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Successfully combining fitness and tech a big, sweaty challenge

Gadgets and games that promote exercise must overcome obstacles to have an impact

The thing they didn’t tell me in journalism school is that one day someone might ask me to get on an elliptical machine and start pumping away as part of an interview.

There was sweat. Muscles strained. I wanted to stop, but out of professional courtesy during a technology demo, I had to keep going. The thought occurred to me that real estate agents and bankers probably don’t get asked to exercise in front of new acquaintances in their work clothes in the middle of the day.

The weird part: Despite the protests of my creakily swiveling arms and legs and the enthusiasm of my sweat glands, I was having fun.

And that’s the point of the mobile game “Spin or Die,” one of several game apps that work with Goji Play, an Austin-made exercise system. Goji Play is meant to combine largely unused exercise equipment — like the stationary bike that’s become a de-facto clothes rack in many a bedroom — with downloadable games for iOS and Android that use a smartphone or tablet’s built-in camera and sensors to track fitness activity.

Goji Play 2, a $119 new version of the hardware, debuted recently and improves on a first-generation version released in 2013. The hardware consists of two rubber straps the look like oversized wristwatches. Each strap holds a game controller with buttons and can be wrapped around the handles of cardio machines such as elliptical machines and stair steppers. Using the controller buttons, players can distract themselves while exercising by playing games such as “Fisticuffs” (fast-paced boxing), “Moto X” (side-scrolling motorcycle racing) and “Spin or Die,” which had me dodging city traffic as a risk-taking bicycle rider.

Coleman Fung, the CEO and co-founder of Blue Goji, the company behind Goji Play, says that despite a lot of interest in marrying fitness with technology, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in successfully “gamifying” — that is, turning activity into a game — health. He believes adding the element of gaming is one way to get those who need more physical activity, especially kids, to exercise in short intervals every day.

“People have good intentions,” Fung said, “That’s why they join a gym or buy a cardio machine at home. Then they just kind of stop. There’s lots of complex reasons why they stop.”

The Goji Play system, which is part of a larger fitness/wellness ecosystem Blue Goji is developing, joins a series of gadgets, games and tech gear that have, with varying degrees of success, tried to get people off the couch with the promise of digital fun. Nine years ago, Nintendo’s Wii game console overcame major video game industry skepticism to become a huge hit, as families played virtual bowling, tennis and other games by standing up and swinging a game-controller around.

The current wave of fitness wearables — the Fitbit and Apple Watch, for instance — track motion and award achievements. Like Goji Play, they allow users to track progress over time and to share fitness goals and challenges with family and friends. Those devices, in the $100-$400 range, are geared for a mainstream audience while others, like the new $249 Austin-made Atlas Wristband, is for more serious fitness geeks, athletes and trainers.

Whether they’re for casual gamers or crossfit junkies, fitness gadgets are difficult to design well and make so engaging that they won’t be abandoned after the initial novelty wears off, like a gym membership that starts on New Year’s Day and goes unused by March.

Baker Harrell, the CEO and founder of the fitness-promoting nonprofit It’s Time Texas, says that there’s no definitive data on whether wearables and other fitness-related games and gadgets remain in use long-term. He says that many users do abandon devices after four to six months, but it’s unclear if that’s because people adopt healthier habits and no longer need them or if people are reverting to less-healthy behavior.

“My money is on the positive, empowering effects of this technology being a major reason for the drop-off in usage,” Harrell said.

Those effects, Harrell said, can include making physical activity less intimidating and more fun, rewarding and social. They can help make people more aware of their activity — or inactivity — each day, “and cleverly help nudge people to become and stay more active,” he said.

For fitness gadgets and games to work, it seems to me, they have to be very easy to use, unobtrusive to the fitness activities themselves, well-designed both on the hardware and software sides, fairly inexpensive, and fun to use.

But does the Goji Play system do all that? In testing a sample version provided by the company at home — with fewer people bearing witness to my sweat — I found the main “Goji Play” app was easy to use and could be paired with the hardware in just moments.

The games themselves, which each required a separate app download as I sat waiting on the stationary bike, ran the gamut from diverting to frustrating. It was tough to tell in some games, such as “Fisticuffs,” how my bike movement correlated to the action on screen. And pushing buttons on handlebar controllers while actively exercising is something that takes getting used to and coordination.

I wondered if the half-dozen or so games, with 20 total expected to be available by the end of the year, would be enough to keep me biking every night when instead I could just flip on Netflix and catch up on some TV shows while I exercised.

Blue Goji is betting that what it’s offering, though, will go beyond the Goji Play product and extend to a more ambitious mind-body platform that includes virtual currency called GoCoins, a meditation app and more options for connecting with friends and family for sharing fitness goals. The company even has a series of public tournaments planned as part of the medical technology portion of South by Southwest Interactive Festival in March.

Fung says Blue Goji wants to build communities — of kids, of seniors, of veterans (he’s an Army vet) — who engage with each other through wellness and fitness activities.

“We want to help anyone with good intentions develop healthy behavior to actually make it stick and make it sustainable,” Fung said.

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