Fitness and Computer Games: Can You Ever Have a Proper Workout in Front of the Telly?

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Fitness and gaming: not two things that have traditionally gone together, if the stereotypical body shape of a gamer is to be believed. But 'exergaming', as it's been dubbed by the internet, has been around since the 1980s in one guise or another.

 

The Prototypes

Exercise gaming has its roots in the 1980s, with a company called Autodesk. Famous for producing AutoCAD, the engineering software used to design pretty much everything, they made two games: Virtual Racquetball and High Cycle. In a surprisingly advanced turn of affairs, both used Autodesk's prototype head-mounted display, a sort of Oculus Rift-style device with a whole 35KB of memory.

Virtual Racquetball, the poster-child game, involved swinging a real racquet, which was sensed by the computer and interacted with a virtual ball. Although more of a technology demonstrator than a real commercial product (especially considering the price of the prototype headsets), it was an interesting proof-of-concept.

 

The Nineties

Moving forward a decade though, and fitness gaming was starting to pick up more of a mainstream following. Given the rising obesity epidemic in some countries, manufacturers were desperate to save their target market from heart attack.

One of the first products was the Sega Activator. Universally filed by reviewers of the day under "nice ideas that never worked", it was a giant octagonal thing that supposedly used infrared beams to track your location, Kinect-style. Only:

"You'd lay this octagonal thing on the ground (which was completely impractical for storage, making set up and break down time at least five minutes), stand in the middle of it, and it would use lasers to detect your punches and kicks. And while it was a good idea, it suffered from one major flaw: It didn't work. At all."

Then, there were things like the Power Glove. A cool idea that's been largely rendered useless by more accurate motion-tracking technology like the Kinect 2 or Leap Motion controllers, the Power Glove was a mash-up of a NES controller and a bulky Minority Report-style motion-sensing glove. It wasn't a hit, needless to say.

Those weren't the only fitness-related products, either. Stuff like the Nintendo Power Pad (precursor to Dance Dance Revolution), Atari Joyboard and Genesis Batter Up (a baseball bat since described as a "semi-erect lightsaber") all hit store shelves along the way, as well.

 

The Noughties

But one thing that typified pretty much all the '90s fitness gaming products was that they were novelties -- great for parties, accidentally-on-purpose hitting people in the face with, and that's about it.

Things changed when Nintendo launched the Wii. Although it was billed in some quarters as a serious gaming console on the level of the Xbox 360, the Wii quickly carved out a fitness niche. The combination of the Wii's basic motion controllers with a pressure-sensitive balance board/scale allowed, for the first time, a computer to give you a proper workout in front of the TV. And it worked.

According to then-Gizmodo editor Brian Lam, the power of Wii Fit lay not in its ability to do workouts, per se -- though that's impressive in and of itself -- but rather:

"The game's core value isn't the exercises, which don't burn many calories unless you play them way beyond the point which a normal person will become bored by them. It's the fact that through charts and graphs and the in-game coach, the game makes you think about your fitness and weight enough that you eventually realise you have no real excuse for being out of shape. "

But as highlighted in reviews of Wii Fit back in the day, the kind of higher-level data fitness junkies revel in -- like heart-rate information, for example -- was missing, as well as the depth of workouts to make the Wii Fit interesting enough to use for months on end without discarding in total boredom.

Those problems were partially addressed when Microsoft introduced the original Kinect. An add-on to the standard Xbox 360, Kinect uses two cameras to track motion, allowing the Xbox to follow the player's movements in front of the TV. That takes away some of the limitations of the Wii -- the balance board element limited the functionality, something that suddenly wasn't a problem when the computer could track every limb movement dozens of times per second.

According to Alaina Yee, Managing Editor of Official Xbox Magazine, the introduction of Kinect "was an improvement in terms of quality of experience -- you didn't have to deal with a peripheral, be it the Wii Fit board or holding a controller-wand in your hand, so it made the workouts seem more natural. It also eliminated any worries about chucking that wand across the room if you really got into what you were doing, which in my eyes is a great feature."

Games manufacturers spotted this, and started bringing out a whole plethora of fitness-related Xbox games. UFC Personal Fitness Trainer, for example, guides players through a 30-day programme of personal training, using moves and exercises from the popular Ultimate Fighting franchise.

However, Kinect is still limited. According to Yee, "if you're expecting these fitness games to properly teach you how to do certain exercises (like say, a perfectly executed squat), then it'll likely be less useful to you. Kinect 1.0 doesn't track movement perfectly, and so putting complete trust in its feedback isn't really helpful at this point".

 

The Future

So all this brings us to one big question: what can we expect from the next generation of fitness games?

The first place to look at is the hardware. The first-gen Kinect was at the heart of the Xbox 360's fitness system, and it'll be the same deal with the Xbox One. Only, the new Kinect is capable of some seriously cool stuff. The upgraded cameras let the Kinect 'see' you in a muscle-mapping mode, where the Xbox calculates how much force you're exerting on any particular muscle at one time, even if you're just shifting your weight from one leg to the other.

Moreover, the infra-red camera in the new Kinect is so sensitive it can work out your pulse just from the changes in skin temperature when slightly warmer blood from your heart rushes through your face.

All that combined means that the Xbox One won't just be able to tell you what your workout should be, but give you the sort of accurate real-time feedback you'd normally need to pay a personal trainer to shout at you. Any fitness geek worth his salt will tell you that training is all about form -- it doesn't matter if you can do 100 crappy push-ups, it only matters that you can do ten proper ones. The Kinect sensor will help refine form on the cheap, as well as providing all the proven benefits of previous gens of fitness tech.

Yee says: "it represents the potential for a major step-up in fitness gaming. The addition of heart-rate and muscle-tension monitoring (as well as the promise of much more sophisticated movement tracking) could substantially improve the experience of fitness games like Nike+ Kinect Training, which attempt to deliver both the rigorous training and personalised feedback you'd get with a personal trainer."