Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Workout More Than Just Your Thumbs

Killer Betties, a gaming magazine for women, has a good feature article on videogame fitness:
You don't need a gym membership and barbells to get a good workout anymore. With today's videogame technology, it is surprisingly easy to workout, lose weight, and have fun while doing it all. Yes, the holy trinity of keeping fit can be easily accomplished by playing videogames.
The article goes through the full history of the genre, all the way from the original Nintendo Power Pad through today's range of more sophisticated options.

With enough exercise, perhaps one day we'll all be as happy as this family...

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Exercise Makes You Smarter Too!

From the latest article in Science News Online:
New research suggests that physical exercise encourages healthy brains to function at their optimum levels. Fitness prompts nerve cells to multiply, strengthens their connections, and protects them from harm. Benefits seem to extend to brains and nerves that are diseased or damaged. These findings could suggest new treatments for people with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries.
Preliminary studies indicated that when lab animals exercise, their nerve cells release chemicals called neurotrophic factors. These proteins buffer nerve cells against illness or injury, prompt them to grow and multiply, and strengthen each neuron's connection with other nerve cells.
Furthermore, memory tests given to 1,740 people over 65 during a 6-year project have linked moderate exercise to reduced risk of dementia. These results were published in the Jan. 17 Annals of Internal Medicine by a Seattle research team.
Right! So no more excuses - let's get those videogames out and start exercising! We need to take a break from our computers anyway. I'll start; I'm booting up Kinetic right now.

You can read the rest when you come back.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Yourself!Fitness in a Few Words

Maya knows and can effortlessly demonstrate basic aerobics, step routines, yoga, stability ball exercises, hand weight exercises, and a few stretches. She is also occasionally funny, including self-referential jabs.

She pays no attention to current events, is a poor conversationalist, and couldn't do a math problem to save her life. But in her limited domain, she is a true master. She's not human, but she's human enough for the task at hand.

I was getting into great shape when I was doing workouts with Maya full-time. I've backslid a bit in the months since I switched to Kinetic - it's fun but doesn't do as thorough a job for me - so I'll switch back to Y!F in another week or so.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

NeoRacer and Island Worlds

The NeoRacer pedal controller has been upgraded since my previous roundup and now can interact with just about anything: Xbox, GameCube, Playstation, PS2 or PC.

What is it? A compact, portable exercise bike controller (with adjustable magnetic resistance) which you can use to control forward motion in your favorite videogame while you use a standard joystick to control everything else.

In addition to letting you play games such as Crazy Taxi, what else can you do with this sort of controller? 3D Innovations is developing a "cyber-fitness" PC application called Island Worlds. Ahem:

Island Worlds is a cyber-fitness software application that runs on your PC. With Island Worlds you can
  • Explore 3D worlds alone using a stationary bike, treadmill, stair-stepper or any other form of stationary fitness equipment.
  • Explore worlds with others over the internet. This requires interactive fitness equipment. Presently the NeoRacer, GameBike, GameBike Pro and Recumbent GameBike Pro interact with Island Worlds. The GameRunner will be supported in the near future.
  • Directly speak with your cyber fitness partners using voice chat.
  • Create and customize your own worlds in minutes using our World Editor.
  • Add your own music to your worlds.

The initial screenshots don't wow me but it's still in beta and they seem to be hoping for a flood of user-generated content to make the space compelling. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, you can get the controller here for $209.

(Or $129 if you don't need to control a videogame and just want to use it as a standalone exercise bike, but where's the fun in that?)

UPDATE: I overstated the price; Fixed.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Videogame Workout Q&A

Q: What is this site about?

A: Getting in shape by playing videogames.

Q: Why?

A: Going to the gym is inconvenient and kind of boring. Playing videogames is fun and easy and (if it's at home) extremely convenient. You don't have to get dressed or travel anywhere. Just turn on the TV and game machine whenever you're free.

Q: How does one use videogames to get fit?

A: In the arcades, play movement-oriented games such as Dance Dance Revolution and MoCap Boxing. At home, you can (a) purchase special controllers to play movement-oriented games, (b) purchase controllers that force you to exercise while playing traditional games, or (c) if you want a more rigorous fitness experience, buy a fitness program. There are two major comprehensive fitness programs for home machines: Yourself!Fitness (for PC, PS2, and XBox) and EyeToy:Kinetic (for PS2).

Q: What if I want to get fit using videogame technology, but I don't own or want to buy a modern game console?

A#1: Do you have a PC? Get the version of Yourself!Fitness that runs on Windows PCs.

A#2: Would you be willing to buy a console if it were smaller and cheaper than a PS2 or XBox and could ONLY be used to play games that are exercise oriented? Get a XaviX console and start with the Jackie Chan Fitness J-Mat.

