A lighter path
to exercise

The psychology of motivation coupled with mixed reality games can get kids moving

A little digital magic is all it takes to give young Norah and Nelson a taste of what it’s like to have superpowers.

The siblings are trying out the mixed reality trampoline games at SuperPark Vantaa. The games were developed by Valo Motion, a company founded in 2016 to commercialise research at Aalto University on mixed reality exercise games.

A photo of a young girl in pink jumping on a trampoline. She is facing the camera and smiling. All of her limbs are extended in the shape of an X. There is a display screen behind her, facing the trampoline from several meters away, showing what appears to be a video game.

No ordinary trampoline

A photo of a young boy in green in mid-jump. His arms are extended as though he is trying to catch or block a ball coming towards him.

Although mixed reality sounds like something complicated, the kids need no explanation of how the system works, immediately finding the right bounces to select a game from the onscreen menu. Nine-year old Norah, big sister to Nelson, says the game feels different because she is the remote control. Instead of using a controller, ‘I can decide what to do using my body,’ she says.

The trampoline the kids are using is integrated with a computer vision system that tracks a person’s movement as they jump. Those movements control their avatar—a representation of the user—on a nearby screen. The combination of the real-world gymnastics equipment with this kind of technology creates a unique interface for a range of custom video games.

However, what the kids see on the screen as they jump isn’t necessarily a direct reflection of what they’re doing; the software driving the system exaggerates the player’s movements. That might be one reason why the kids felt like there was something different about this trampoline. ‘You go higher than on other trampolines I’ve tried,’ says Norah. Her brother, seven-year old Nelson, felt the same way, saying that ‘it was fun to see how high you can jump.’

It turns out that exaggerated motion is an important part of the experience, amplifying the boost given by the trampoline.

Perttu Hämäläinen, the Aalto professor of computer games whose research led to Valo Motion, says that these trampolines actually have less bounce because of the dense fabric they use, making them behave more like a consumer trampoline than the bouncier gymnastics trampolines sometimes found at activity parks. ‘I’ve noticed that at least some users start to believe in the exaggerated versions of themselves they see on the screen, although I haven’t done a study focused on it,’ he says.

A photo of a young boy in mid-air above a trampoline. His back is to the camera, and he is facing a video screen a few meters from the trampoline. On the screen is a video game that resembles air hockey with a bright neon aesthetic. There is a scoreboard on one side of the screen and a timer on the other, and a ball is partway across the playing area.
A screenshot of the video game that was in the background in the previous photo. It's similar to air hockey with a busy, neon aesthetic. The ball is nearly at the bottom of the screen, close to one player's goal. A digital projection of a young girl in pink is hitting the ball, and there is a special effect of 'motion lines' from around the frame centered on the ball.

Getting motivated

A photo of a young girl in pink partway up a climbing wall. The photo is taken from below and to the girl's left. Most of the right half of the photo is empty space. The girl's left arm is extended along the wall to press her palm against a yellow square displayed on the wall by a projector. The projection also includes a route, which consists of white lines leading toward and away from the yellow square.

One of the benefits of mixed reality exercise games is that the challenges can be tuned to match a player’s competence. For example, bouldering and wall climbing rely heavily on finger strength; a lack of finger strength blocks progress and stops many people from continuing after their initial try at the sport. ‘With digital augmentation, we can create different types of challenges because people like different things. We can give them more options to choose from,’ explains Hämäläinen.

If finger strength is an issue, challenges based on timing or coordination provide the success needed to build confidence, and elements like character advancement or new levels offer an alternative path for progression. ‘The games give a chance for virtual development if your real strength is developing slowly,’ he says.

Hämäläinen’s research revolves around linking physical and digital experiences to promote physical activity. ‘The lack of motivation for physical activity is a big societal problem, so it’s been worthwhile to work on,’ he says. He explains that a sense of competence is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not someone sticks with exercise over the long term.

Offering players different ways to develop and progress enhances not only their sense of competence but also of autonomy. Competence, autonomy, and social connection are three central psychological needs underlying motivation, according to self-determination theory, which Hämäläinen draws on in his recent work. While he wasn’t consciously thinking in these theoretical terms during his earlier projects, such as Kick Ass Kung-Fu, the sense of empowerment in those games addresses some of the same concerns.

A photo of a young boy in green nearly at the top of a climbing wall. Below him, a route is projected on the wall as a series of green circles connected by white lines. There is also a background image of a mountain projected onto the wall. The boy is looking down toward his left foot, which he is placing on a hold.
A photo of a young girl in pink partway up a climbing wall. The photo is from above her and to her right. She is looking upwards and past the camera at a goal that's not in the photo. Below and around her, the photo shows a route projected on the climbing wall.

