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Fitness on the Playstation VR & Review of Playroom VR and Playstation Worlds 14.01.17

A few years ago when it was clear that Virtual Reality headsets were going to be a reality, I sensed that this would be the biggest (and maybe the last) opportunity for exergaming to make a “comeback” after it so dramatically burst on the scene and then disappeared back in the mid-2000s. As those of you who’ve followed this blog in any of its previous incarnations (Nutwiisystem.com, PS3Fitness.com, 3dPlaystation.net) know, the “holy grail” I’d been seeking for so many years was a active gaming experience on a console so immersive and compelling that “you got a workout without even realizing you were exercising”. We’ve come close over the years, with popular games like Just Dance for the Wii, Kung Fu for Kinect for the Xbox One, and Move Fitness for the PS3. But as fun as those games were and as captivating as the experiences became, you never quite forgot that you were in front of a TV as you tried to stay within the game console sensors.

So I’ve decided to be an early adopter to virtual reality technology. But that begged the question, do I choose an HTC Vive, an Oculus Rift, or a Playstation VR? In my last post on the subject I went through the rationale of why I was choosing the PSVR and the Playstation 4. The main reason came down to cost: it’d cost close to $2000 for me to buy a new high-end PC and an Oculus or Vive, when it’d be closer to $800 for me to get both a new PS4 and a PSVR.

But User-friendliness was another reason. I tried out the Vive at my brother-in-law’s place recently and I was impressed by the technology, but as with a lot of things in the PC gaming world, setting it up and using it just felt more involved and “technical” than I would have liked. While I’m a pretty technical person in my work life, in my leisure time, I really just prefer not to think too much to set up hardware and software. I just want to start using it. So that reinforced my decision to go with the PS4, as Sony has a lot more experience with “plug and play” than Oculus/Facebook or HTC.

Honestly, I hadn’t really been planning on getting a Playstation 4. There just aren’t enough hours in a day for me to play console games anymore. But with the potential of virtual reality for fitness, suddenly that equation changed. From a perspective of time, I wouldn’t be wasting time playing video games if that playing resulted in me working out and improving my health. And from a cost perspective, the cost would be comparable to buying an expensive piece of home exercise equipment or a gym membership–with the difference being that I’d actually use it.

So throwing caution to the wind, I bought a Playstation 4 Pro and a PSVR, knowing full well that there weren’t likely to be any mainstream game developers developing “active games” for them today. This is thanks largely to Microsoft. Remember when they tried to “force” all their users to the Kinect? There was a huge backlash from the gaming community, and most industry experts point to that as the moment that the Xbox One was forever doomed to lag behind the PS4–and that motion controls in gaming officially died. Not soon after that, Microsoft, Sony, and even Nintendo abandoned active games and motion controls.

While executives at Microsoft are probably still scratching their heads at why the Kinect failed, to me the answer has always been obvious. With the exception of Nintendo and maybe one or two independent developers out there like Virtual Air Guitar, most developers just didn’t “get it” when it came to motion controls. They lazily tried to develop video games the way they always did and slap the Kinect interface over them, essentially making motion controls just a proxy for button mashing on a controller.  The result was awkward experience after awkward experience.

In a signal that they didn’t “get this” either, a few months ago Sony put out a statement stressing that all PSVR games WOULD require Dualshock Controllers. Luckily there was a backlash the other way and they quickly backtracked and said that some PSVR games MAY NOT require Dualshock Controllers.

To Sony’s credit, something else they did was rather than tossing the Playstation Move (which had always been pretty good technology), they’ve decided made it part of the PSVR experience, to the point of including it in the launch bundle. I think this was prescient of them. While the marketing folks at Sony are clearly skittish, my prediction is that once people try out a few VR games, they will DEMAND motion controls. In other words, players of virtual reality games want to replicate “real” reality–and the reality is that most of us “move” when interacting with our world.

But we will probably have to wait a bit. Looking over the launch titles it looks like most games still depend heavily on the DualShock and/or your head movement to control things. And even games that do use the Move controllers seem to do so fairly passively–you use the Move controllers to pick up and examine objects, shoot a gun, and so on. So as far as the launch titles go, there doesn’t seem to be much as far as “PS4 fitness games” go as far as creating games that will get you sweating and your heart rate up.

But hopefully once enough people adopt the technology some independent developers will start to “get it” and develop native VR games that toss away old paradigms. Here’s hoping that someone, somewhere is working on games that’ll let you go boxing, hit a baseball, swing a tennis racket, and so on.

That said, I’m always scouring the Playstation Store online to see if there are any games that might fall into the category of an active game that’s good for a workout. If you hear of any PSVR games that sound like they might be good for exercise and workout (or if you’re a developer working on such a game), definitely let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to showcase it here.

Having said that, here are some of my first observations about the VR technology itself.

Playstation VR

To be honest, my first impressions of my new PS4 really weren’t much different than my old PS3. Granted, it has better better graphics (and still no 4K Blu-Ray…why, Sony, why?). But outwardly, it doesn’t seem too much different than the big black box that was the PS2 and the big black box that was the PS3.

On the other hand, the PSVR unit impressed me as soon as I unboxed it. I decided to go for the launch bundle.

psvr launch bundle box

Opening the box there were two other boxes, one holding the Playstation Worlds CD, the Move controllers, and the Playstation 4 Camera, and the other with the PSVR unit.

nice packaging

They clearly engineered the PSVR box not just to be utilitarian but also to be impressively designed a la Apple. The box is made of thick glossy cardboard, the top cover dramatically opens to reveal the contents (and stays propped open with a built-in strap), and inside you’ll find all the parts neatly organized in other boxes, underneath which is the VR headset itself. It was clearly designed to reflect a premium product.

nice packaging 2

It could have been an involved process getting it set up, but they made it easy by including a giant instruction manual with big, clear pictures for each step–literally devoting a page for each time you have to unplug or plug a cable.

psvr's simple instruction manual

Every included cable is even tagged with a large number tag, which is repeated on the outer box and in the manual. Clearly unlike HTC and Facebook, they intend to sell this to the masses and not just to techies. It’s really hard to mess this up.

numbered cables

The parts consist of the VR headset, a processor unit (controller box), an HDMI cable, a USB cable, an AC adaptor and power cord, a connection cable for the VR headset with two plugs on one end and two jacks on the other, and stereo headphones. If you bought the launch bundle you also got a Playstation 4 camera (required) and Move controllers (required for certain games).

psvr parts

They made installation pretty simple. All wires go into what they call the Processor Unit, which is the “brains” of the PSVR.

psvr processor box

It has ports for a power, a micro USB connection to the PS4, an HDMI connection to the PS4, an HDMI connection to your TV, and two jacks for you to plug in the cable to the PSVR headset.

To start, you basically need to unplug your HDMI cable from your PS4 and plug it into the VR box. You’ll plug a new HDMI cable from the box to your PS4. This allows video signals to be sent to the VR headset’s OLED display.

You also will need to plug your Playstation Camera into your PS4, if you haven’t already. This is not the same Playstation Camera for the PS3. It’s a unit with two lenses about the size of a large roll of Menthos that you put in front of your TV screen. You should also install your PS Move controllers if you haven’t already (these are the same that they sold for the PS3).

Finally, you plug the VR processor box’s power adapter into an AC outlet, and plug the VR headset to the VR processor box using a long cable they included.

The cable was the one thing I wasn’t crazy about with the PSVR–I like the fact that they made it long so you can sit plenty far from your TV, but the way the cable goes into the headset it always seems to get in your way when you try to put the headset on and off.

The headset consists of a bulky white headband holding bulky lenses that look like a cross between ski goggles and a Star Wars stormtrooper mask.

psvr headset

It took some getting used to getting it to fit properly on my head, but it’s pretty well engineered to accommodate just about any head size and shape.

You can expand the circumference of the headband to accommodate individuals of any head size by pressing a white button on the back and stretching it, or you can tighten it by rotating a round gear.

adjust head band on psvr

Similarly, by pressing a black button on the bottom, you can move the goggles closer to or away from your face to ensure a snug fit against your face.

adjust snugness

Between the cables, adjusting the top band for your head, and adjusting the snugness of the goggles to your eyes it takes a bit of effort to get your headset on. But after about 10 tries I finally was able to get it on and off pretty quickly. I wear glasses, but the goggles fit perfectly on top of them.

