FitTech Insider

Gamification of the fitness industry: These innovators want to bring fun to fitness

Working out for points: gamification and exergaming are considered trends in the fitness industry. What's fun for exercisers can also offer gym operators and trainers new perspectives – in business models or target groups. These three start-ups could accelerate that development.

Although the two men are doing push-ups, squats and jumping jacks next to each other, they are not appearing on the screen in front of them as exercisers. They are 'Player 1' and 'Player 2'. A sensor recognises and counts each type of exercise and attributes it to them live on the screen. The two are working out competitively - playing fitness against each other.

This example comes from a product demo video by Dresden-based start-up Evomo, whose extensible tracking artificial intelligence (AI) promises to democratise fitness gaming. The technology uses sensors from smartphones or watches to detect and measure burpees or calf raises. Useful, for example, when two people are exercising at the same time.

Gamification market is predicted to grow to 25 billion dollars by 2025

What makes this example interesting is that Evomo adds game-like elements to its smart software. It distributes points for exercises and can display them on leaderboards. In our opening example: who is first, who is second? And that puts us in the middle of the world of gamification, where rewards are used beyond the game itself to motivate people to behave in a certain way - that's the definition of gamification.

Gamification and games: A world that is growing – as illustrated in figures:

Gamification and fitness: 1980s origins

The basic idea behind gamification is not new: amassing 'bonus points' is a long-standing concept across all types of activity.

Video-game fans have also been experiencing exer-gaming (exercise plus gaming, with the exercise controlling the game) since the 1980s: some dancing on sensors built into mats; others sitting on home bikes and cycling through virtual worlds in a race (thanks to a co-operation between Lifefitness and Nintendo – see video below). Then, in the 2000s, people swung virtual tennis rackets (Nintendo Wii), searched for fictional critters in parks (Pokemon Go) or defeated monsters with squats and sit-ups (Nintendo Ringfit).

What's new is that the 'game' and 'game elements' reward systems are reaching the breadth of the fitness industry - and giving fitness training, which some can see as boring, three fresh aspects: fun, motivation and movement control. The core idea is that gamification and exer-gaming can shift the focus of a workout - from sometimes dull calorie-burning to playful fun.

Exergaming's innovators: Anna Lisa Martin-Niedecken (Sphery), Markos Kern (Fun With Balls), Etienne Petermann (Evomo) @sphery, @funwithballs, @evomo

Fun with balls: walls as interactive game interfaces - for fitness studios?

Some of the latest examples of this trend are products from a Munich-based company that already has 'fun' in its name: Fun With Balls wants to encourage people to exercise more by playing games and having fun. Take MultiBall, for example: projectors and sensors transform any wall into a gigantic, interactive interface for movement games of all kinds. Players can hit, kick or throw balls at digital dartboards, goalkeepers - or the correct answer to a maths question.
"We work with clubs, training centres, sports stores and, due to the coronavirus crisis, with users who have MultiBall delivered to their living rooms," writes founder Markos Kern in his recently published book 'Quantensprung – Die Zukunft des Sports' ('Quantum Leap – The Future of Sports'). His vision, Fun With Balls, is not just interactive fun with exercise "but a whole eco-system of players, operators, trainers and software developers". It’s for target groups in gyms - and those who prefer to exercise at home. For the latter, the company recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign: Limbic Active is something like a fitness PlayStation, a games console with exer-games that aims to transport the principle of the interactive game wall into the (hopefully sufficiently large) living room.

What is the benefit of such technology for gym operators in times of digital transformation? The answer is that it can help to answer the emerging question of why fitness fans should continue to go to their local gym when, thanks to new products and trends, they perceive living rooms or woodland as comparable sports venues. "First, a social aspect comes into play," Kern says. After all, fitness is increasingly becoming a group event. And second such technology is helpful "when the experience needs more space". All eyes are likely to be on a giant iPad at the front, which participants can use co-operatively or competitively. Tomorrow's gym, then, could look more like Disneyland. "Playful approaches can help gyms ease the return to the post-lockdown world, for both existing customers and acquiring new ones who place a high value on interaction and fun," says Natalia Karbasova (you might know her - she is the founder of the FitTech Summit).

