Exercising in a Virtual Space with Social Exergames

taiwoo-park

Exercise is an activity that can be done either alone or in groups, but when we think of working out, it’s generally on an individual basis. Taiwoo Park, a postdoc researcher at KAIST university in Korea, spoke at MSU last week about social exergames. Park believes that the ideal form of exercise is group physical activity, for physical, recreational, and social benefits. Group sports are just natural. However, with busy schedules, most of the time we opt for simple, individual exercise, giving up social bonding and entertainment for the sole purpose of physical benefits. Park wants to return to group exercises by transforming individual exercises into group activities over a virtual space.

With social exergames, exercisers can play and exercise together whenever, wherever. Park has helped develop and design controllers and games for several different types of repetitive motion exercise, such as treadmill running, exercycling, jumproping, and even hula hooping, a popular exercise activity in Korea. This means that players can be in different geographic locations and connect via the internet, to play the same game together. The opportunity to expand is high as well with these kinds of repetitive individual aerobic exercises. As a result, social interactions remain the same as they would be in regular group activities.

In group sports, there’s strategy and synchronization. Well, Park’s social exergames focus on interactions where players can coordinate actions with or against other players. Repetitive individual aerobic exercises also allow for exercisers to change their speed, an important component of coordination in Park’s game Swan Boat. In actual amusement park swan boats, two people pedal to power the boat. They need to cooperate and coordinate to steer. The boat turns in the direction of the pedals moving faster. The speed difference determines how sharp the turn is. This creates the core mechanic in Swan Boat: collaborative manipulation. Differences in running speed on each player’s treadmill , or exercise controller, change the steering angle and speed of the virtual boat.

In order to implement this mechanic, a special treadmill with ultrasonic sensors was created to detect the player. The sensors serve as controllers for the game. Running faster brings the player closer to the sensor. As they slow down they get farther from the sensor. In order to avoid obstacles in the game, players need to coordinate with one slowing down and the other speeding up, depending on which way the boat needs to turn. Runners must run at the same speed as each other to go straight. This exergame also includes other game mechanics and wrist sensors. Players can punch the air simultaneously to shove the enemy boat and they can flap their arms together to float back up to the surface should their boat sink. As part of the design team for Swan Boat, Park wanted to make sure that these gestures were not conflicting with running, and he tested for this during his research with the game, which included two sessions of 20 minutes and a questionnaire. It was concluded that the gestures were natural and that the players enjoyed interacting with one another as well.

But as with any endeavor, creating social exergames comes with its own set of challenges. Designers must be sure to include a way to avoid overexertion, for which Park suggests an overheat user interface element. There’s also the issue of how to convert exercise devices into game controllers and trying to balance four or more types of game controllers so that all players are equal across several different exercises. Park hopes to focus on these and also evaluate the experiences of gamers playing from a distance to assess engagement in social games.

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