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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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Review of Zombies Run! for iOS and Android

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

Review of Pokémon GO for iOS and Android

The newest “exergame” to hit the market is a close relative to what many deem one of the first exergames for smartphones.

Back in 2012, Google developed a location-based game called Ingress for Android, which was ported over to iOS in 2014. In the game, you move around a virtual world on your screen, which happens to correspond to the real world. In other words, the world itself is your “game board”.

The game is essentially a worldwide version of “capture the flag”. In the game you join one of two sides–the “Enlightened” or the “Resistance”, and then you work with your side to “take over” areas in the real world by walking around your neighborhood, your work area, while shopping, and so on and capturing “portals” that are scattered around the virtual world (typically corresponding to certain landmarks in the real world).

Ingress was hugely popular, with a reported 7 million players at its peak. The game developers spun off from Google as an independent company called Niantic in August 2015. But the game had its flaws. The first was in the premise. The science fiction plotline was clearly targeted towards “geeks”, so casual players were probably turned off, intimidated with words like “”Resonators”, “Mods”, “Amplifiers”, “Heat Sinks”, “Keys”, “Portal Links”, “MUF Capsules” and so on. The second issue was that in some circles there was widespread cheating going on, which proved a disincentive to players who played the game “honestly”. Still, Ingress is definitely a game worth downloading and checking out.

pokemon go iconNiantic did something brilliant. They teamed up with The Pokémon Company and released a new game for your smartphone called Pokémon GO for iOS and Android.

Just about everyone who’s a Gen Y’er or Millennial has had a collection of Pokémon cards. I remember once watching some kids playing with their Pokémon cards, reciting every character, along with their info, type, heal points, stage, attack, damage, and weakness and thinking to myself…if only they used that part of their brains to memorize the Periodic Table or the Bill of Rights.

Well, those kids are all grown up now and all have smartphones and disposable income. And so the time is rife for Pokémon GO.

You start out Pokémon GO by signing into your Pokémon.com username and password, if you have one, or a Google ID.

IMG_0886When you start the game you’re greeted by a Pokémon Professor, Professor Willow.

Do you know that this world is inhabited by creatures known as Pokémon? Pokémon can be found in every corner of the earth. Some run across the plains, others fly through the skies, some live in the mountains, or in the forests, or near water… I have spent my whole life studying them and their regional distribution. Will you help me with my research? That’s great! I was just looking for someone like you to help! You’ll need to find and collect Pokemon from everywhere! Now, choose your style for your adventure. 

From there, you can choose a male or a female avatar and do very basic customization.

Then you’re asked to give the app permission to access your camera. From there Pokémon GO works a lot like Ingress does. You see a virtual map on your screen where you’ll see streets that correspond to the real world.

My initial view in Pokemon GO, which happens to correspond to the streets in my neighborhood.

My initial view in Pokemon GO, which happens to correspond to the streets in my neighborhood.

The good professor will hand you a few “Poké Balls” that you’ll use to capture Pokémons you encounter.

Your first Pokémon will show up soon after that, and you’ll also be able to play with the camera feature. If you turn it on, you’ll see an image of your actual surroundings in the real world, and you’ll see the Pokémon hanging out there through the magic of augmented reality. In my case, it showed up in the baby’s playpen.

IMG_0902

You need to flick your screen to try to hit the Pokémon with one of your Poké Balls. Catch him and he’ll end up in your PokéDex.

As you walk around the real world, you’ll encounter “PokéStops” (which correspond to landmarks in the real world–it’s what they called “Portals” in Ingress) where you can collect additional supplies. Just sitting in my apartment, there was a sculpture right across the street that I could tap and collect a few more Poke Balls.

sculpture across street

What’s cool about this is that I’m finding even in my own neighborhood I’m learning things about the real world I never knew before–the names and locations of sculptures and public artwork I’d previously just passed by without thinking.

I could see on the map that there were more down the street, and the only way for me to get to them was to walk…and walk…and walk. And you need to walk–if you’re traveling by car or train you’ll be going too fast to “check in” to any location.