You then power on the PSVR unit by pressing the power button that’s on a small control unit on the long cable (which also includes volume control, a headphone jack, and a mute button). They wisely didn’t make all the buttons the same feel–the volume buttons stick out, while the power button is flush with the unit, so you don’t have to guess when you’ve got the glasses on and are pressing it.

When you look through the goggles, you’ll see the familiar Playstation 4 menu interface, clear as a bell (if it’s not clear, just shift the headset around a little until it fits snugly, you see a clear picture, and the black silicone flaps to your left and right are comfortable and properly blocking the outside light). From there, you’re no longer interacting in the real world but the virtual world.

One thing that disappointed me was that unlike the HTC Vive, which lets you press certain buttons to let you “scan” your real world surroundings while you’re wearing the VR goggles, with the PSVR you’re completely blind to the outside world. So before you put the glasses on, just make sure you’re far away from people, animals, and furniture.

You can navigate the menu by using the Dualshock controller. One thing I tried right away was opening Netflix. That was my first mind-blowing experience. Instead of watching a movie on a TV, you’re watching in on what feels like a big screen in a theater. Granted, the resolution of the glasses is not as fine as its competitors (the Vive and Oculus both have two 1200 x 1800 pixel OLED displays for a total of 2160 x 1200 pixels vs the PSVR which displays 960 x 1080 per eye using one 1920 x 1800 OLED display), but it makes up for it with a higher refresh rate (120Hz on the PSVR vs 90Hz on the Vive and Oculus). For a first generation product, I was impressed by the picture quality.

Playroom VR

When you purchase the PSVR, the only “free” game you get straight away is one you can download from the Playstation Store called Playroom VR. It offers five mini-games. None of them are really “active games”, but all of them do a fantastic job of showcasing the basics of virtual reality, as well as showcasing how VR doesn’t have to be a lonely one-person affair. Most of the games are party games where the developers incorporated multiplayer action into games, where one player is wearing the headset and using a Dualshock controller and up to four friends are interacting with the TV screen using additional Dualshock controllers.

Robots Rescue (1-4 players) – This is by far the best game of the lot, and the first one that elicited a real “whoa” reaction from me. 20 of your robot friends are being chased by evil “blocks” and are hiding throughout a virtual world. Your job is to seek them out.

What I love about the 3D effects are that they’re subtle and not in-your-face “look how cool VR is”. When you start the game, you look down at your hands and your Dualshock controller is transformed into a brand new robot-catching controller. When you find a robot, your robot “boots” it and it goes flying right into your controller and waves happily back at you. As you walk along a cliff, you can peer over the edge and see way down over the edge (if you experience vertigo or acrophobia the effect may be a little too real for you). And of course, you can explore your world left, right, up, down, backwards, and forward. This is the one game of the lot that can be played solo (although if you want to catch all 20 robots you will need help from a player on the TV).

Cat and Mouse (2-4 players) – The main player using the headset is a “cat” hiding behind a curtain, while the other players watching the TV are mice trying to collect cheese without the cat seeing them whenever the curtain opens.

Monster Escape (2-4 players) – The main player is a “sea monster” that uses his head to destroy buildings, knock down helicopters, and attempt to hit the TV players running away. The TV players run away and pick up debris to throw at the monster a la dodgeball.

Sea Monster – VR View

Sea Monster – Console View

Wanted (2-∞ players) – The VR player is a sheriff in a Wild West setting attempting to shoot bandits, but with no idea who the bandit is. The players watching the TV see the bandit and have to describe different features so the VR player can identify him.

Wanted – VR View

Wanted – Console View

Ghost House (1+ players) – There was a rather ingenious game for the Wii called Wii Play Motion that used sounds and vibrations on the Wii controller to let players “hunt” for ghosts around the real room. This game brings that idea to fruition by letting the VR player literally look around the room to follow the ghost around.

Ghost House - VR View

Playstation Worlds

If you bought the launch bundle of the PSVR, you also got a game called Playstation Worlds. This game can also be purchased separately for a retail price of $59.99, but honestly, they should have included it free in every PSVR, because like Playroom VR, it’s really not much more than a set of relatively short technical demos.

I wish Sony would have learned the lesson from Nintendo and Wii Sports that in the long run they’ll make more money with new technology if they can convince users to adopt it first–and that sometimes means “giving away” enough to ensure that their first experiences with the technology will be amazing. But some number-cruncher at Sony obviously felt that they could make money off this by selling it separately.

As a standalone game, Playstation Worlds feels like it’s missing depth. But as a tech demo, it does a fabulous job of showcasing the potential of virtual reality beyond what Playroom VR could. Again, it consists of five standalone (and relatively short) experiences, all for single players wearing the VR headset.

The London Heist – Here, you find yourself locked in a dingy room with a big mean-looking British guy with muscles and tattoos hovering over you, apparently holding you hostage. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but that’s by design. There are a few gimmicky moments (such as when the guy points a gun at you, which is about as unsettling as it would be in real life), but for me, the “whoa” moment was when he puts some things on a table for you to interact with–a lighter, a cigar, and other mundane objects which you’ll gasp at how realistic they look. You can pick them up and examine them as if they were real objects, holding them close to your face and rotating them to view them in 360 degrees. The effect was stunningly realistic (and all the more realistic when you use the Move controllers).

From there, you embark on a few short adventures where you get into a shootout, a car chase, and other typical experiences. Perhaps because they knew that no one under 12 would be using the PSVR, they decided to make this game “M for mature”, which means real blood and gore and lots and lots of uses of the “F” word. Honestly, I found the game itself to be pretty gratuitous and contrived and the “storyline” weak, but of course the main purpose of it was to show off 3D, which it does stunningly well.

Ocean Descent – This is a passive experience where you’re in a cage underwater and the cage dives down into the deep sea. Not much to do here but watch and enjoy the scenery, which is pretty well done and I’m guessing pretty accurate as you dive into deep sea. I enjoyed not just viewing the sights outside, but also just the process of looking around and examining the detail of the cage I was in.

Scavengers Odyssey – Here, you fly a spaceship around shooting things, and then land on a planet, shooting things. Again, the thing I was most impressed with at first as just looking down at my chest and my lap and hands and seeing someone else’s body. But flying through the stars is also an exhilarating experience.

VR Luge – Remember a Playstation Move game called “Kung Fu Rider” where you glide down the road in an office chair? For the VR they went the slightly less silly route and have you glide down roads lying on your back on a skateboard. You steer by moving your head left and right and let “gravity” do the rest. This is by far the fastest action of all the games, and is served well by the PSVR’s quick refresh rate.

Danger Ball – This is essentially Pong in 3D. It plays a lot like racketball in that you’re in a square court and hitting a ball to try to get it past your competitor. You control the action by moving your head up, down, left, and right. This is one where the Move controllers probably would have made more sense, but using your head works too.

Like I said, you won’t get much of a workout playing any of these games. Your heart rate might elevate a little at moments like when the British dude is pointing a gun at your head, and you may have a sore neck after playing too much Danger Ball, but that’s not going to help you lose weight.

That said, despite Playstation Worlds being sold as a standalone game, I’d consider both Playroom VR and Playstation Worlds as very polished tech demos that do a great job of showcasing the potential of VR.

But again, as far as exercise and working out, of course neither of these games do that. But I’ll be following up this post with exciting news on what I consider the killer app for virtual reality and fitness. Stay tuned.

Review of Pokemon Go for Apple Watch (and troubleshooting tips) 08.01.17

pokemon go icon

The surprising truth I found was that the Apple Watch version of Pokemon Go is an excellent complement to both the main Pokemon Go app on the iPhone, but also to the Pokemon Go Plus device.

The developers were wise in that they planned it all very carefully so that the app, the Go Plus, and the Watch app all contributed to the fun of the game experience, but all in slightly different ways and all in ways that you didn’t feel like you were missing anything if you didn’t have any given device, but enjoyed the game all the more if you did.

Put another way, they didn’t attempt to make all three do the same thing (for example, you can’t catch Pokemon on the Watch app), but rather understood what unique capabilities each device had and developed around that.

The best way I can describe the Apple Watch app is that it’s like a basic “workout app”, but in addition to tracking things like steps, distance, time, and calories, you’re also tracking Pokemon Go specific metrics, such as how many items you picked up during this workout and how much progress you’ve made towards hatching your eggs and walking your buddy.

