Train Like an Astronaut


General Information:

Genre: Research / Exercise Game

Project Length: July 2013 – Present

Role: Lead Designer / Project Manager

Team Size: 6

Game Features:

– USB to USB Exercise Bike Integration

– Multiple Race Tracks

– Automatic Excel-Output Data Files



As a Research Assistant to help fund my graduate studies, I am currently working on a research project for NASA (affectionately called “Project Space Bike” around the office). Its real name, SPACE, stands for Simulated Partners for Astronauts in Collaborative Exercise. While a bit of a mouthful, the project does just that—studies the usefulness of virtual exercise partners.

NASA needs to help astronauts in space keep their muscles from atrophying during extended low gravity situations. Keeping long-term missions in mind for the future, such as a mission to Mars (which would take somewhere around three years to complete), maintaining the good health of astronauts is paramount. Even though many may see the possibility of withered muscles as enough motivation to continue working out, the truth is that astronauts become bored with the small variety of exercise available on-board, and the limits they face in terms of room to exercise. Finding ways to keep the astronauts motivated to exercise at a peak level has become central to the goals of Project Space Bike.

The design of Project Space Bike is heavily influenced by the Kohler effect, which states that people workout at a greater intensity with partners who perform slightly better than they do. In any case, the Kohler effect describes the effect of real human partners, while Project Space Bike incorporates software-generated virtual partners. The project team, in conjunction with Dr. Debra Feltz in the department of Kinesiology, discovered that applying the same attributes to a virtual partner provided more positive results than exercising alone, but not to the same extent as working out with real partners. While a slightly better real human partner would be the optimal scenario, this is not feasible on a mission to Mars.

But why a virtual partner? Why not a fellow astronaut? For one, the partner is supposed to be better than the person working out.  Pairing astronauts would be complicated, and whoever is the best would have no real partner who is better.  Furthermore, the space constraints (no pun intended) on board do not sufficiently allow for collaboration with others. By interfacing the bike with a computer, rotations per minute and resistance, among others, are some stats from the user that would become available. Ultimately, the level of workout intensity feeds back into the game, where the virtual partner responds to the actions and effort exerted by the player.

At this time, we have created a research tool that allows for multiple exercise scenarios. These scenarios include both male and female virtual partners who animate, interact, and compete against the player. We currently support a 30 minute continuous circuit training regiment, as well as a series of 4 minute high-intensity intervals. Using a custom-built interface controller, users are able to increase the intensity of their workout (using WATT’s), which in turn increases their in-game score. At the end of each training regiment, an excel file is outputted containing the statistics recorded during the users workout.

We plan on continuing to work with the Department of Kinesiology on the development of this research tool, in hopes to create a more robust and interactive game in the near future.