As you collect the same species of Pokémon enough time, you can “evolve” them into a different Pokémon. And when you reach “Level 5”, in a concept similar to Ingress, you’ll be able to enter something called a “gym” and join one of three teams. In gyms your Pokémons can do battle with others with the goal of capturing the gym for your team. Unlike card games and video games the battles aren’t turn-based, but you can tap the screen, hold down your finger to build power for special attacks, and swipe to dodge attacks. The old rules from the card games and video games apply (e.g., water Pokemon are effective against fire). Battles are the most effective way to strengthen your collection of Pokemon and raise their levels.

If you live in a big city, chances are you’ll be seeing a lot of people on the sidewalks in the coming weeks and months with their heads glued to their smartphone screens, and occasionally stopping and swiping at them. Now you’ll know what they’re up to 🙂 Just today I saw about ten people like this on the streets of Manhattan, desperately trying to look nonchalant, but clearly obsessing over collecting Pokemon items.

This of course begs the questions, can Pokémon GO (or Ingress for that matter) really be considered an “exercise game”. You’re not really running, or breaking a sweat, or even getting an elevated heartrate.

This is all true, but what it is doing is promoting more movement. For example, I take the train into Manhattan every day, and then I can either take a 10 minute subway ride or a 30 minute walk to my office. For example, in my daily commute after work I have the option of either hopping on the subway (at $2.75 a pop) for a 10 minute ride or taking a 30 minute walk to the train station. At the end of the day I’m usually exhausted and end up giving in and paying the $2.75. But for a time at least, trying to “catch them all” is probably going to give me all the incentive I need to save the money and walk for the foreseeable future. Similarly, if I’m walking and see a Poké Stop just a little distance away, I find myself walking out of the way to get it.

This morning was a beautiful day and I opted to walk. Right outside Penn Station I saw a Zubat to capture (being Manhattan, people weren’t getting creeped out that I was pointing my phone at them and swiping, but YMMV depending on how weird the people in your neighborhood are).

pokemon outside penn station

Being Manhattan, my map was filled with dozens of Poké Stops, including the Eagle Statue right outside Penn Station.

penn station eagle

As I walked I encountered many more monsters, including this rat-inspired monster, appropriately near the same place in the City where I saw real rats at one point.

raticate pokemon in nyc

And the early reviews show the same thing–people are abandoning their cars and buses and trains and choosing to walk sometimes ridiculous distances to play this game and find all the items they can get. In a city like New York, there are certainly a lot!

pokemon go in midtown

Niantic’s servers have had its troubles in the last few days since the app launched, most likely due to the huge amount of downloads and usage the app has gotten. This, unfortunately, has negatively affected early reviews for the game. Hopefully this will just be a temporary thing.

Ultimately I’m impressed. This is a peek into the future of mobile gaming, where addictive (but rather mindless) games like Farmville and Candy Crush meet location-based services like Foursquare and Waze. When I was on the train and not able to play Pokemon Go, I fired up my Candy Crush and it felt so…pointless (granted walking around collecting monsters is equally pointless, but there’s enough extra value in the augmented reality experience that your brain convinces you it’s not).

Put another way, walking around hunting for monsters and finding one every now and then gave me a thrill not unlike the thrill I get when fishing–even to the point of being more thrilled when I find and net a “big one”.

It’s also is a brilliant way to extend the 20-year old Pokémon franchise, and since it has a much more accessible and understandable premise than Ingress, I fully expect it to take off and be as huge as any (every) other Pokémon product in history.

Game: Pokémon GO
Publisher: Niantic
Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Walking (outdoors)
Watch Support? No
Price: Free
Download links: iOS Android.

