Interactive Game Keeps Jogging Buddies In Touch

LOS ANGELES – Scientists have come up with a way to turn jogging into a game that can involve multiple participants — and it doesn't involve a Nintendo Wii.

Called “jogging over distance”, the system links two runners via heart rate monitors, surround sound headsets and a microcomputer, no matter where they both are in the world. As Mueller explained during his talk here at the SIGGRAPH interactive technology and computer graphics conference ,the runners attempt to match their heart rate as they talk and jog, adding an element of gaming and social networking to what would otherwise remain a solitary activity.

“The game provides an engagement, similar to video games, that people find attractive,” said project developer Florian 'Floyd' Mueller of the University of Melbourne, Australia. “We are in a gaming society. Everyone games, and it provides the social context for interaction.”

Inspired by a jogging partner that moved to a different city, Mueller initially created the system to keep running buddies in touch with each other, but soon found that the addition of digital elements turned it into a kind of game.

With the surround sound headsets, someone using the system hears the other runner either in front of them, behind them, or besides them, depending on what percentage of their maximum heart rate they have reached through exertion.

By using percentage of maximum heart rate, as opposed to just the pulse rate, the system allows runners of different skill, or even a runner and someone on a bicycle, to simulate running side by side, despite their different actual speeds.

When the two runners get their hearts beating at the same percentage of their maximum rate, they can speak as if they are side by side. This is the “goal” of the game.

Obviously, this is not a computer game in the traditional sense, with points for achieving a particular goal. Instead, Mueller conceptualizes it as on a continuum of physical activity. On one end of the continuum is exercise, a mostly painful, solitary experience. On the other end are sports, a pleasurable group activity defined by physical problem solving.

By adding even that small element of problem solving and interaction to running, the “jogging over distance” system pushes running away from exercise and much closer to sport.

Even that slight move on the exercise/sports continuum makes running much less painful and much more fun, according to the subjects that tested the device. Additionally, Mueller hopes that the game aspect will attract people otherwise bored with, or uninterested in, exercising.

Currently, the device needs a heart monitor to measure pulse rate, a minicomputer to calculate the relative heart rates of the two users and a bluetooth microphone with surround sound speakers to facilitate communication. But Mueller is working to reduce the number of components in the system, with the eventual goal of having the entire “jogging over distance” game available as an iPhone app and some pulse-monitoring headphones.

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.