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Archive for January, 2017

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

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)

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

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.