The huge advantage the Watch app provides that you can’t get with the phone app or the Go Plus device is that it allows you to track your distance indoors. In other words,  the Watch app doesn’t use GPS to gauge your distance traveled, but rather uses your watch’s pedometer to measure your steps walked. So if you run on a treadmill indoors, now you’ll get “credit” for your workout. This is great news for my wife, as now I’ll have incentive not just to run errands outside our apartment complex, but also taking out the trash and carting large junk within the building–activities which previously would have earned me nothing in Pokemon Go.

And if you’re a long-time Nutwiisystem, PS3 Fitness, or Xbox Fitness fan, you can breathe new life into games where you move your hands like Wii Sports Boxing, Exerbeat, Walk It Out, Just Dance, The Fight: Lights Out, Kung Fu for Kinect, and all the other games we’ve grown to love so much over the years by getting Pokemon Go “credit” for playing them.

I should point out that reports out there have been mixed as to how much “credit” you really receive. I’ll provide more details in the FAQs below on how to maximize your chances of receiving full credit for all your workouts.

You don’t need to do anything to install Pokemon Go on your watch–if you have the app on your phone you’ll see the icon on your Watch’s app launcher.

pokemon go icon on apple watch

The app isn’t an “always on” type of app, but really designed to be used specifically in conjunction with workouts that have a discrete start and end. When you open the app you’ll see your name, your avatar’s face, your level, and the egg in your collection that’s the closest to incubating. You’ll also see a big green “Start” button. Click it to start tracking your steps.

opening screen of watchos pokemon go

From there, you’ll see a screen that lists the kilometers you’ve walked (again, this is based on your steps, not on the GPS), the elapsed time, and a toggle between the steps you’ve taken and the calories you’ve burned. You’ll also be able to see the nearby Pokemon, although as I mentioned above you won’t be able to catch them from the app–for that you’ll need to take out your phone or use a Pokemon Go Plus.

main screen of pokemon go app for apple watch

You have the option of getting alerted every time you pass a Pokestop or a new Pokemon. Unlike Pokemons, you can interact with a Pokestop by spinning it just like you do on your phone, and you’ll see the items you’ve collected.

spinning pokestop on apple watch

You can also see a screen that shows all the eggs you’re currently incubating and the progress you’ve made on each.

eggs on apple watch

When your workout is over you can scroll to the screen with a big red X. Once you do you’ll see a summary of your workout, including your total distance, total time elapsed, active calories burned, number of steps taken, and items you’ve collected from Pokestops during your workout.

workout over on apple watch

You can also install the Pokemon Go complication, which will show you a green workout icon if the app is tracking your steps in the background, as well as the progress towards your egg hatching.

The theory, the Watch App is fantastic and if it consistently worked 100% the way I’d expect it to, it’d easily get 5 out of 5 stars from me as a review. But as of right now, my experiences have been way too

In all honesty, my own experiences with the Apple Watch have been mixed, and looking at some of the comments on reddit and other forums, there are a lot of complaints about the watch app.

The first step in troubleshooting is to make sure of a few things:

  1. Do you have the latest, most up-to-date version of the Pokemon Go app on your Apple Watch?
  2. Go to the “Health” app on your phone and then click “Sources”. Is Pokemon Go listed as one of them? If so, click in. Are all categories turned on?
  3. When you installed the game, did you allow permissions to always track location in the background and did you give full access to Motion & Fitness (if not, either uninstall and reinstall the apps or go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and Settings > Privacy > Motion & Fitness)

If you’ve confirmed this, I’ve compiled a list of Q&As that may help you in further troubleshooting.

Why do I keep getting the message “Open Pokemon GO on your iPhone” on my Watch app?

If you keep getting this annoying screen…

open pokemon go on your iphone

is your phone connected to your apple watch via bluetooth…your watch and your iPhone may have lost its Bluetooth connection. To check your connection, go to the watch face (your clock screen) and swipe up. On the top of the screen should you should see the word “Connected” in green and a small green phone icon to the right. In some cases, this will happen because you put the phone on airplane mode or you walked too far from your phone.

It’s also possible that your phone lost its Internet connection. It might take a little longer, but you can see the same result.

One annoyance is that I’ve found that even when the Bluetooth or Internet connection is lost even temporary (even for a split second such as when your phone switches between Wifi and cellular data or your phone’s Bluetooth hiccups), the entire app will reset. This can get really, really annoying, especially since you typically lose whatever progress in terms of steps and kilometers you’ve made on your watch that hasn’t been “credited” to your buddy or your egg.

Why does the Watch app keep quitting (either showing me the Summary of my completed workout, even though I didn’t tell it to stop, or just going back to the Start screen with all my progress reset?
blank pokemon go on apple watch

Another annoyance occurs when you’re working out and suddenly the app seems to reset. In some cases it blanks out (such as the screen to your right), and in other cases it’ll show a Summary of your “completed” workout even though you didn’t ask it to complete.

Again, likely that either your Bluetooth or your Internet connection got interrupted, even for a moment. Sometimes when you re-establish your connections things will come back, but worst case scenario you’ll need to reset everything and start from scratch.

To do that, try force-closing the Pokemon Go app on your phone (double-click the home button and swipe the Pokemon Go app up), force-closing the app on your watch (with the Pokemon Go app open, press and hold the power button until “Power Off” appears, and then press and hold the digital crown until you get to the main screen). Double-check that you have a steady Bluetooth and Internet connection. Then, open the iPhone app first, let it load all the way, and open the app on your watch. When you press the green “Start” Button again you should see your buddy and egg.

If you start seeing this happen a lot, you may need to take more drastic measures. Visit this Help page on Apple and scroll down to “Unpair your devices, then pair them again” section.

I have eggs incubating on my phone, and yet when I go to the egg screen I see “Start Egg Incubation on your iPhone” and the egg icon on the Watch app is greyed out
start egg incubation on your iphoneAgain, this is likely due to a break that happened in your Internet connection. The good news is that you haven’t lost any eggs–they’re still intact on your phone. The bad news, again, is that whatever workout you’ve done to that point on the watch is probably lost.
I find myself glancing at my watch from time to time just to make sure my connection is still active and the app is still tracking my steps, an annoyance to be sure, but a necessary one at this point until they make the app a little more stable.
The best thing, of course, is to make sure you have a strong, steady Internet connection that isn’t easily broken, even for a split second.

Why do I seem to get credit for steps, but they don’t get transferred to my buddy or my egg?

This one is probably the most frustrating about this app. I’ve found that results are really, really inconsistent. In my testing, there are times my egg and buddy distances update almost immediately and accurately, but other times the step counter will report multiple kilometers walked, but only a fraction will be reflected in the egg and buddy distances.

With the annoyances of the app not dealing will with lost connections, crashes, and the inconsistencies in distance tracking, for now I’d drop my rating of the Apple Watch app to about a 3/5. I’ll still plan on wearing it, especially when indoors, but I’ll make a point to set my expectation very, very low. Hopefully Niantic is working on shoring up the app, because like I said it’s a great concept that just needs to be executed better.

What’s the difference between Pokemon Go app for the Apple Watch and the Pokemon Go Plus handheld device?

Here’s a chart that lays out the differences between the two:

Pokemon Go for Apple Watch Pokemon Go Plus
Best use Workouts, indoor or outdoor Walking outdoors or driving/biking under 20 MPH
Does Pokemon GO on iPhone need to be on? Yes, at least when starting and ending workouts. No (although certain apps such as Candy Crush or Camera will prevent Pokemon Go from running in the background)
Notifies you of nearby Pokestops? Yes Yes
Notifies you of nearby Pokemon? Yes Yes
Identifies nearby Pokemon? Yes No
Allows you to spin nearby Pokestops? Yes Yes
Allows you to catch nearby Pokemon? No Yes (only one regular Pokeball throw)
Tracks distance using Steps Phone GPS
Key benefit to egg and buddy distance calculation: At least partially credits you with steps taken indoors (e.g. on a treadmill) Allows you to use other apps on your phone while tracking distance happens in the background

 

Thoughts on Pokemon Go as a Fitness Game 07.01.17

It’s been a while since I posted to the blog, and that’s sadly because the world of exergaming has largely been stagnant. The Wii is long gone. Microsoft’s and Sony’s attempts to mimic the success of motion gaming with the Kinect and the Playstation Move fell woefully short (despite huge investments in concepts like Xbox Fitness). And with the lack of motion games on the Wii U and the upcoming Nintendo Switch (as well as the demise of concepts that Satoru Iwata championed such as Quality of Life initiatives), it looks like none of the major console companies will be doing much further with motion gaming.