A#3: The cheapest option would be to find a used original Playstation and an old copy of DDR Konamix or DDR USA. you'd still need to buy the soft pad, though.

Q: I already have some (non-movement) games I like to play. Can I get a controller that makes playing them into a workout?

A: Sure. You can make forward movement in your game a lower-body workout with a pedal controller such as NeoRacer or with a treadmill controller such as GameRunner. You can make moving your character around an upper-body workout with a Kilowatt strain-gauge controller.

Q: I already have a treadmill (or eliptic trainer, or exercise bike). Can I make it so I have to keep exercising or the game shuts off?

A: Yes, you can force yourself to keep your heartrate up as a condition of playing a game (or watching a movie, or watching TV) with an EnterTrainer controller.

Q: Which is better - Yourself!Fitness or EyeToy:Kinetic?

A: Better for what? Both are excellent, both can help keep you or get you fit, both can be addictive and both can be frustrating at times. Kinetic is more "game-like"; Yourself!Fitness is more like having a personal trainer lead you through a customized exercise video.

Q: What are some home motion games?

A: Dance Dance Revolution - many versions exist for every platform. EyeToy games for PS2 such as Play, Play2, and AntiGrav. Music games such as Taiko Drummer, Samba De Amigo, and Donkey Conga. Xavix games - golf, tennis, boxing, etcetera with positional controllers.

Q: What are some arcade motion games?

A: Dance Dance Revolution and its variants, Para Para Paradise and other arm-motion sensing games, Mocap Boxing, Police 911, Skiing and Stateboarding games, Drum Freaks, Heavy machinegun games like Gunblade, Firefighting games, sword-fighting games, and many more.

UPDATE: added some linkage. This is the start of an FAQ - I'll be building it out over time. Got a question? Ask in the comments!

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NYT article on videogame exercise

The New York Times article on videogame fitness trainers came out, and it's great! I don't know why I'm surprised any time newspaper articles are accurate, but everything there I had anything to do with is correct. The article covers Yourself!Fitness and Eyetoy:Kinetic in some detail, and I got to provide color commentary:
IT'S not every personal trainer who inspires a client to write poetry in her honor. But after a few weeks of training with doe-eyed Maya, Glen Raphael couldn't help but extol her virtues in verse: "Sweet Maya never sleeps or even tires/I rarely get a sense that she perspires."
Hey! I'm a published poet! Coool!
Posting such ardent poetry might be embarrassing — if Maya could actually read it.
Or...if an excerpt were published in newspapers around the world so everyone else could read it. That also might be embarrassing. [the full poem, cheesy as it is, may be found here.]
But Maya is not a real person; she is a computer-simulated woman designed to be an ideal trainer. "She's my personal trainer," said Mr. Raphael, 38, a software engineer in San Francisco. "She just happens to live in my television."
Yup! Read the whole thing.

[cross-posted with blogjack.net]

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

NYT article coming up...

There should be a good feature article related to fitness videogames in the Style section of this Thursday's New York Times (2/23/06).

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Monday, February 20, 2006

World Series of Video Games

Games Media Properties today announced the first-ever World Series of Video Games international gaming competition, set to kick off in June 2006 in Louisville, Kentucky with four subsequent circuit events taking place throughout the year and culminating in a final event in December 2006. With $1 Million in cash prizing, the World Series of Video Games will combine PC and Xbox games to establish true world champions under standardized rules and procedures across a circuit of multiple tournaments. The 3-5 day events will be open to the public and will encompass 150,000 square feet of tournaments, exhibitions, concerts and other attractions. The World Series of Video Games is presented by Intel and sponsored by Xbox 360.
What a great idea! No word yet on whether or to what degree exercise games will be featured but it seems like only a matter of time. Dance Dance Revolution would be an obvious pick as it is one of the most entertaining games to watch and requires actual athleticism.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Arcade gyms - XRtainment and Energy Factory

Traditional gyms have been slow to incorporate videogame-based exercise. Instead, what we're starting to see is a new kind of video arcade that features nothing but exercise games.

The Energy Factory in Tenafly, NJ is billed as an "indoor electronic fitness center for kids."
The brainchild of Alex Ehrlich, The Energy Factory is the first center of its kind in the country. Don't expect it to be the last.

Software engineers and game designers are the new warriors in the battle against childhood obesity and inactivity. The National Institutes of Health even is funding video-game research projects as part of its anti-obesity efforts.

The Hoover School, which does not have its own gymnasium, used a federal grant to pay for its visits to The Energy Factory. Grades 1 to 5 each stayed one hour, with seven minutes at every station.