Psychology of gamification: experience of competence, feedback and flow

A quick question: why is it fun, for example, to swap targeted ball thrashing for points? The short answer: the player experiences competence. It motivates us when we feel that we can make something happen and that we are on the right path to the goal. Points or badges are signals of success. Games are often set up to provide disproportional feedback: the completion of simple tasks is followed by a positive, visual feedback barrage. Studies also show that players love completing tasks and knowing how far they still have to go. Psychologists call this progression transparency, and we know the principle from progress bars. If the task is also optimally matched to the player's skills – that is to say, well set in the narrow corridor between under- and over-challenging – the so-called flow effect occurs: we become absorbed in the activity and forget about the time. "This effect can be modelled thanks to technology," explains Kern. In other words, sensors and software measure increasing player skill and adjust the difficulty level accordingly so that the flow effect doesn't break down.

ExerCube: the fitness game box with functional training.

Our next example of dovetailing fitness and gaming comes from Switzerland. The stationary version of the ExerCube from Zürich-based Sphery looks like a cut-open cube that surrounds players with three huge screen walls. On it runs a fitness racing game that rewards players with points and stars if they perform the desired exercise correctly at the right moment - ducking, for example, when an obstacle appears. Other challenges call for jumping, boxing, burpees or squats. "The ExerCube playfully combines a full-body workout with a brain workout," explains co-founder Anna Lisa Martin-Niedecken. "It is the result of a collaboration between game designers and sports scientists."

What experiences did the creators have in developing this exergame? "We found out that people want to come together to experience this new sport," she says on our FitTech Online talkshow. "They want to write their own stories [and] develop their own workout culture." As a result, there are already entire league systems in which people compete against each other regardless of age, gaming or sports experience, or stature. In the game, everyone is equal. "Games have the power to empower us," she says.

And how does such technology empower gyms or personal trainers? On, the company provides quotes from trainers. "With some clients, I use the ExerCube as a warm-up, and with others I do a 12-minute functional HIIT!" reports a trainer from Zürich - confirming Markos Kern's space-and-fun theory. Gyms can attract new and existing clients to their studios with impressive installations of this kind.

Evomo: the fitness tracker SDK with playfulness

Our next example doesn't need a big room. The idea’s name is Moovya and it comes from the forge of our aforementioned start-up Evomo. As you will recall, the core of the technology is AI that recognises fitness exercises - among other things via smartphone sensor. The Moovya app combines motion detection with actions in simple computer games. For example, in 'Dash Runner', (see video below) the player has to jump at the right moment to make a digital ball bounce over obstacles. The app is a showcase of the software that Evomo makes available to selected partners as a software development kit so that they can create their own solutions.

What could using its gamified software bring to fitness professionals? "We believe in a hybrid future of the gym," explains Etienne Petermann, one of Evomo's founders. People will will not necessarily exercise within a gym’s own four walls, he says, so it's important for gyms to remind their own members of their product outside their own fixed location - for example, through fitness gaming apps. And the advantage for personal trainers? They can use the app to motivate their customers to exercise outside of their training sessions - and do so in a measurable way.

Vision: will playful elements conquer the fitness industry?

But are these trends more likely to remain more hype than the reality of most people’s actual fitness experiences? No, believes Petermann. Firstly, because existing and emerging target groups are ascribing a new meaning to fitness: exercise should not only flatter health or change the body - but also simply be fun. In addition, the motivating principle of daily goals and rituals has already been established by other apps.
No, Kern also believes. After all, disruption of the fitness industry will not go away: after musicians and media makers, it‘s now gym operators’ turn to find new business models and fresh unique selling points.
There is, though, still some way to go. "Many operators underestimate fitness games as a crowd puller or as a way to reach new target groups," says Kern. But he is nonetheless optimistic that the direction of travel will see FitTech winning in the end.