Is Pokemon GO free?
Yes, it’s completely free and you can enjoy the game without ever paying a dime. However, there are in-game purchases that can enhance your enjoyment, such as purchasing Pokeballs, Incense, Lucky Eggs, Lures, Egg Incubators and upgrades so you can store more items and Pokemons. Purchasing each of these will require use of Pokecoins, which is fake money that you purchase with real money :).
Does Pokemon GO use a lot of data?
No, the average use will use about 5-10 megabytes of data for every hour of continuous play, and most sessions last much shorter than that. Even though it uses the same GPS as a mapping app, it uses substantially less data.
Is Pokemon GO safe?
It really depends. The game hasn’t been out a week and there are already reports of people getting robbed, people crashing cars, people falling into ditches and walking into oncoming traffic and each other, and so on. The key is to remind yourself of what it says on the opening screen–“Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.” Use your common sense. Don’t keep your face buried in your phone as you walk–your phone will buzz is there’s a Pokemon or a PokeStop nearby. If you’re on a crowded street and a Pokemon pops up, don’t walk and throw PokeBalls at the same time, but calmly step to the side and dispatch of the Pokemon calmly. If you’re alone at night and see a Pokemon or a PokeStop in an isolated area, let it go.
Help! My Pokemon GO hung up! What do I do?
Stay calm. If your Pokemon Go freezes after you’ve just caught a Pokemon, wait for the little “loading/saving” icon to appear in the upper left hand corner. If it does, your accomplishment was successfully saved, and you can force-quit the app and start over without losing anything. If you quickly re-open the app, chances are all the PokeStops and Pokemons that were there before will still be there. Unfortunately this is happening quite a bit, but expect it to get better as Niantic improves their servers and a lot of the curious users start dropping off.
How do I catch Pokemon?

As you walk, from time to time different Pokemon will appear on your map (you don’t need to be constantly looking at your screen–your phone will vibrate to let you know). Tap on the Pokemon and you’ll be switched to an augmented reality view of your world with the Pokemon in front of you with a circle in front of it (my first bit of advice is to turn AR off using the switch in the upper right-hand corner–it’s cool the first few times but just gets in the way after repeated playings). Fling a Pokeball at the circle. It takes practice, but the key is to line up the Pokemon so it’s right in front of you, and then then watch the animated circle. Hold the ball down with your finger and then when the circle is at its smallest point, flick with the first angle and force to throw, aiming for the middle of that small circle.

A red, yellow, or green circle shows how difficult it is to catch–green is easiest to catch, red is extremely difficult. The more advanced ones will move more and sometimes need several attempts to bag. You’ll get a bonus if you’re accurate and throw the ball into the ring it’s small. You’ll increase your chances and get a little bonus by making a little circular motion with your finger to “wind up” the ball and then fling it at an angle to shoot it in a “curveball”.

Does Pokemon Go have to be open to hatch eggs?
Yes, you need to walk anywhere from 2 to 10 kilometers (the requirement is listed under the egg) with the app open. For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, the eggs you’ve collected at PokeStops can be found in the Pokemon menu. You can carry nine eggs at once–once you’ve filled up with 9 you won’t be able to carry any more. You’ll need to put the egg in an incubator (you get one unlimited orange one at the start of the game, and you can purchase additional blue ones that are good for three uses) and walk. Right now I have 9 eggs, two that requires a 2k walk (1.2 miles), six that require a 5k walk (3.1 miles), and one that requires a 10k walk (6.2 miles). It’s a great way to get you to do more exercise.
How do gyms work?

After you reach level 5, you pick a team–the red team, the yellow team, or the blue team. Ask other friends playing the game first what team they choose–once you choose a team you can’t change it. When you pass a “gym” (usually a public landmark of some kind), you’ll see which team it’s controlled by by its color. If you click on the gym you’ll see trainers like yourself who have occupied that gym.

If you go to a friendly gym (your team’s color), and there’s an empty slot, you can take that slot by adding your Pokemon to the gym. If there’s no empty slot, you can still challenge the gym to a “friendly fight”–if you win the fight it’ll increase the gym’s “prestige”. If you happen to get the gym to the next level, the next slot is yours (until a rival team kicks you out, in which case your Pokemon will be returned to you).

If you go to an unfriendly gym (another color), you need to put your best Pokemons against their best ones. Your mission is to defeat as many of their trainers as possible to drain their “prestige” to zero. Once that happens, you can take over the gym for your own team.

