signals, so a gym can use CSAFE to send music or TV audio to each exercise machine. (see also: Cardio Theater)

CSAFE also sends and receives status and configuration info so you can control the machine or track exercise in a more sophisticated way than made possible with the built-in controls. This seems to be what FitLinxx invented it for:
FitLinxx is a computerized system that attaches directly to existing fitness equipment, adding an extraordinary “intelligent” dimension to the workout experience for the first time.
FitLinxx “learns” users' programs, “coaches” them individually through their workout for better form, safety and confidence during every exercise, and “tracks” their progress over time.

On strength equipment, FitLinxx appears as an easy-to-read touch-screen display that's attached to the machine. For cardiovascular equipment, each machine's existing console is simply networked to FitLinxx. Users simply tap in their PIN to display their targets - FitLinxx then coaches them on speed, form, heart rate, etc., and tracks the workout session - every rep, set and step.

Behind the scenes, all the exercise machines are networked into a central database, providing exercisers and staff access to a wealth of information on individual progress and a unique set of motivational tools. The system can be accessed on workout-floor kiosks, at the staff computer station, or anytime/anywhere on the web.
As for an interface that lets you use CSAFE as a game controller, Ian Holmes has thought about it but I'm not aware of anyone yet selling such a system. You can get all sorts of pedal controllers to drive games, but none use CSAFE. Perhaps Ian and I should start a company to make one. (I'm sure would be happy to sell it!)

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's Your Toughest Maya Exercise?

I nominate these:

Legs: One-leg Bridge on Stability Ball
Arms: Pushup with Stability Ball
Balance: Half Moon
Abs: V-ups

How about you?

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Yourself!Fitness Lifestyle

The sequel to Yourself!Fitness will be called Yourself!Fitness Lifestyle. This Gamasutra interview gives a lot of info about Y!F, a little info about the sequel and a few early screenshots.

"We're going to be addressing a lot of the concerns of our userbase," said Leighton. "We're really going to get down into the science of fitness, so we can track a lot more variables, and have Maya respond in a more intelligent way, in terms of how your fitness program should progress."

"Customizable music was our biggest criticism," he continued. "We had I think 75 different songs in the first game, and after using it for 3-4 months, people were like, "I've heard these songs way too many times, I don't want to hear them anymore." "Overall, though the feedback that we've gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. People write in and say "This program has changed my life," and that's enormously satisfying. Doing something that has a positive impact is great."
The sequel should be out by this Christmas.

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"Beat PMS With Calcium!" Uh, Thanks...

When starting and ending a workout, Yourself!Fitness shows a variety of general health tips from "Prevention Magazine". The program knows the gender of the user - it's part of your profile - but doesn't care to screen out the tips that don't fit.

Thus, today's tip was about how to "Beat PMS with Calcium!"

My previous favorite inappropriate tip was:

"Exercise with weights won't make you bulk up! Women don't have enough of male hormones such as testosterone to produce large muscles."

Incidentally, if you want to discuss Yourself!Fitness in depth, there is an official discussion forum with a great many tips, rants, and support suggestions.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Iportion Interview

Valerie Hardin of the fitness blog interviewed me for a personal profile; the resulting posting is here.

On the flipside, that NYT feature on exercise games seems to have finally disappeared behind the firewall, ending my latest 15 minutes of fame. In case you missed it, here is a temporary mirror of the main article and the sidebar.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Yourself!Fitness Annoyances

I was able to resume where I left off 12 weeks ago without much difficulty. A few Maya annoyances:
  • Audio glitches - music and voice will suddenly cut out and go silent for ten seconds or more while switching tracks. This happens just about every workout.

  • Missing the beat - Maya will slow down for no obvious reason and get off the beat that was previously established. Sometimes she'll catch up later, sometimes not. If she catches up, it might be to the wrong beat, such that she and I went from perfectly in sync to perfectly out of snyc.

  • Mistimed verbal cues - She'll often say "and...done!" when the exercise is nowhere near done. Any long sequence such as the Bicep Combo tends to suffer from this - she'll announce it's over as the last "rep" in the set begins, no matter how long it might take to finish.
One nice thing I didn't notice last time around is how much stretching Maya does. She actually does quite a bit if you include movement during the rest periods between sets. Stretching at the end is perfunctory, but the overall situation is fine.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Eyetoy:Kinetic Week 12 - DONE!

I just finished the full 12-week EyeToy:Kinetic training course. Phew!

How'd I do? I mastered most of the games on medium difficulty and some on hard difficulty. Physically, my legs are in fine shape from all those squats and lunges during the warmups and from playing Protector. My cardio fitness is good due to surviving Pulsate, my shoulder flexibility is good from playing Arcburst, and my balance is excellent from playing Equilibrium.

However, I've lost a little muscle tone (compared to my prior exercise regimen) in my mid and upper body. This is largely because I stopped doing the "optional" segments. As my training progressed the main game portion got longer and more intense and I started to feel like I had neither the time nor the energy left to do a full toning segment. The Kinetic toning segments are so hard as to be daunting - they go on for quite a while doing substantially similar exercises in sequence with minor variations and little rest time. I'd prefer to do a couple of sets in one area, move on to something else, then come back to it. Rather than start a workout segment I know I'd have to bail out of, I just skip right to stretches.

