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ARX and the gamification of exercise

If you’re as gym averse as I am, this new augmented reality game from B2B fitness tech start-up, ARX, might just inspire you to renew that well-intentioned New-Year’s resolution membership. Its co-founders, a game developer and a civil engineer-turned-personal trainer are gamifying exercise and fresh from showcasing their AR prototype internationally at Vivatech in Paris.

Chentur Thambiah and Joe Chang are the co-founders of ARX, and are enhancing the traditional concept of a gym workout with augmented reality. After trying out their AR workout solution which had me jumping around and doing high knees (which is usually not my thing I promise you) and actually enjoying it, I can say the fun factor of working out is about to receive a welcome boost.

“We’re gamifying exercise,” Chang says. “People just hate working out, myself included.” I tell him I can completely relate since I’m a self-confessed tennis nut and well aware a key reason for it is because the beautiful sport sublimely disguises that any actual exercise is simultaneously taking place. Of course, many sports do this but it's harder to bring into a gym environment. 

Chang and Thambiah met in 2015, when Chang enlisted the help of a personal trainer to work on his fitness and Thambiah happened to be that PT. As they talked ideas and endeavours, the lightbulb moment for ARX happened in August last year, just after the Pokemon Go craze.

“It was the first market disruption of augmented reality,” says Thambiah. “Then we started getting creative and asking how can we gamify exercise and how can we use that technology to do something in this space.”

Chang recalls the social aspects around gamification that caught his attention when Pokemon Go was in full swing. “The uptake was incredible,” he says, with the game getting people outdoors, exercising and being more social.

Thambiah is new to the entrepreneurial game but says he always wanted to do something like this. With gaming/tech and exercise as his two passions and finding that civil engineering wasn’t up his alley, in 2013 he made the change to personal training.

Chang has previously founded Eyemobi, an independent game development company and is a  board member of the New Zealand Game Developer Association (NZGDA). He also manages the Arcade Auckland, a shared space for indie game developers established by the NZGD and situated next to the AR/VR Garage in Eden Terrace.

Gaining momentum

Since ARX was formed in October last year, the company has quickly accelerated, with Change and Thambiah validating their prototype at a number of events in New Zealand and internationally.

In December they made the shortlist for Flux Accelerator at The Icehouse. In March they joined the AR/VR Garage where they ran regular demos and seized great opportunities presented by the Garage’s weekly networking groups with local businesses and investors. “Some great connections were made such as Jonathan Miller from Callaghan Innovation who informed us about C-Prize wearable technology challenge which we have applied for,” explains Thambiah. They were invited to Chromacon and The Grid AKL during the World Masters Games in April.

Most recently in June, they were invited to Viva Technology in Paris, a huge turning point for a new startup to suddenly gain international exposure. The three-day global tech event drew in 68 000 attendees along with 6000 start-ups, 1400 investors and exhibitors from more than 50 countries. Thambiah says the six-day trip, split 50/50 between leisure and business, was invaluable in connecting with other businesses and setting the springboard for potential future collaborations and partnerships

Chang also notes how they were pleasantly surprised that their business was on par with the other start-ups in attendance. “We weren’t sure initially how it would compare but actually we were okay. We were thinking we were going internationally and our stuff would look like small potatoes but it wasn’t at all.”

They are continuing to gain momentum, looking at commercialising it to gyms and licenced PTs as ARX Beta launches this month (July). After our interview, they told me they had been shortlisted for the H2 Ventures Startup Accelerator program in Sydney.

Chentur Thambiah and Joe Chang.

The gear and game design

When deciding on which AR gear to employ, the duo tried out a few including Recon Jet and Microsoft’s Hololens before settling on the Epsom Moverio. Thambiah says it was the best fit for their purpose after comparing every AR headset on the market against things like ergonomics, battery life, weight and functionality.

I was surprised at how lightweight the Epsom Moverio headset was when I put it on. It was also comfortable and didn’t budge as I was hopping around the studio shooting virtual cannon balls at flying fruits intent on flattening me.

Thambiah says the first game they created was 15 minutes of full on exercise but they still had no problems with the headset getting sweaty, fogging up or the battery packing giving up the ghost - which can also conveniently be held in an armband, providing a complete hands-free experience. “We found literally having clients doing full-power burpees … it didn’t go flying off and lasted a decent amount of time.” But he says even though it is lightweight “I don’t see anyone wanting to do a full 30-minute workout with this every day.”

Thambiah explains when it came to designing the games it was about dreaming up the right game to fit the existing rules around tried and tested exercises, such as in interval and HIIT training. “All the rules and parameters were there for us to create a game out of and the next part was really gamifying it and seeing how we can transform exercise movements and using our body as a controller and think of the right game for the fit.” So they brainstormed ideas together and Chang knew the technical boundaries thanks to his background in game development.

But it’s the competitive aspect that is the draw of the AR games in the gym, says Thambiah. “If my mate gets 1000 points, I’ll be like ‘hey can I just get 1100’ and see what happens.” Ultimately they aim for ARX to reach massive multiplayer status, to fuel the social aspect and encourage competitive spirit. Using the game engine Unity, Chang says the technology is already there. “I’ve already made some games that are multiplayer with that technology there already so it’s really about integrating that with what we have now.”

“I feel like the environment in a gym has been stagnant for a long time,” adds Thambiah. “The only way it gets along with technology is you see new treadmills and new equipment but there’s sort of like a social layer missing - I think that with social media and this kind of stuff and how everyone’s got a phone now, this would fit right in.”

In a year’s time, Thambiah says ARX could become a staple in the gym but at the same time not be limited to a gym as it can easily be taken outside too. He envisions in future the experience could be as easy as swiping in at the entrance, gym goers logging into their ARX, putting a headset on in a class and going for gold. And afterwards, the complete backend ARX is building will let users review their progress, plan training and share with friends online and across social media.

“Everything you put on or every means of setup is a barrier to people when they come to the gym,” Thambiah says. “Generally you just want to walk in and start, you want to make it as seamless as possible.”