How do battles in the gym work?
First, you need to build up your Pokemon’s CP (combat points) by training and evolving it. You don’t want to be putting a Pokemon with a CP of 10 against one of 1000. Then, it’s time to fight (again, fighting a friendly team is just a “training fight” with one Pokemon that can help you increase the gym’s control for your team, fighting an enemy team is where you set up six Pokemons to attempt to knock them down or out). Battling itself is just a lot of tapping and swiping. Tap the screen to have your selected Pokemon perform its basic attack. When you see a “flickering” animation, it means the enemy Pokemon is about to attack and you need to swipe to get out of the way. There’s a blue meter called a Special Attack bar–once it’s filled up press down on the enemy for a few seconds to unleash the attack. Each Pokemon has a certain amount of “Hit Points (HP) and your goal is to wipe out your opponent’s HP before yours is. Your Pokemon will “faint” if defeated. In either case, you can bring your Pokemon back to fighting strength for the next time by using “Potion” and “Revive” medicine (which you collect at PokeStops).
How do I train or evolve my Pokemon to have higher CP?
Every time you catch or hatch a Pokemon, or place your Pokemon in a gym to defend it you’ll collect Stardust (which can be used for any Pokemon) and Candy (which apply to an individual “species”). You can use these to increase the CP of your Pokemon.
Come on, is this really exercise?
I’ll speak from personal experience. In the past I’d usually be too tired after work to take a walk, but I’ve gone out three times in the humid summer night. In the past I probably would have taken the subway from work to the train station a few times but decided instead to walk (Manhattan has PokeStops every couple of steps). At home there have been several times I otherwise would have driven somewhere but opted to walk instead. In the past, I always looked for the shortest walk, but now I’m encouraged to take longer roads, and I’m learning a lot about my own city and New York City at the same time. So it’s worked for me. 🙂
When will this madness end?
Well, the good news for you if you’re completely annoyed by the zombies walking around with their heads in their phones swiping monsters is that like all fads, this one will eventually quiet down, just like Farmville, Mafia Wars, Draw Something, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush normalized. But until that happens, why not just download it and enjoy it? But as you live in augmented reality, don’t forget to live in actual reality too. 🙂

iPhone and Android Fitness Games Reviews

Since 2009 I’ve reviewed console games that can be used for fitness and exercise on the Wii, PS3, the Wii U, and over at our sister site XboxFitness.Org for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. By most accounts, exergaming hit its peak around 2010-2011 on the Wii. Excellent games like Walk It Out, Wii Fit, Just Dance, EA Sports Active, DDR, Wii Sports and others turned the Wii from a curiosity to a bonafide platform for a new genre of games. When all was said and done, over 100 million Wiis were sold, and among them over 22 million people had purchased a Wii Fit or a Wii Fit Plus. At a retail price of over $80 (and when the Balance Board was constantly sold out, people shelled out a lot more), that was a pretty serious commitment to a lot of people to start using gaming to exercise.

Publishers started falling over themselves to churn out fitness games (most of them horrible). Microsoft and Sony scrambled to figure out motion gaming in an attempt to capture some of that “casual gaming crowd”.

And then the bottom cratered out.

What happened? A little thing called the iPhone, followed by Android, went mainstream and all of a sudden, the same “casual” gamers who had been boxing and hitting baseballs on the Wii discovered that they could fling birds, plant farms, crush candies, and waste their time in thousands of new ways that did nothing for the mind or the body.

The effect on the video game industry was swift. The Wii U will end up selling just about a tenth of the number of consoles the Wii did. “Hardcore” gamers reclaimed the console space by eschewing features that Sony and Microsoft were creating for “casual” gamers. They firmly rejected the Sony Move and when Microsoft tried to force users onto the Kinect they revolted by choosing the Playstation over the Xbox One two to one. Just last week, Microsoft threw in the towel, announcing that they were abandoning their vaunted Xbox Fitness service altogether.