The game's the thing

A photo of a climbing wall with a pong-like video game projected onto it. The left half of the wall has a blue rectangle projected onto it, and the right half has a red rectangle. A young boy in green is in the blue rectangle and a young girl in pink is in the red rectangle. The climbing holds which they are using are lit with white circles. A ball projected onto the wall has just crossed from the red to the blue side. There is a trail behind it leading to the girl's left knee. The score is projected above the blue and red rectangles -- 1 above the blue and 0 above the red.

From the sidelines, the projections make the climbing wall look like a giant video game. For Norah, the digital enhancements guide her play and make her part of the game, setting the experience apart from a normal climbing wall. On a normal wall, she says, she climbs without any particular direction or goal, but the games provided her with a direction and a target.

As Hämäläinen creates a simple climbing course for them, he explains that letting players design routes isn’t just a cool add-on; it supports both player autonomy and the social dimension of the game, since friends often design routes for each other. It also draws on a long tradition user-generated content in video games, known as modding, which helps boost a sense of community and provides a long-term source of novelty — another important component of motivation.

Watching the kids, it’s clear that digital augmentation offers new ways to interact on a climbing wall; on the other hand, traditional climbing already offers many ways to socialise. Trampolines, however, aren’t normally a safe way to play together. By linking two trampolines so that both players appear on both screens, the digital tools make two-player trampoline games possible – and fun. The social element was an important motivator for the kids, explains their mother Pia. ‘The fact that it was a game made it important for them to beat each other. There was some competitive element there.’

A screenshot from a video game styled after fighting games like Tekken or Street-fighter. The text "GO!" is in the middle of the screen in black letters. The players are on a concrete platform floating above a lush jungle. Futuristic metal towers stick up out of the jungle, and the sky in the background is pink. The characters on the screen are the young girl and boy -- their pink and green clothing is recognisable. Their poses clearly reflect how they are jumping on a trampoline.
A photo of a climbing wall with a projection on it. The young boy and girl are sitting at the bottom right of the photo, looking up at the projection. Their posture suggests that they are tired. The projection shows a granite mountain in the background, perhaps from Yosemite, some mist near the ground in the middle distance, and trees in the foreground, out of focus on the left and right, framing the scene. A climbing route is also projected onto the wall: two green circles with hand icons are the start of the route, around the center of the photo; then white lines connect the right hand in sequence to two green circles above it; then the route turns right and continues out of the photo. Each circle is projected onto a climbing hold on the wall.

Expressive interactions

While Valo Motion continues developing mixed reality exercise games – including a version of the trampoline games set on an air track, an inflatable mat that offers a different range of movements – Hämäläinen’s research goes on. One of his goals is to address an outstanding challenge in integrating physical activity with digital experiences: how to make natural, large-scale movement possible in a virtual reality (VR) experience, where players usually have limited space for real-world movement. At the moment, movement in VR experiences involves either teleportation, which breaks the flow of interaction, or joystick-driven smooth motion, which many find nauseating because of the mismatch between what they see and what they feel. ‘I’d like to make it more expressive,’ says Hämäläinen, ‘so players can run around and perform other dynamic physical activity, such as swinging on ropes, with no motion sickness.’

These elements all come together in a project Hämäläinen is involved in with Aalto’s Elisa Mekler, a professor of games and human-computer interaction, to explore the use of virtual reality for dancing.

‘Particularly with the pandemic, virtual activities and telepresence are important to help people feel a social connection,’ says Hämäläinen, ‘and dancing is an activity that many people find sort of embarrassing.’ Technology could help bridge the gap: in a virtual reality dance setting, users could select different avatars or visualizations, and digital augmentation could enhance their movement, reducing the barriers to participation and progression in the same way as the augmented climbing wall. ‘We’re also testing a new way to teach dancing in virtual reality, a visualization that we hope will make it easier to learn,’ says Hämäläinen.

A photo of a fit, middle-aged man in a blue t-shirt and black sports trousers. He is smiling at the camera and appears to be floating, with his knees pulled up against his cheest and his hands on his knees, as though he is sitting in mid-air, though in fact he is in mid-jump. He has short cropped hair and a short beard.
A photo of a fit, middle-aged man sitting on what looks like a rolled-up crash pad with his legs loosely corssed. An air track extends behind him, and other aerobics equipment -- pads, matts, and soft surfaces -- is visible in the background.

Nora and Nelson say they’d be happy to come back for more, especially on the trampolines. Asked what could make it better, Nora replies simply, ‘There could be more games.’

A photo of a climbing wall with a route and background image projected onto it. In the foreground, the young boy is lying on is back on the crash pad, his arms extended up in a broad V-shape. The projection on the wall shows a mountain in the background, some trees framing the image, and a climbing route of green circles connected by white lines along the cliff face.