Smartphones have largely taken over the vacuum of casual gaming, and in turn exergaming applications. We’ve reviewed a lot of the top games for iOS and Android here, but most of them have largely remained relatively obscure.  The one exception is Pokemon GO. According to Apple, Pokemon GO was the top downloaded app on the Apple Store in 2016. Granted, most of the users who downloaded it have either pretty much stopped playing, or only open it upon occasion. But there are still enough players out there to be making the good folks at Niantic a lot of money (it’s been estimated that they’re still pulling in somewhere between $1.5 million and $3.5 million a day).

As I’d mentioned in an earlier post, as a Gen X’er I never played nor even understood the Pokemon craze. I used to roll my eyes at kids at church when they’d break out their decks of cards and be able to recite the stats of every pocket monster. So when the game came out last July I didn’t really expect I’d become a fan, much less an obsessed player. I figured I’d download the game, review it on the blog, and then toss it aside.

But from the time I caught my first Squirtle in my living room, I knew this was something different. And pretty soon, I found myself starting to change my habits because of this game. I work in New York City, and instead of taking the subway to work every day, I’d walk the 20-30 minutes (my walk happens to pass through both Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, two hotspots for finding rare Pokemon), even on days when it’d rain or be too cold. I’d keep the app open at my desk the whole day and from time to time when a rare Snorlax or a Dratini would spawn, I’d jump out of my chair and run outside to find it. On nice days during my lunch hour instead of sitting at my desk, I’d sometimes walk the 10 blocks uptown to Grand Army Plaza outside of Central Park (a fabled Pokemon hunting location). I’d find myself walking completely out of my way or taking new routes just to hatch eggs or track down rare spawns.

It even helped my home life. In the past too often when I’d come home I’d be so exhausted that I’d just want to flop down on the sofa and veg. But now when my wife wants to walk or wants me to run an errand, I’m happy to go (she’s accepted the fact that I’m going to be playing the game, while I’ve done my part to minimize my distraction and “be there” as much as I can through the use of the Go Plus and Apple Watch–see below).

full north american pokedexOn October 4, I’d basically “finished” the game by finally “catching ’em all”; I got all 142 Pokemon that you could catch in North America. In December I added a “Farfetch’d” on a trip to Taiwan (no trips to Europe or Australia planned yet as you can see by the lack of a Mr. Mime or Kanghastan in the Pokedex to the right, but hopefully one day).

I was expecting the game to get old then, but the funny thing is it didn’t. Aside from catching Pokemon, the other part of Pokemon GO involves fighting in gyms. And that requires building up your top Pokemon (which as of now include Dragonites, Snorlaxes, Rhydons, and Vaporeons) to have high enough combat power (CP) to occupy the best spots in your local gyms, as well as building up an assortment of all the best Pokemon to fight battles and train. Which means continuing to catch a variety of Pokemon with specific moves, and also catching as many as possible to collect more and more stardust and candy.

For all the problems and annoyances with the game (and there are a lot of them–the game constantly crashes when I’m in a gym fight; there’s sometimes a blank map when the app encounters GPS problems; the UI for choosing Pokemon for training fights is annoyingly cumbersome; the app makes accidental purchases too easy), I have to say that Niantic on the whole has done a nice job making improvements to keep the game fresh.

During Halloween 2016, they doubled the candies you can earn and increased the number of certain Pokemon. During Thanksgiving 2016 they doubled the amount of XP and Stardust you can earn. Around this time they introduced Ditto to the game. And during Christmas 2016, they increased the number of Starter Pokemon in the wild, introduced a special Pikachu wearing a Santa hat, introduced baby Pokemons that hatch through eggs, including Pichu (baby Pikachu), Cleffa (baby Clefairy), Igglybuff (baby Jigglypuff), Togepi (baby Togetic, also introduced), Smoochum (baby Jynx), Elekid (baby Electabuzz), Magby (baby Magmar) and even gave out a free single-use incubator each day during the event. In the process they also revealed new slots for Gen 2 Pokemons, which will undoubtedly be released throughout 2017.

So why am I going on about this game on the blog? I can give you over 12,000 reasons: throughout the last six months I’ve easily averaged anywhere from 12,000 steps to 18,000 steps every day, up from my previous average of maybe 5,000 on a good day. And because my mind is occupied with the game during all those steps I don’t notice nor mind that I’m actually getting exercise. And believe it or not, that exercise has translated to my losing over 30 pounds since July.

Why is this game so much more effective than other exercise games or diets? There’s one simple explanation. It got me to change my behavior. Other games or diets may get you to change things temporarily, but more often than not once it’s over you revert to your previous patterns.

But not with this game. In fact, playing this silly little game has pretty much changed my life. I used to dread waking up and commuting into New York City (which can be as hellish as you’ve heard). But with this game, dare I say that I actually look forward to walking through the City, learning about new landmarks and history, exploring new paths every day, and getting that nice little dopamine rush every time I bag a rare new creature. And watching the pounds come off and being able to fit into clothes I hadn’t fit in 10 years feels really good.

I admit, even with Niantic’s improvements there have been times where I’ve started to get a bit bored of the game, but because of all the benefits of playing I’ve essentially “forced” myself to continue to have fun with the game and keep playing it. Aside from feeling great (I no longer get winded when I have to run to catch my morning train into the City), I’ve probably saved about $200 in subway fares over this time. That’s something that you can’t get with Candy Crush.

Something else that Niantic released during the last few weeks was support for the Apple Watch, something that had been promised during the Apple Watch 2 keynote way back in September. In my last post I wrote glowingly about the Pokemon Go Plus device (aggravatingly, Nintendo still hasn’t figured out how to keep them in stock, but at least the reseller prices on Amazon are around $50 instead of $200, which is a good indication that there there’s a lot more out there).

In my review I questioned the need for an Apple Watch app at all, as I couldn’t think of anything the Apple Watch app would do that the Pokemon Go Plus didn’t already take into account. But that all changed once I got one. More in the next post.

Review of Pokemon Go Plus Device – Play Pokemon Go without looking at your phone screen 15.09.16

Pokemon GO has pretty much changed my life, in even more ways than I’d mentioned when I wrote my initial review of the game back in July.

I work in Manhattan, and before this game came along I almost never walked the 16 blocks and 4 avenues from Penn Station to my office. But since I wrote that review in July, there’s hardly been a day I haven’t made that walk. Aside from saving $5.50 a day in subway fares, between my morning commute, my evening commute, and lunch I find myself walking between 5-7 miles a day now (often taking a long detour to try to “catch ’em all”), versus my old routine, which was usually walking about 5 minutes and taking the subway the rest of the way. What makes the walk go by so much faster is getting that nice dopamine hit every time I catch a new Pokemon or spin an especially lucrative PokeStop.

Still, playing the game in the crowded City can get a bit tough. I try my hardest not to be one of “those people”–those people who plant their faces in their phones playing the game oblivious to the people (and cars) around them. But even so, New York is the type of city where if you’re even slightly in the path of someone walking, some jerks will invariably go out of their way to elbow or bump you to “teach you a lesson”.

Pokemon GO Plus was released today. It’s a device that you can strap around your wrist, or more likely that you can surreptitiously hold in your pocket so that no one is the wiser that you’re playing. It uses Bluetooth to communicate with your phone. As long as you have the latest version of the app installed, the app will recognize it.

One of the nice things about where I work is that it’s about a three minute walk to the Nintendo World store in Rockefeller Center, so after reading Nintendo Store’s Tweet last night that they’d be in stock I decided to get into the City a little earlier to see if I could snag one of the early ones.

If the past is any indication with Nintendo hardware, for a short period of time they’re going to be difficult to get (currently they’re selling on eBay for double to triple the $35 list price), but don’t worry–in a few weeks they’ll be all over the place.

I got there a little over an hour before the store opened and was #22 on line.

outside nintendo world store

We were all a bit surprised at how short the line was, but guessed a few things contributed to it–first, the hype over Pokemon GO is much less than it was in July, and second, a lot of “early adopter” types were likely up the street waiting for their iPhone 7s at the Apple Store.

Not surprisingly the two PokeStops around the store were lured up, which made the wait bearable. A Blastoise appeared at one point, which sadly I didn’t get even after three Razz Berries, three Ultra Balls, and two “Great” curveballs. 😛

The hour actually passed pretty quickly, as the folks with me on line were all really nice and interesting folks. It’s funny how this game is able to bring together so many different people.