Is fitness gaming on consoles dead? By no means. If you were to go on eBay and purchase an old Wii console and a number of the top Wii exercise game, you’d still have a fun and effective exergame workout system for your home gym (after all, your heart doesn’t care if you’re working out to video games from 2009 or 2016, it’ll beat just the same). But as far as new fitness games for any console to look forward to in the next few years, I think with the exception of a few scattered games on the Xbox One, you won’t be seeing many new ones. My prediction will be that the next wave of fitness games will happen with Virtual Reality–it’ll be interesting to watch whether active gaming takes off when the PSVR launches later this year.

But for now, the winner of the “casual gaming” space is clearly your iOS and Android smartphone. And thus begins a new phase for this site. I’ll still review Wii, Playstation, and Wii U workout games as they happen, but I’ll also start reviewing exergames for smartphones.

FireShot Capture 216 - 7 Minute Workout Challenge on the App_ - https___itunes.apple.com_us_app_7-As you’ve probably seen, there are hundreds and hundreds of fitness applications for smartphones. The vast majority of them are either traditional workout routines such as 7 Minute Workout Challenge or Sweat with Kayla, two excellent fitness apps which are currently the #1 fitness apps on the iTunes store.

And of course, there are the ever-popular apps tied to wearable devices, the most popular being FitBit. There are also GPS tracking apps for runners and bikers that work with a variety of devices; my personal favorite (which I use every day when I bike in NYC) is one called Strava. Runtastic is also a popular one.

All of these apps, and many more, are very well made, but they all presume one thing–that you’re already committed to exercising. Of course the goal of this blog has always been to find games that are so fun to play that you forget, don’t mind, or don’t even realize until after the fact that you’ve gotten a great workout.

A few enterprising companies have created active motion fitness games for smartphones, and some of them are downright brilliant. And so for the next few months, until we see how Virtual Reality fitness games pan out in a few months, I’ll start identifying reviewing the best of the best games for your smartphone that you can use for fitness and exercise.

Granted, there’s a fine line between a “fitness app” and a “fitness game”. So here’s how I’m going to select games to review:

  1. It needs to be a bona-fide GAME, not just a regular workout app with “gamification” features such as giving you points for distance or reps. In other words, the primary purpose should be playing the game, and exercise would just come as a secondary benefit.
  2. It needs to run on multiple OSes, typically iOS and Android. This is usually a reflection of a game’s popularity and longevity.
  3. It has to have rave reviews, both in the App Store as well as in the press.
  4. It needs to be FUN–an experience where “you have so much fun you forget you’re exercising”.

Hope you’ll join me in this new frontier! 🙂

 

iPhone Fitness – Blue Goji Turns Your Old Treadmill, Elliptical or Exercise Bike into a High Tech Fitness Machine

While I have (and will continue to) spend the majority of time on this blog reviewing the Wii and Wii U for fitness, there’s a new competitor for fitness gaming that I wanted to bring to your attention. No, it’s not the Playstation 4, and it’s not even the Xbox One.

It’s your iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone. And if you’re like me and have an old treadmill, stationery bike, or elliptical that’s been sitting around doing nothing more than being an over-priced coat rack, dust that thing off and be prepared to breathe brand new life into it.

A company called Blue Goji has just released a new app for iOS for fitness called “Goji Play”. Sure, there have been a lot of fitness apps already. But the cool thing is that for $100, they also sell a set of game controllers and a sensor that’s designed to attach to your old exercise equipment, turning exercise on them from a boring, mindless experience to one where you can interact with a game as you’re exercising–and how well you exercise is tied into how well you do in the game.

There have been attempts to do this kind of thing in the past, but if I were a betting man I’d put it on Blue Goji. Their founders, Kai and Charles Huang, were co-founders behind the multi-billion dollar Guitar Hero franchise. So you know they know a thing or two about using creative peripherals and accessories to make a game fun.

I was so excited when I heard about this, I went ahead and bought one for $99. It came right away via Priority Mail.