I think it would be more motivational if:
  • The segments had staged difficulty - started out easy (ie, short) and increased on subsequent workouts
  • The trainer "recommended" a specific segment for each day rather than leaving it totally up to me. ("None" would still be an option, but it wouldn't seem like the default choice.)
  • I knew in advance how long my day's workout was expected to take.
  • I had the ability to commit myself to an "optional" segment at the beginning of my workout (when I am optimistic) rather than at the end (when I am tired).
Anyway, it's been a lot of fun, even with the occasional frustration.

Anna, my Kinetic trainer, recommends I immediately start a new course on the expert level, but I'll probably hold off a bit and use some other programs for a while.

In related (though not actually new) news, there is an official Eyetoy:Kinetic blog. They update at least weekly and talk about general fitness as well as that specific program.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fixing Eyetoy:Kinetic Frustrations

Eyetoy:Kinetic can be frustrating. Sometimes the game thinks you moved where you didn't - a false positive. Other times you can pass right through a target without triggering it - a false negative. What to do about this?

First, make sure you've got lots of indirect light. The camera needs extra light to see the scene clearly to reduce false negatives. But not just any light - you want indirect light. Light that bounces off walls is better than light that's aimed straight at you from a point source. Why is indirect light better? Fewer shadows. Shadows are a big source of unfair false positives. I play Reactivate, move my arm, my arm's shadow on the couch behind me touches a wrong button, I lose that round. So adjust lights such that they cast weaker shadows or just play in the daytime - sunlight beats most artificial light at filling a room.

Next, look for reflective surfaces. Is there a brass lamp in the scene? A bit of tinfoil? Anything shiny? These will be a source of false positives because the shiny surface will reflect changes on your TV screen and other movement in the room. Remove or cover all reflective surfaces in the field of view.

Now are you still getting false negatives? Suppose you wave your hands and it doesn't trigger. It might be a timing issue - perhaps you didn't wait long enough for the target to activate - but often the problem is that there isn't enough contrast between the tone of your hands and the background they are moving against. You can increase the contrast by changing the background - hang a drapecloth - or by changing the foreground - wear brightly patterned gloves. If you don't have suitable gloves handy try putting socks over each hand. Any color will do. (In between games, wave your hands around and look at the patterns generated to verify that your new polka-dot socks have a bigger "footprint" than your bare hands.)

(Wearing socks or gloves works poorly for Arcburst because it requires clapping; you can't make much noise clapping while wearing socks. You could, however, shout "Clap!" to augment the sound to trigger success. Or wait for sunshine.)

If you have particular games you know you can't do well at given the current lighting conditions, hit the "shuffle" key to change up the game list before you start your workout to avoid your problem game.

Lastly, watch the tutorial carefully for each game - you might be doing something wrong - and keep in mind that faster is not always better - for both Arcburst and Pulsate if you touch the target too soon it won't trigger and you will lose points for missing it. So hold back a little.

Do you have other tips, tricks or complaints about Kinetic? Leave a comment!

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Qmotions Motion Sports Controllers

Qmotions - best known for their golf controller - looks to be working on some interesting new projects:
Qmotions-XBoard: No wax needed. Compatible with current surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and even windsurfing video games, the board plugs in to existing game consoles to enhance video gameplay, provide a lifelike board-sport experience and offer a unique avenue for at-home fitness. Available: Spring 2006 for under $100.

Qmotions-Fun Fitness: Race to victory -- and health. A brand new device that converts recumbent bikes into video game machines, Qmotions-Fun Fitness is compatible with auto racing and jet ski games and existing game consoles. Gamers and cyclists control the speed of their video game vehicle by pedaling their recumbent bike. Other game commands are handled through a complementary Qmotions controller. Available: Spring 2006 for under $100.

Qmotions-Baseball: Batter up. Qmotions- Baseball delivers actual "full motion" player participation in popular Windows and console based video games. Players step up to the plate with the Batter-Up sleeve equipped bat and swing: full swing batting, bunting, pull, up-the-middle, and opposite field hitting. Available: Now for $149 MSRB.

These were all apparently shown in New York at last month's American International Toy Fair. Alas, I can't seem to find pictures or reviews of the XBoard or the Fun Fitness. Has anyone else tried these yet?

UPDATE: I found a review:
Fun Fitness is a fairly simple device; attach it to pretty much any recumbent exercise bike, patch the cords into your Xbox console, and suddenly, the faster you pedal on your bike, the faster your video game car or jet ski goes on the screen. You may feel a little like a hamster on a wheel after a while, but QMotions-Fun Fitness is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Xboard is more like QMotions-Golf; it's an interactive simulation device that's designed to act like a real skateboard or surfboard. I hadn't really seen anything like QMotions' sports simulators outside of an ESPN Zone - and I love ESPN Zones.[...]

So I gave the Xboard a whirl on the Xbox game Amped 2 (at least, I think it was). I quickly realized that A) I was way out of practice when it came to skateboarding, and B) the Xboard was a little small for my size 15 feet. I gave it my best, and it actually was a quite a bit of fun. Just like the Exer-station, the Xboard boasts amazing sensitivity and fairly quick reaction times, which made me feel like I had accurate control over the game. Of course, it took a while to get the hang of controlling the board, and I stumbled quite a bit (both in real life and on screen) before I could really enjoy working the Xboard. But even when I crashed, the Xboard delivered a much more authentic experience for the game - without the head injuries and broken bones, of course.

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