By 8:30 the line had grown pretty large.

long line for pokemon go plus launch

Finally, 9:03 came and they opened the doors. Kudos to the Nintendo World folks for keeping the line very orderly–there was no mad rush or pushing, just an orderly queue.

line for pokemon go plus launch

I got that little adrenaline rush when I knew I had mine (again, knowing full well that in a few weeks these things will be as worthless as Wii Fit Meters). I saw that they had about 100 units stacked up in the back, so hopefully everyone on line got one.

Back at the office I did the unboxing. Here’s what the box looks like:

pokemon go plus box

And here’s what you get inside.

contents of pokemon go plus package

The hardware itself is a Pokemon Go Plus device about the size of a quarter and about 1/4 inch thick. It’s made of solid plastic that’s brightly colored to look like a regular red ball. It comes with an additional wristband in the default red, white, and blue colors.

pokemon go plus device and wrist strap

The unit itself comes attached with a solid plastic clip attached you can attach to your pocket or belt. There’s also a little hole to attach to a strap if you want to wear it around your neck.

pokemon go plus belt buckle clip

Very important–if you want to use the wristband, you’ll need to unscrew the ENTIRE back of the device before you snap it onto the wristband. (I can only imagine that certain point who don’t read the manual are going to try to forceably “snap” the belt clip off, which would be a problem).

To start using it, you just need to pull out the plastic tab to activate the battery.

removing the battery tab

Next, open the Pokemon GO app and click “Settings”. You’ll want to click on the menu option that says “Pokemon GO Plus”. Once you’re on the Pokemon GO plus screen, tap the button on your device. Your device should flash and your should see your device show up under “Available Devices” in the app (note that at this point it’s not yet paired to your phone via Bluetooth, just recognized by the app). If you encounter issues, make sure that Bluetooth is enabled on your phone.

settings screen on pokemon go for plus devie

Now, I could see a greyed-out icon on my screen, but the device still wasn’t doing anything.

pokemon go plus icon greyed out

I tapped the icon and saw the message “Finding Pokemon GO Plus…click the button on Pokemon GO Plus.”

finding pokemon go plus...click the button on the pokemon go plus

I clicked the button and this brought up an iOS “Bluetooth Pairing Request” prompt asking if I wanted to pair “Pokemon GO Plus” with my iPhone. I pressed “Pair”. You’ll only need to do this once.

bluetooth pairing of pokemon go plus

There were a series of messages telling me it was trying to connect. Finally I got the message “Successfully connected to Pokemon GO Plus”

successfully connected to pokemon go plus

From this point, you can start playing the game without looking at your phone screen, although your phone screen will still show you the status of what’s happening if you happen to look at it.

From time to time the GO Plus device will break the Bluetooth connection–if this happens the icon will go grey. To reactivate it, simply tap the icon and the device should be active again.

Now here’s how it works in action. First, here’s how capturing Pokemons work:

When you pass by a Pokemon, the device will emit six long vibrations and the light will flash green. On the screen there’ll be a message that says “Pokemon is in range!” and you’ll see a thin yellow line from the Pokemon GO Plus icon to the Pokemon it finds to let you know which one it’ll be going after.

What’s very interesting is that in some cases the device will discover a Pokemon even before you see in on your screen, like in the screenshot below. The converse is true too–sometimes you’ll be standing right on top of a Pokemon but the device won’t see it until you take a few steps. But most of the time what you see on the screen and what you experience on the device will match.

pokemon go plus encounters a pokemon in range

You can click the button any time during these six long vibrations to start the capture attempt. What happens behind the scenes is that the app will attempt to catch that Pokemon by throwing a single Regular Ball at it (it will not use Great Balls or Ultra Balls, even if you’re out of Regular Balls). You’ll feel three short vibrations, meant to simulate the three “shakes” of the Poke Ball animation you normally see on screen.

If it misses the Pokemon the device will emit two quick vibrations (think whaa-whaa like a sad trombone) and flash a red light. This happened to me on my first attempt–on the screen the message said “Pidgey ran away”.

pidgey ran away!

When you do catch something the device will vibrate five times of medium length while flashing celebratory multicolored lights. If you’re looking at your screen a message will flash telling you that you’ve captured it. You can also look at your Journal afterwards to see all the Pokemons and items from PokeStops you’ve collected–and missed.

Catch ratio is something you need to set expectations for. Aggravatingly, I had this Pidgey, a Gastly, and a Dugtrio all run away before I finally caught a Goldeen. After a day of playing with it I’d say my catch ratio has averaged about 30-50%. This is pretty much in line with what I’d get if I were playing on the phone trying to catch a Pokemon using only attempt and one Regular Ball with no curveball nor “Nice / Great / Excellent” throws.

And so by design you shouldn’t rely on this to catch rare of high powered Pokemons you might encounter (in these cases you’ll want to assume manual control by tapping on the GO Plus icon to toggle the device off or simply tapping on the Pokemon on your phone screen as normal to try a traditional attempt.

While the high miss rate might sound like an annoyance, I’ve concluded that it’s a fair trade-off, as clicking a button is much, much easier than taking out your phone, pressing the Pokemon, and swiping the ball over and over again. I actually appreciate how they put a lot of thought into the effort-reward calculation rather than just automatically letting people who paid for the device get 100% of the Pokemons every time. By doing it the way, they ensure that you’ll still play the way the game was intended to be played most of the time, but will be able to use the GO Plus device in situations where you simply can’t look at your phone but still want at least a chance to catch something, such as when you’re driving, biking, or jogging. I’ve started using it on paths where I know the chances are slim to see a rare Pokemon (and I deliberately don’t look at the Journal to see which ones I missed :P).

PokeStops are a bit more generous. When you pass by a PokeStop, the device will pulse twice (again up to six successive times) and the LED light will flash blue. On screen, you’ll see a line from the Plus icon to the PokeStop that you’ll be collecting items from.

collecting items from pokestop with pokemon go plus

Click on your device, and you’ll collect all the items at that Stop (the device will buzz for each item you’ve collected). You can see which items you’ve collected by looking at the screen immediately, or by checking the journal (or your inventory) later.

received items from pokestop using go plus

You do need to have the app open when using the device, but it can be running in the background as you use other apps. The only app I found on iOS that doesn’t let it run in the background is the Camera app. With any other app you’ll see a notification on the screen about your Pokemon catch attempts and your PokeStop items. In fact, the phone screen can even be locked and it’ll still work.

Even better news–it’ll continue to track your distance in both cases, meaning you’ll get “credit” for the distance to your Buddy Pokemon and your Eggs. In fact, I’ve found (and reports around the Web corroborate) that this device will actually improve the app’s tracking (which can be notoriously off).

For both PokeStops and Pokemons you catch you’ll get the normal amount of XP, candy, and stardust that you would if you were playing on your phone (note that as of this writing there’s a bug where you won’t see your stardust right away–rest assured it’s there, you just need to kill the app and restart it to see the extra stardust you collected). This is a great way to load up on the stardust, the one thing I never seem to have enough of. You won’t be able to catch Pokemons that spawn from incense, but you will be able to catch those that spawn from lures.

As far as power, the device uses the larger CR2032 watch battery (the one about the size of a nickel), but because it uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) you’re not going to be swapping out batteries very often, even with daily use. And when you do need to change batteries, you can generally find replacements on Amazon or eBay for pennies.

Overall, I’m very happy with this device, and can easily give it 5 of 5 stars–as with all other Nintendo devices like the Wii Fit Meter and the Gamecube Adapter, it’s really well made–it’s just a shame that Nintendo took two months to get it out; had they gotten in out in July the would have been able to print money.

But this is just the thing that’ll bring a lot of those who’d left the game back. It opens up new ways of being able to play the game that were impossible before–you can play while riding a bike, while navigating through a crowd of people pressing against each other, and even on a slow-to-moderate moving car, bus or train–all without the need to keep one’s nose buried in the phone screen. And since one of the conference rooms in my office is right over a PokeStop, it’ll let me quietly collect Pokemons during meetings without anyone being the wiser (in the past I’d need to pretend to be checking an important email or something). In fact, if you do happen sit over a PokeStop you would no longer need to check your phone constantly to see if a fresh lure has been dropped or that the 5 minute wait period to collect items is up–in either case your device will vibrate to let you know.

A lot of people ask if you need this if you’ll be getting the Pokemon GO app on the Apple Watch. I’d say yes–as convenient as the Watch app is, you’ll still need to look at it and swipe it. With this, you don’t need to look at your phone, your watch, or anything else. Just hold it in your hand, feel for the buzz, and you’re set.