Here’s how it works:

First, find your old elliptical, exercise bike, or treadmill that’s been collecting dust. Here’s mine, a ProForm 650 CardioCrossTrainer. At one point in time I was so eager to get in shape that I spent a few hundred dollars for this thing, thinking that if I invested that much money into it, by gum I’d make the most use out of it. As you can see, it’s in my living room, but has been converted to an expensive hat rack and coat rack.

proform elliptical collecting dust

I then opened up the box from Blue Goji. Under the packing slip was a Quick Start Guide that starts out “Disregard the guide inside the box”. (They just launched so there are of course still wrinkles to iron out.)

blue goji unboxing

The packaging is beautiful and very efficiently packed. So it makes a great gift for anyone on your Christmas list with an old elliptical, treadmill, or exercise bike (which is just about everyone in the world).

blue goji box

 

In the box are the following:

blue goji sensor, buttons, batons, and charger

1) An Activity Sensor that you clip to your pocket or waist. The concept of the activity sensor is a lot like the EA Sports Active sensors of yesteryear, today’s FitBit or Nike+, or tomorrow’s Wii Fit Meter. It’s a device that tracks your movement and sends it to a console (in this case, your iPad or iPhone).

2) Two game controllers. Each has two buttons that you’ll use to interact with the games as you’re exercising.  You strap the game controllers to the handles of your stationary bike or elliptical trainer using a velcro strap. You’ll need to position the controllers so you can easily press the buttons while you’re exercising.

The instructions aren’t very clear, but you hook them up in the order that you see them in the box: the blue and yellow X and Y buttons attach onto the left handle, and the red and green A and B buttons attach to the right hand.

Once you attach the game controllers, it magically transforms your old exercise equipment into a high-tech gaming machine.

blue goji controllers on an elliptical

 

 

3) Two foam “batons”. If you’re using equipment that doesn’t have handles, like a treadmill, they provide foam “batons” that you can strap the game controllers to and hold while running.

4) A micro-USB charger. Chances are you already have this if you have an Android phone or a Kindle, but you can never have enough of these.

Setup is pretty easy.

First, the game controllers come with AAA batteries installed already, but come shipped with a plastic tab to prevent the batteries from draining during shipment. You just have to separate the controllers from the straps and then pull a plastic tab to activate. When it comes time to replace the AAA batteries, that’s pretty easy too.

batteries in the game controllers

Next, you need to charge your Activity Sensor by plugging it into a micro-USB charger for at least 20 minutes, but preferably for a full charge (you’ll know it’s fully charged when the blue light goes off).

Finally, you go to the iTunes Store to download the Blue Goji App–just click here to download an app called Goji Play.  You can save yourself some time by also downloading all the games at the same time (just click on the “Related” tab or click on the links in this widget.

Happily, as of the time of this writing all the games are free. I imagine somewhere down the road Blue Goji will start charging for games, especially if they start getting more sophisticated with the graphics and gameplay (it’s all pretty simple now), so enjoy the all-you-can-download while it lasts.

When you open the app for the first time it’ll walk you the process of configuring the controllers. You turn on the activity sensor and shake it until the app recognizes it; after that you can clip it to a pocket or belt. Then, you’ll be walked through turning on the game controllers and pressing each of the buttons.

One thing to bear in mind is that the app only works with the iPad 3 and above, iPad Mini, iPod Touch 5th Generation, and iPhone 4S and above. I tried to use it on my iPad 2, and the game controllers wouldn’t recognize it at all. but my iPhone 4S worked like a charm.

Optionally, you can connect to your MyFitnessPal account, if you have one. I actually had one from years ago that like my elliptical I dusted off.

In the Goji Play app you can set goals. The default is to exercise for 20 minutes a day for 7 days, but you can adjust it.

set goals on goji play

Once everything is configured in Goji Play, you won’t need to open it again–you can just open the games themselves.

Most of them are first-person games where you can view an obstacle course, whether it’s on a ski slope (APO Snow), a ball rolling through a course of blocks (Smash the Blocks) or riding a bicycle on a road (Spin or Die). But other apps look promising as well–there are apps inspired by Galaga (Ralaga), Zaxxon (Zaxxon–evidently they got the trademark permissions for this one), Tetris (Beat Drop), a racing game (Super Moto X) and a slot machine (Slots).

