GEL Lab Exergame for Astronauts

GEL Lab director, Brian Winn, and a dedicated team of Michigan State University students, are working on a research project for NASA, affectionately called Project Space Bike around the office. Its real name, SPACE, stands for Simulated Partners for Astronauts in Collaborative Exercise. While a bit of a mouthful, the project does just that—studying the usefulness of virtual exercise partners.

NASA needs to help astronauts in space keep their muscles from atrophying during extended low gravity situations. With long-term missions in mind for the future, such as a mission to Mars, which would take somewhere around three years to complete, maintaining the health and body of astronauts is paramount. Without daily exercise, this could be debilitating bad news for the people in space.

Even though many may see withered muscles as enough motivation to continue working out, the truth is that astronauts become bored with the small variety of exercise available on board, and the limits they face in terms of room. Findings ways to keep the astronauts motivated to exercise at a peak level has become central to the goals of Project Space Bike.

The design of Project Space Bike is heavily influenced by the Kohler effect, which states that people workout at a greater intensity with partners who perform slightly better than they do. Think about it. If you’re on a treadmill at the gym and your neighbor is running like a gazelle while you’re more like a tranquilized basset hound, you’re more likely to try to speed up than if you were alone.

You know it’s true.

In any case, the Kohler effect describes the effect of real human partners, while Project Space Bike incorporates software-generated virtual partners. The project team, in conjunction with Dr. Deb Feltz in the department of Kinesiology, discovered that applying the same attributes to a virtual partner provided more positive results than exercising alone, but not to the same extent as working out with real partners. While a slightly better real human partner would be the optimal scenario, this is not feasible on a mission to Mars.

But why a virtual partner? Why not a fellow astronaut? For one, the partner is supposed to be better than the person working out.  Pairing astronauts would be complicated, and whoever is the best would have no real partner who is better.  Furthermore, the space constraints (no pun intended) on board don’t sufficiently allow for collaboration with others, but a virtual partner could fit anywhere, especially on something like, say, a stationary exercise bike, which is precisely what Winn and his team are working on. By interfacing the bike with a computer, rotations per minute and resistance, among others, are some stats from the user that would become available. Ultimately, the level of workout intensity would feed back into what could be described (and designed) as a game, where the virtual partner responds to the player.

Last week, Winn took an early prototype down to Houston, Texas, to visit the Johnson Space Center, where astronauts train and live, and also home to mission control. The purpose of the visit was to obtain impressions, feedback, and input from focus groups on the interface which would display a virtual trail on earth and the virtual partner on that trail.

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This information will be used to fuel development and prepare for  experimental human subject research that will be conducted in the spring. The team will be testing with several middle age master athletes since 45 is the average astronaut age. The study will compare motivation, intensity, and enjoyment of conjunctive exercise (exercise as groups or teams), solitary exercise, and co-active exercise (exercising at the same time, but independent of one another). Hopefully, the research will contribute to understanding the challenges of working out in space, including physiological, psychological, and logistical issues.

Ultimately, the team hopes to find answers that will help them adjust the direction of the project to better suit end goals. The design team began with theory which helped guide development of  a game-like experience  based on friendly competition between human and virtual partner. Focus groups with the astronauts gave the team a deeper understanding of the specific audience.

This sounds (and is) scientific and theoretical and important. But it’s also a super cool dream project, to play a small part in the space program and contribute to a future mission to Mars!

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