Overall I highly recommend getting this if you’re anything between a casual and a fanatical Pokemon GO player. As with most hardware from Nintendo, it’s not just well-made, but will probably become a collector’s item in time. It may be tough to find, but keep checking Amazon or Gamestop or if you’re in NYC, try the Nintendo Store.

The lessons learned from previous experiences like the Wii, Wii Fit, the Wii U Gamecube Adapter, and other similar products is to NOT panic. If you can’t get it the first day, don’t fall into the temptation of buying it from someone on eBay who’s jacked up the prices to a ridiculous amount. It might be a few weeks, but they’ll come back in stock eventually at $34.99.

The Apple Watch Series 2 – The top 10 to know for fitness enthusiasts 08.09.16

Fastidious readers of this blog may remember that back when they announced the first Apple Watch two years ago I made myself a resolution to get one and to review it. That resolution sort of went by the wayside. I actually did get one at one point, but amid a fit of buyer’s remorse and some false rumors that they were going to release a new model imminently, I decided to return it never having opened it. I also learned my lesson from decades of buying Apple products to always wait for the Generation 2 model–this practice has served me well with my Apple //e (vs. the Apple ][ Plus), my Mac SE/30 (vs. the Mac Plus), my second-generation iPod, and my first iPhone 4.

Today, Tim Cook, in his usual imitation of Steve Jobs magniloquence, announced the Apple Watch Series 2. It looks like a winner. Here are some of the highlights from an exercise and fitness perspective.

  1. It’s water-resistant up to 50 meters. Yes, now you can dive into the pool wearing your Apple Watch, or even take a shower with it on. While the watch has always been good at tracking calories burned while running, as part of this Watch Apple has developed two swimming workouts which they say will accurately measure your calories burned while swimming. They’ve also designed the speaker hardware to repel water that gets into it.
  2. It’s faster. They’ve upgraded just about every part of the watch, from the CPU to the RAM to the storage, wireless speed, and motion control accuracy. They say that it’s going to be at least 2x faster than the first Apple Watch.
  3. It’s brighter. On those bright sunny days you won’t need to squint as much to see your watch face–the new display is at least 2x brighter than it was before.
  4. apple watch gpsIt has GPS. Unlike the old phone that depending on your iPhone for GPS (which helped run the battery down faster), this new watch will have GPS built-in, meaning that you can track your distance and route without being tethered to your phone or even needing to take your phone out on runs. Apple also claims that the watch’s GPS unit connects to satellites faster than most other devices. Also, Apple announced a hiking app called ViewRanger that will help prevent you from getting lost (assuming that the watch battery doesn’t give out before you do).
  5. nike+ apple watchApple and Nike+ have decided to work together. There’ll be a separate version of the Apple Watch called the Apple Watch Nike Plus which will have some bells and whistles that may be of  interest to runners. The watch will be in the Nike+ style of yellow and black. It’ll have a bold new interface that displays your distance and pace, as well as the current weather and the time since your last run.Nike will also introduce a new feature called “Just Do It Sundays” which will encourage everyone in the world (who has an Apple Watch Nike Plus) to run. Honestly, IMO the watch is a bit of an eyesore, and this all seems a bit more like marketing hype to me than anything particularly innovative, but if you’re a Nike+ fan already or were an avid user of the dearly departed FuelBand, it might be worth it to you to pay the premium to recapture some of that FuelBand magic that FitBit stole.
  6. pokemon go on apple watchWatchOS 3 is coming, and with it–Pokemon GO. I haven’t posted much about Pokemon GO since my review when it first came out, but I will post something in the coming weeks because frankly, it’s changed my life–for the better. According to my iPhone Health app, I’m averaging about 4.54 miles a day walking for the month–when before Pokemon GO came out I maybe averaged a mile a day.The Pokemon GO app will help you play the game without having your head buried in your phone. You’ll be able to see the number of steps you need to hatch an egg, tap and swipe on your watch to collect items from Pokestops, all without having the app on your phone open.
  7. heart rate on apple watchIt has an improved heart rate sensor. As you’re working out you’ll see your heart’s beats-per-minute and they’ll be captured on a graph for you. This will help you determine for any given workout if you’ve entered the so-called “aerobic zone” with a sustained elevated heartrate, and will also let you see the history of your workouts. It’ll also give a continuous history of your heartrate that can help you help your doctor get a more complete view of your health at your next checkup.
  8. apple watch activity ringsThe Activity Rings are back. As with the original Apple Watch, the Watch Series 2 will track all your movement during the day, whether walking, running to the train, at the gym, and yes, working out with your Wii. If you’ve been sitting too long or are behind in your exercise, you can get the Watch to give you a nudge to get you to stand, start moving, or do your daily exercise. What’s cool is that you don’t need to necessarily block out a full half hour to exercise every day–the Watch will tell you cumulatively how much exercise you’ve done all day.
  9. breathe appBreathe! At first I though this was just a bunch of hype, but something we all take for granted, especially as we go through stressful days, is our breathing patterns. This is something that Eastern workout regimens pay close attention to but Western ones seem to ignore. But when you think about it, proper breathing is a key to great exercise–and feeling better in general. Your body needs oxygen, and when you get into the habits of improper breathing (yes, there is such a thing), you can deplete your body of oxygen and make your whole body run less efficiently. This is something even more critical as you’re working out, when every part of your body needs oxygen. This is one I’m looking forward to trying.
  10. The news of the Apple Watch’s demise are greatly exagerrated. Tim Cook mentioned that Apple is now the #2 watch seller, just behind Rolex and in front of companies like Fossil. It’s honestly a bit of a misleading comparison–I don’t think too many people are buying a new Rolex every 2 years because the old one is outdated. Still, it’s a good reminder that Apple has managed to open up a whole new market for watches with Gen X and Gen Yers who haven’t worn a watch since they were kids or Millennials who have no idea what a watch is.

Unfortunately, the most anticipated thing on the Apple Watch Series 2 wishlist–a longer battery life–looks like it’s not happening. Apple didn’t even reference it in their announcement. While the Watch will have a bigger battery, whatever increased capacity will like be eaten up by the new GPS chip. So continue to plan for charging your Watch at least every 18 hours. Forget to plug it in one night before you go to bed, and you’re out of luck for your morning commute.

For my part, I’m going to live up to that promise I made two years ago and try to pre-order my watch on September 9. Whenever it comes, I’ll do the full unboxing here and take you through all the fitness capabilities.

Review of BallStrike for iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Windows PC 13.08.16

BallStrike is an augmented reality fitness game that you can play on your iOS device, Mac, or Windows PC.

The premise of the game is simple. You stand 7 feet from your iPhone, iPad, or computer, standing in front of it (making sure there are no objects between you and the camera).

ball-strike-instructions

Once you allow the app to use your camera you’ll see yourself looking at your own own video image. As a driving soundtrack of techno music plays, balls will appear all over your screen. Your job is to reach down, up, and to the side to physically swipe at them and pop them. As the game progresses, the action gets more and more frenetic. You find yourself waving your arms like a rapper who’s had too much caffeine. For this reason, you definitely want to play this on your own with the shades drawn.

I know what you’re probably thinking–hasn’t this been done before? And the answer is yes, everywhere from games like Playstation Move Fitness to Fruit Ninja for Kinect. And those games had much better graphics than this one. The main differences with this one are–

  1. It’s cheap. Free to start out, and then 99 cents if you want the full version.. You don’t need to buy a Playstation console with Move or an Xbox console with Kinect. You just need an iPhone or an iPad, a PC, or a Mac with a working camera.
  2. It’s responsive. As advanced as the Move and Kinect were, there was always a lag which made fast-moving games like this a bit frustrating at times. With this game, your video image moves in real time, and you’re seeing your own image, so there’s no lag to speak of.
  3. Augmented reality is cool. Granted, this was an early use of AR so it already feels a bit dated.

You wouldn’t think this is particularly good exercise, but after just three rounds I was already starting to get winded and my arms a little sore.

Lighting in your room has to be just right, obviously, or the game will have trouble picking you up. Also, you need to be wearing clothes that contrast with your background. Even then, I still saw my share of “false positives”–balls that would pop without me touching them. But for the most part the game is pretty good–it picks up where your body is and for the most part avoids putting balls on top of it.

