When Microsoft and Nike announced Nike+ Kinect Training for Xbox 360, we said that Nike had rebranded the calorie. Nike’s proprietary Fuel measurements would now carry cross-platform, a virtual bridge that would meld real-world activity with in-game exercise.
In theory, it sounded incredible. In practice? I tried Nike+ Kinect Training in my living room—while wearing my trusty Fuelband, nonetheless!—to find out. What I learned was that this is the best exercise game yet, but after having such perfection realized before my eyes, I realize that I might not have wanted an exercise game in the first place.
Nike+ Kinect Training ($50, Xbox 360) begins with an introduction to two Nike fitness gurus, a brawny guy and a svelte pink-shirted lady (I shamelessly chose the woman). It’s this instructor who walks you through an initial fitness assessment, a battery of exercises that assesses strength and flexibility to tailor an exercise plan for you.
The information can also be sent to the central Nike+ servers, meaning you can view a breakdown of your Fuel across platforms. The additional metric, however, is called the Fuel Print, a two-figure numerical breakdown of fitness and athleticism. It’s a new addition that complicates the Fuel model. Whereas one number used to tell the whole story, now we have three to follow. It’s a somewhat necessary evolution to track more aspects of personal fitness, but it comes at the expense of not feeling so smug about hitting a daily goal. You’ll never reach 100% fitness or athleticism by design (even Nike’s trainers haven’t, at least).
The experience of the actual workout is much like an exercise class. The instructor demonstrates a move, then you repeat it for a set number of reps. Your avatar is a blocky silhouette, allowing you to check your form as you go. And for the most part, all of this works fantastically. The instructor offers encouragement. You watch your reps grow. It’s remarkable. At the end of a workout, you get a fitness score—that Fuel Print—that can be graphed over time. And the game will make smart selections from a library of exercises to tailor a workout regimen to your schedule.
The design problems kick in, however, when something goes wrong. The game’s most specific workout feedback—the "straighten your back" level information—doesn’t generally come to you verbally from the instructor. Instead, it pops up in tiny written tooltips that appear onscreen. It’s a break in the simulation that I could overlook, except, of course, for the moments you’re specifically told not to look at the screen. Doing pushups, with my body parallel to my television, I had no clue why points were being deducted. And in fact, I had no clue that I was doing anything wrong at all until my wife mentioned the feedback on the screen.
Another issue happened when doing a leg dip. Somewhere in the middle of the exercise, the Kinect stopped tracking my lower body properly. I was asked to do three reps, and I ended up doing—I don’t know how many. But I’m writing this sore enough to know that the software needs some improved mechanics to handle these problems. IR tracking still isn’t a 100% technology, especially in a smaller room, so design needs to anticipate the 1% to 10% of the time when the system breaks down. My options were skipping the exercise or taking a break, but I just wanted credit where credit was due. Could I have some sort of on-your-honor button to push, maybe?
These Kinect issues are a tough compromise. On one hand, the software was smart enough to acknowledge that the left side of my body is a bit weaker and less flexible than my right. My instructor told me we’d build a workout plan with that in mind. That’s amazing. That’s the future. And having played fitness games as far back as Nike Kinetic on the PS2, I know how far this engineering has come.
On the other, during more than one drill, the game had me jumping across my living room, straight into a couch. The Kinect sensor knows exactly what my room looks like. It sees that my couch is there. Game spaces can generally be tailored with information from the Kinect API, but Nike+ isn’t coded to make such considerations. That means most people living in apartments can’t hope to play this game. It blindly demands a lot of space.
But when I found myself laying face down on my carpet, out of breath, nose pressed against a Doritos shard in need of vacuuming, I realized something else: It sounds wonderfully convenient to work out from the comfort of your own home, but your home can be a pretty lousy place to actually break a sweat. Tens of millions of us bought Wii Fit thinking we’d get in shape with Nintendo, but how many of us actually did? The experience was nowhere near as smart as Nike+, but aside from that, my theory is that these games tend to sell a lot better than they’ll ever play in a living room. They’re the P90X or infomercial ab machines of the digital world: Sure, they’ll chisel away at flab, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to move the coffee table and drip all over the rug to make that six pack happen. No interface or algorithm can address that premise.
As silly as this may sound, I almost wish that my gym had Nike+ Kinect Training. It’s by far the best workout simulation I’ve ever experienced. But my gym has real classes anyway, led by flesh and bone instructors. So I guess there’s really nowhere left for me to play.