Once you’re ready to play, you can put your phone or tablet in front of you, if your exercise equipment has a ledge for putting a book on it. Here’s what my iPhone looks like on my elliptical.

ellipitcal and iphone

I loaded up “Smash the Blocks”, which is sort of a cross between Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. You play as a smiling yellow ball that rolls down a path at breakneck speed, trying to avoid obstacles and collect diamonds along the way.

You can download and play the game on the iPhone as a regular mobile game, but it’s frankly not the most impressive game when you’re just mashing with your fingers. But play it with the Blue Goji equipment, and it transforms into a really, really fun game that involves your whole body. As the ball is merrily rolling down the path, you press the Y button with your left thumb to move the little guy to the left, the A button with your right thumb to move him to the right, and both together to make him jump.

But the coolest thing is that the faster you’re moving in real life, the faster the little guy goes. This makes you feel like you’re really controlling the game with your whole body, in an way that I haven’t even felt with Wii Fit and the Balance Board (the only time I’ve come close before was with the Cyberbike, but if you recall, that was a pretty subpar piece of exercise equipment, compared to my much higher quality elliptical.

IMG_0600

The games themselves aren’t the most impressive in terms of “modern graphics”, but to me, that’s actually a plus. It’s more important that the gameplay itself be fun and addictive enough that you can really get into the game and almost forget that you’re exercising.

And when you’re done playing, you can click the blue Goji Play button and see a synopsis of the time expended, calories burned, and miles traveled while playing, as well as how much you’ve tackled of your daily, weekly, and monthly goals.

gameplay blue goji

I tried another game called “Super Moto X”. This was a sidescroller driving game where you’re trying to outrun a police helicopter or race against other drivers. You can use the two buttons on your left hand to switch lanes to avoid obstacles and other cars, and the A button to give yourself a boost or the B button to drop if you’re flying too high. And of course, you pedal, run, or eliipticize as fast as you can to give your car energy. This one sort of reminded me of the old Mattel Electronics racing game where you’re a red blip trying to avoid other red blips coming in your way. Intriguing game, but the iPhone screen was just a little too tiny for me to really enjoy it to its fullest; it probably would have been much better on an iPad.

moto racer blue goji

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how pleasant the experience was.  The setup was seamless, the reporting in the app beautifully designed, and there’s enough of a variety of games to keep it interesting. And just between trying out these two games (and re-trying them to try to better my score), I ended up burning up 44% of my exercise goal for the day, without even realizing it.

The experience wasn’t without its glitches. For some reason I kept having to flip my phone in landscape mode 180 degrees when going between the app and the games. Also, the instructions weren’t precise at first where to put the buttons, so it was a little bit of trial and error. But considering this is a brand new product just launched a few days ago, I was impressed by how smoothly it was all put together.

So overall, I was impressed. While Microsoft and Nintendo spend enormous resources trying to prove their platforms are the best for fitness gaming, I think Blue Goji is a dark horse, nimbly showing that the iPhone and iPad can be great for exercise gaming as well. It’s $100 well spent, especially if it’s going to help breathe new life into investments you’ve made in much more expensive exercise equipment. I look forward to seeing what else this company has to offer in the future!

You can buy yours on Amazon or directly on Blue Goji’s site.

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Update 10/20/13

I downloaded and played a few more Blue Goji games.

The first was “Beat Drop”. This game was sort of a cross between Tetris and Bejeweled, as you’re dealing with falling colored blocks and have to match 3 in a row to clear it. You use the X and A buttons to move a cursor to determine where the next block is falling. The twist is that as the levels get faster, you need to constantly move in order to activate “cheats” that help you clear blocks. Also, if you stop moving, the game will freeze.

beat drop tetris

The next game I tried was called “Ralaga”. No, this isn’t Scooby Doo’s version of Galaga. This seems to be a game loosely based on Galaga where you’re constantly shooting at spaceships coming at you. You need to constantly be moving in order to keep the “power” bar to the left going, and each time you get hit, your “health” bar goes down.

ralaga

So far, same impressions as the last games. The games themselves aren’t very impressive in themselves, but when you add the exercise component they become strangely addicting. I was admittedly starting to get tired of Beat Drop, but by the time I realized I was I’d exercised for 20 minutes!