As the game progresses it becomes more challenging. “Bombs” will appear in between the balls and you need to avoid hitting them (which is tougher than it sounds). You’ll get points for different combos of moves. Even more features are available if you opt to pay for the full version, which costs only 99 cents.

Once the game is over, you’ll see your score, along with the number of balls you missed and the estimated calories you burned.

Here’s the gameplay as the publisher, FitMaster Productions, shows it:

ballstrike-gameplay

Here’s how it will really probably look in your living room (this is a YouTube video from a kid in Turkey of all places who filmed a whole 7-minute workout).

Overall the game tends to feel a little more like a technical proof-of-concept than a fully polished game. It was certainly fun, but as you can probably see, there was just a bit too much imprecision and visual artifacts throughout.

On the other hand, it unarguably a fantastic workout and a heck of a lot cheaper to use an existing smartphone or PC than buying those systems. And the gaming elements of watching your score pile up and trying to minimize the number of balls you miss certainly helps keep you motivated. It also is unique in that very few other exercise games on your smartphone support a full body workout of your arms, shoulders, core, and legs like this one does.

Game: BallStrike
Publisher: Fit Master Productions
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Cardio Boxing
Watch Support? No
Price: Free to try, 99 cents for full version
Download links: iOS, Windows

Best portable chargers for apps that drain your battery 30.07.16

See if this hasn’t happened to you. You’re in the middle of a run listening to music or in the middle of an intense Zombies Run! episode. Or you’ve walked into an area with multiple lures and a bunch of rare Pokemons pop up. And then you get the dreaded message, “Your phone is low on battery. Recharge or connect to a power source”.

It’s happened to me many times. Most often, it’s because I’m running around in meetings at work all day with my phone and can’t get to my computer in time to give it a full charge. It doesn’t help that my phone is getting older. Each time you charge your battery, it ever so slightly decreases the battery life.

The kinds of apps I’m reviewing here for fitness and exercise, including Pokemon Go and Zombies Run!, not to mention traditional workout apps like Strava or Runtastic, are notorious for draining your phone’s battery, simply because you need to have them on all the time, and they are constantly using your cellular data and your GPS, two of the biggest battery drainers.

You’ve probably heard of portable battery chargers, but the options can be dizzying. Here are my personal favorites.

The Anker 20000mAh Portable Charger provides relative lightness with huge capacity and the fastest charging available. It’s on the heavier side at 12.5 ounces (about double or triple the weight of your phone, or the weight of a can of soda) but the weight is proportional to how powerful it is. It can charge your iPhone 6s about eight times, an iPad Air about 2 times, or a Galaxy S6 five times before needing to be recharged. Its maximum charging speed is 4.8 amps, meaning that if you plug one phone into one USB port and the other phone into the other, both will enjoy fast 2.4 amp charging. The list price is about $80, but you’ll typically see it on sale for about $40.

If you need the maximum in capacity, you’ll want the Anker Astro E7 External Battery Charger; this is the one I personally have. It holds a whopping 26800 mAh capacity. It’s the heaviest portable battery at 15.8 ounces but if you frequently find yourself running out of power on long trips, this is the one for you.

When my wife and I go out, I just bring this one battery and charge my iPhone and her Galaxy on it. Something else I like about all these batteries is that there are protections built in to prevent your device from overcharging or power surges.

What I usually do is just put it in my pocket and run a line to the phone in my hand. It comes with a micro USB cable for most Android devices, and you can purchase a cheap MFi (Apple certified) Lightning cable for your iPhone or iPad directly from Amazon.

This thing has saved me many, many times, and it’s my charger of choice. It easily handles a 5-hour cross-country flight with plenty of juice to spare. On the last cross-country flight I was on, I saw that the poor woman next to me had run out of power after an hour into the flight on a flight with free Wi-Fi. I offered to let her charge on my battery, and it was like giving a cup of water to someone dying of thirst.

This one isn’t cheap at a list price of $119.99 (although more typically you’ll find it selling for about $55), but it’s well worth it if you want the ultimate in extended battery life.

If you’re looking for something more portable, or a little more affordable battery pack the size of a tube of lipstick, try their PowerCore+ mini portable charger. It’s able to charge an iPhone 6 a little more than one complete time before it needs recharging, so it’s great if you just need power for the commute home or the short trip to the store.

Of course, the most impressive thing is this thing’s weight–at less than 3 ounces it’s about the weight of an egg. You won’t even notice it in your pocket or your purse. And at under $20 chances are you won’t notice the dent it makes to your banking account as much as other portable battery solutions.

This isn’t a paid spot–I’ve owned just about every Anker charger since the beginning, and have paid full price for them, and they only get more impressive. Don’t leave home without one when you need to hunt monsters or run from zombies.

Review of BitGym and Virtual Active for iOS and Android – Virtual Reality Video for your Exercise Bike, Elliptical, or Treadmill 23.07.16

Back in 2013, I reviewed a game for the Wii U called Wii Street U. This was a game where you could “walk” on your Balance Board, and on your TV screen you could “walk” anywhere in the world that Google Maps’ cameras had gone. It was relatively groundbreaking at the time; until then you were relegated to watching DVDs or screens on very, very expensive treadmills to get any kind of “virtual tour” that responded to your movements. But as you can see from the gameplay video in my review, the experience was choppy and more a curiosity than anything else.

bitgym-iconThat same year Active Theory Inc. released an app called BitGym, available at the iTunes Store and Google Play Store. In the early years they had a few kinks to work out but three years later the app is pretty polished and has powered over a million workouts.

If you have an indoor cardio machine–an exercise bike, an elliptical, a stair stepper, a rowing machine, or a treadmill, there’s a good chance your machine has been collecting dust or has been used as a very expensive coat rack. It’s tough to keep from being bored to tears on cardio equipment. Sure, you can try reading a book or watching TV, but if my experience is anything like yours even that’s tough because your brain is trying to do two different things at the same time–partake in an activity usually associated with relaxation, and doing extreme physical exertion.

The idea behind the app is simple yet brilliant. You get on your indoor cardio machine and place your tablet or phone in front of you. You can optionally purchase a Bluetooth heart rate monitor (they recommend the Wahoo Tickr or 60beat Blue) which integrates with the program.

You select your machine type: a bike, a treadmill, an elliptical, or an ergometer (rowing machine). You then experience from a first person perspective a high-resolution video tour of a bike trail, hiking path, or running trail from around the world. All together there are more than 100 HD video tours to choose from in some of the world’s most beautiful locations (the first demo is a gorgeous trail that runs through the mountains of Northern Italy).

bitgym northern italy run

Unlike passively watching a DVD, the video speeds up and slows down based on your own workout. The result is the very definition of virtual reality–you really feel like you’re there. Instead of your brain getting mixed signals–am I watching TV or am I biking–your brain just accepts that yes, you’re in Northern Italy biking happily along a trail. Your brain becomes less aware on your physical effort as you focus more on your surroundings in the video. Adding to the realism, you can turn on “nature sounds” to give you a truly immersive experience.

Amazingly there’s nothing to connect–the way this app works, it’ll use your smartphone’s front-facing camera to detect your video image, and then it’ll use the subtle movements of your face and body while exercising to gauge the cadence and intensity of your workout. The faster you’re moving in real life, the faster you’ll move in the scene. Stop in real life, and the video image will stop.

The motion detection is uncannily precise, especially considering that it’s just gauging your motion based on your video image and your phone is not hooked up to your machine. As long as your room is fairly well lit (but not too much so) and your phone is placed right in front of you, it’s work near perfectly. And it’s not easy to “fake”, as if it were worth your time to even attempt to do that.

The locales you choose from are real, from Buenos Aires, to all the islands of Hawaii, to the streets of Paris, to the Canadian Rockies, to the jungles of Costa Rica, to the islands of New Zealand, to a number of National Parks. The videos are spectacular in their clarity, and you can choose to view the moving image on your phone or cast it to your high definition TV using HDMI, Chromecast, or Apple TV.

Here’s a screen grab of me running through the streets of Venice on that same tour.

running through venice

And here I am biking through the wild streets of Chicago.

chicago tour bitgym

You can choose to have a number of overlays to give you all kinds of information about your workout.

bit gym options
You can overlay a continually running estimate of your steps per minute on the bottom of the screen, and your elapsed time on the top. You can also choose to have “Trail Facts” pop up from time to time that tell you the details of the path you’re running. From an audio perspective, you can choose to play nature sounds by themselves or a playlist from your phone or both. Personally, I prefer to shut off all overlays and turn on nature sounds, which lets me experience the maximum realism.