Next up: The XRtainment Zone family fitness center is currently being built in Redlands, California.
“Exertainment” is a mix of entertainment and exercise. Exertainment games are fun and exciting, and will engage you in exercise by moving your entire body! Challenge yourself on XRtainment Zone’s games such as Makoto, 3Kick, EyeToy, DDR, GameBike, Jackie Chan Fitness Studio and more! XRtainment Zone makes exercising together fun; and when it’s fun, kids, parents and adults of all ages will be more successful in keeping fit.
Their blog hints at interesting things to come:
On this last day of January, we had our first big piece of equipment come in. It's called 3Kick, a machine where you stand inside 3 towers, kicking and punching the pads as they light up and beep. We can't wait to be able to put it together! Mark Alexander, the founder/inventor of this product, and his sister drove from Utah to deliver this to us.
UPDATE: The website for 3Kick turns out to be, naturally enough, http://www.3kick.com . The product looks like a great way to practice martial arts strikes at various angles:

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Kinetic Week 11

I'm in my tenth week of the 12-week EyeToy:Kinetic training course.

The good news is that the program really does live up to its billing. You are indeeed getting fit by playing video games. They cheat a little in that the "warm up" and "cool down" do some of the work, but by and large you're being told "today we'll play this set of games, here's how..." you play the games and at the end you've stretched, balanced, punched, kicked and ducked your way into a bit better shape.

Most of the games are forgiving enough that you can still do well and get a high score without playing perfectly. But a couple of the games are not sufficiently forgiving, and I find them infuriating. I've mostly figured out the problems and have some workarounds, but they don't work all that well.

The games I have the most trouble with are Arcburst and Reactivate. One is due to false negatives, the other false positives.

Arcburst requires your hand (or whatever) to traverse an arc of targets in a particular direction. If you miss one target and hit others, that's a penalty. But I often get false negatives, where my hand passes through the first target without triggering it. Sometimes there's a "dead area" on the screen, where no matter how I wave my hand over a trigger, the game misses it. In other games that have a false negative issue I figured out a cheap hack solution which is to put a pair of strongly-patterned socks over my hands. The socks give my hand greater contrast with the wall. Which would be fine except that Arcburst requires CLAPS as well as target hits, and you can't make a loud noise while wearing socks on your hands. The workaround for THAT is to shout "CLAP!" every time you clap your mittened hands.

Reactive requires you touch a specified list of targets in a specified order while avoiding all other targets. It's that "while avoiding" part I have trouble with; I hit so many wrong targets that sometimes I can't pass the first level. Diagnosis: At first I thought I was just being clumsy - which I certainly was - but gradually I realized my body wasn't anywhere near the mis-hit targets. It turns out it's THE SHADOWS. When I move my body, the light casts a shadow on the wall and sofa behind me, and that shadow can, on its own, trigger a bad hit.

I still don't have a solution for this except perhaps "get a darker-colored couch". Or perhaps "make the lighting more diffuse".

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Video Games Make You Smarter Too?

From a recent Globe and Mail article:
A new study of 100 university undergraduates in Toronto has found that video gamers consistently outperform their non-playing peers in a series of tricky mental tests. If they also happened to be bilingual, they were unbeatable.

"The people who were video game players were better and faster performers," said psychologist Ellen Bialystok, a research professor at York University. "Those who were bilingual and video game addicts scored best -- particularly at the most difficult tasks."

The York study, which tested subjects' responses to various misleading visual cues, is to be published next month in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology. Three other studies published in the past two years have also concluded that action video games can lead to mental gains involving visual skills and short-term memory.
So videogames can make you smarter as well as - as we all know - more physically fit. Cool! Where was this knowledge when I was growing up? That's it; I must be officially "old". I have an irresistible urge to say "the kids these days have it easy! Why, when I was in grade school they thought video games were a waste of time..."

So let me get this straight: Dance Dance Revolution is part of physical education in the schools, adults are buying Nintendo DS to run brain training software, and the media claims videogames make you smart. It's not a bad world to live in. I think I'll keep it.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Harness the Energy of Exercise?

Notions of Expenditure is devoted to proposals to harness the energy expended in exercise. Yesterday's Wired article sets the stage:
Back in the 19th century, researchers studied prisoners at Bellevue Prison in New York as they walked on a treadmill as punishment. They produced about 100 watts each, with the energy used to grind grain to make bread for the prisoners, said Steve Vogel, professor of biology at Duke University.

"Apparently they hated it roundly," he said. Now, of course, people pay good money to do the same thing -- and use up electricity in the process.
Okay, so NoE is more of an odd art project than anything serious - but the proposals are amusing and a couple are even practical. Raj Pandian's entry includes a plausible model to support the claim that
When large numbers of children play on equipment such as a teetertotter, swing, or merry-go-round, part of the energy of their play can be converted into energy to power low-power equipment such as lights, fans, etcetera.
So let's think about this. Treadmill-walking and riding an exercise bike is easy, but how could, say, stepping on a DDR pad be made to perform useful work? Ideas? Anyone? Bueller?

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