The only way I can think of to improve this is with a virtual reality headset like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PSVR to give you the ultimate virtual reality experience where you can actually look around as you run. Something tells me they’re probably working on that as we speak.

You can download the app for free to try out the Northern Italy run, and if you remain a free user you’ll be limited to a selection of locations and checkpoints, as well as a maximum of 10 minutes. In order to access the other 100+ trails, as well as guided tours and coaching videos, you’ll need to sign up as a member and pay an annual fee of about $95. It might seem pricey compared to other smartphone apps, but on the other hand if you think about it $2 a week is a small price to pay to breathe new life into your workout, and a lot less than a gym.

Another option is to download another app called Virtual Active for iOS. Virtual Active is a company that produces video tour DVDs for home use, as well as for high-end cardio machines.  It appears that they’ve partnered with Active Theory to develop an app that features their videos and makes them interactive through BitGym technology. The interface isn’t quite as polished as BitGym and the tours don’t seem quite as interactive, but you do have the option of purchasing videos for $7.99 a pop and it’s yours to keep.

virtual active run

virtual active workouts

virtual active hiking

Can BitGym and Virtual Active be considered “games”? The criteria on this blog has always been that I’ll review games that are “so fun you forget you’re exercising”. In the case of these apps, you don’t forget you’re exercising, but you certainly forget you’re in your boring den or home gym as you travel the world virtually.

Game: BitGym
Publisher: Active Theory, Inc.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Treadmill Walking and Running, Elliptical, ERG Rowing, Stationary Biking (indoors)
Watch Support? No
Price: Free
Download links: iOS and Android.

Game: Virtual Active
Publisher: Active Theory, Inc.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Treadmill Walking and Running, Elliptical, Stationary Biking (indoors)
Watch Support? No
Price: Free
Download links: iOS

Wii Fit U + Fit Meter + Wii Balance Board at eBay for $24.99 from Nintendo Direct 17.07.16

wii fit for saleNintendo, through their eBay account, is selling a full Wii Fit set including the Wii Fit U game, a Fit Meter, and a Wii Balance board for the unheard of price of $24.99–with free shipping!

I saw this a few days ago but the eBay page said it was 98% sold out, so I didn’t bother posting it thinking that it’d be completely sold out by now. But as of right now there are still some left, so get in on it while you can–if eBay’s numbers are accurate, there are only about 100-200 left out of over 6600.

In some ways this is a sad moment–it’s a sign that the Balance Board and Wii Fit are truly at their end of life, and Nintendo is starting to clear out their own inventory.

On the flip side, it’s a great opportunity for you to stock up on a Balance Board and Fit Meter (or two) for the price that a Fit Meter or a Wii Fit U game alone would have cost only a short while ago, and probably one of the last times you can purchase one from Nintendo directly.

Hard to say what the resale value of these things are going to be–there are millions of them out there–but as they start to end up in landfills and start breaking, there’ll probably be a pretty good number of people in the aftermarket (before Nintendo put this on sale used Balance Boards were going for $30).

While the Wii and Wii U have fallen out of favor by the masses, remember that Wii Fit U is still one of the best fitness video games you can get anywhere. You can buy it here. Jump on it (but don’t jump on it!) 🙂

Review of Zombies Run! for iOS and Android 16.07.16

zombies run iconOne of the most popular exercise games for smartphones is Zombies, Run! for iOS and Android, published by Six to Start in 2012, but continually updated since then with fresh updates. As of this writing, it has an average rating on the iTunes store of 4 1/2 stars from more than 5,700 ratings and a rating on the Google Play store of 4.3 from over 11,000 ratings. And the rave reviews continue to roll in from the over 3 million runners using the app. There’s also a special version called Zombies, Run! 5k Training for people that helps train and condition runners who are complete beginners through the point where they can run 5km (3 miles) without trouble.

One drawback to video game workouts using consoles was always that as you exercised you were stuck in front of your TV. Those who wanted to walk, jog, or run outside had to leave their TVs. There was always the option of putting in a playlist of music to run to, or regular “tracking apps” that charted your progress, but those only went so far in terms of taking your mind off your exertion as a true fitness game could.

But an obvious challenge to making a fitness game for walkers, joggers, and runners is that while you’re moving it’s difficult to stare at your screen without tripping over yourself or bumping into people or things.

And so the creators of this game came up with an idea that’s pure genius–they took the screen out of it. The entire “game” is played through audio.

Here’s how it works.

IMG_0841In the opening screens of the game you’re told the premise.

Only a few have survived the zombie epidemic. You are a Runner en-route to one of humanity’s last remaining outposts: Abel Township. They need your help to gather supplies, rescue survivors, and defend their home. 

You start by selecting a “mission”. When they first launched the game it consisted of 23 missions, but each subsequent year for the last 5 years they’ve added many more to the point where as of this writing there are over 200 missions to choose from.

run zombies screenOnce you start the mission the screen goes blank with nothing but the Zombies Run logo, the elapsed time, the distance run, and your pace. In audio you’re immersed into something reminiscent of an old radio drama (think Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds) complete with narration and sound effects. The first story (“Jolly Alpha Five Niner”) immediately pulls you in, where you’re involved in a helicopter crash that puts you in the middle of a dangerous location full of zombies.

By running, walking, or jogging, you can imagine yourself as part of the story. As you move, you’ll collect supplies and rescue survivors. Optionally, you can turn on a feature called “Zombie Chases”–if you do, then in the middle of the story you may encounter a pack of zombies which you’ll need to outrun by increasing your speed–get caught by the Zombies and you’ll lose some of your supplies.

You can configure the app to track your motion in a variety of ways. “GPS” will use your phone’s location services to track distance and pace, the best option if you’re moving outdoors. “Constant Pace” assumes a constant pace throughout your run. “Step Counting” will use your phone’s sensors as a pedometer, tracking the number of steps you take and estimating distance and pace. The screen will track the distance you’ve covered, the time elapsed, and if you have step counting turned on you’ll also see the number of steps you’ve taken.

Each storyline lasts about 30-40 minutes, the duration of an excellent workout. The production is so good you really get immersed in the story (especially if you have “Zombie Chases” turned on). The characters in the story will interact with you as if you’re part of the story (although they won’t ask you to do things like run off your normal path).

When you finish your run you’ll see an end screen that shows you your elapsed time, total distance run (in miles or kilometers), total calories burned, pace, and number of steps. It’ll also show you a map of your running path, your accomplishments, and your game events (such as the supplies you picked up and when).

Similar to the show “24”, events occur in real-time, which means there’ll be periods of times when things are silent; from time to time you’ll pick up “supplies” like a mobile phone, a case of bullets, a pack of underwear, a first aid kit, food, or a baseball bat. You can choose to play music from your playlist or from an external app in the background, and your music will be muted whenever the narration kicks in. There’s also an in-world “radio station” you can listen to to really immerse yourself in the story.

In addition to the Stories, there are a number of great added features. There are pre-made plans for those who are training for 5K, 10K, half marathon, or marathon races. There are “bonus” runs outside the story where you can stock up on supplies. And by running certain “races” you can unlock additional content.

IMG_0933Something else I appreciate about the game is that it’s free, and you can enjoy the game and all of its stories without ever paying a dime. But after using the app a few times chances are you’ll think about paying the $2.99/month or $19.99/year for the Pro membership, as it allows you to unlock all missions without waiting, provides you additional ways to customize the game, and stores and lets you view an impressive set of statistics. There’s a huge numbers of stories now that have all kinds of fascinating plots that rival anything you’ll see on TV.

In a lot of ways this game reminds me of the old Infocom text-based adventures. As video game developers try so hard to outdo each other with advanced graphics and performance, Six to Start is doing things the old fashioned way–doing fantastic storytelling with great production values and relying on the most powerful processor of all–your brain–to paint the pictures. In effect you have two choices–to slouch in front of the TV binge-watching the latest TV series about zombies, or to get off the couch and experience being part of the story. This is a great game for bringing new life into your otherwise repetitive morning or evening run.

While a lot of people think of “augmented reality” as displaying an image over a real-world scene, this is augmented reality just the same, just through your ears.

Game: Zombies, Run!
Publisher: Six to Start
Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Walking, running, or jogging (indoors or outdoors)
Watch Support? Yes
Price: Free, with In-App Purchases for “Pro Membership” and Season Passes
Download links: iOS Android