Tuesday, 23 October 2012

miCoach Review

As the writer of a vaguely interesting (or so I am told - frankly, I don't see it...) running blog with at least one reader (hi Mum!), I am often contacted by companies asking me to put information regarding their latest running innovations or gizmos out to my millions of readers (ha!). My favourite so far was the Mizuno Be training shoe - a shoe designed to be worn when you're not training to improve performance. It's based on the Waraji sandals that the Samurai used to wear, and Samurai were awesome, so they must be good. It's a clever way of getting in on a huge market that nobody even knew existed before this. I'd be really interested to see the scientific research that shows the benefit of these!

Typically I tend to ignore these requests, but one did catch my eye. I received a request to review a new game for the XBox 360 Kinect, Adidas MiCoach, which claims to deliver "a feature-rich, sports-specific approach to home console training systems and offers unparalleled connectivity, further enabling the millions of people worldwide who interact with the miCoach system through mobile apps and micoach.com to extend their training programme into their living rooms". The main reason that this caught my eye was that I own a Kinect but never use it for anything, what with it typically being incredibly unreliable. There are plenty of fitness games available on Kinect, but I have never actually tried any of them. I was interested to see if this kind of computerised coaching could be used to provide a suitable platform for improving my running performance.

The premise is that you can set up a training plan specific to your needs, and you are guided through it by 18 top Adidas athletes to help you get the most from your training, including Jessica Ennis who seems to be one of the main selling points of the game in this country (I confess I have no idea who any of the others are, but then I don't really watch much sport). I typically do all of my training alone and have a pretty good routine at the moment, but my hope was that an external entity (even if it is purely artificial) could work to motivate me to push harder than I would otherwise on my own. 




Graphics


The graphics are quite basic but perfectly functional. The screen is typically split into two main sections; one with the athlete showing off how to do the exercise, and the other with a video of you as you perform the current exercise. The video capture of the athletes can look a little odd at time, giving a kind of "uncanny valley" appearance. The interface looks quite nice, and is well put together with a contemporary look to it which fits with the tone of the game. The backgrounds are a little basic and bland, but I guess aren't that important for the task at hand.

Sounds 

Whilst sound isn't exactly the most important part of this experience, I have to say that a few things really irked me. The music choice was a typical choice of high tempo dance mixes, such as you might typically find at any gym. This sort of music is really not to my taste so I switched it straight off, but I know that a lot of people perform well with this type of music to motivate them (give me some DragonForce anytime!).

A click track runs through the exercises to allow you to follow along in time when it is not so easy to see the screen as you perform a particularly bendy exercise, and this works quite well once you have gotten the rhythm of the movements (you can watch the athlete show you what to do before starting).

Other than that, the audio track consists of the athletes "encouraging" you with the most annoying, repetitive, clich├ęd, and wooden phrases that you have ever heard; "no time to rest, bring out your best"! Everything just felt a bit phoned in, and none of the athletes really looked as if they wanted to be there.  Fulfilling contractual obligations perhaps? I was feeling the burn alright, but I think that may have just been embarrassment!

Essential equipment required for elite-level exercising...

Functionality

The most important question is; how does it work? Unfortunately, the answer to this is pretty much the standard for all Kinect games that I have played so far - it doesn't! I spent most of my time waving my arms around trying to get the sensor to recognise what I was doing. In some respects this actually worked quite well, since I ended up doing an incredible number of reps for some exercises before giving up and skipping to the next one. Unfortunately, on exercises where you do each side individually there is no way to skip sides, only to skip exercises, so I ended up doing lots of reps on one side trying desperately to get them to be recognised, whilst the other side remained unworked. In the end I just did a few on one side, then a few on the other, before skipping. Of course, this completely defied the point of using MiCoach!

The interface is a little unwieldy, but the idea behind it is quite sound. You hold your right arm out and move it up to scroll up, down to scroll down, and swipe to the side to select. When it works, it is quite satisfying. But often there is a slight lag so that you have to pre-empt the selection that you want to make. Maybe with more practice you can get used to it, but it kind of bugged me as going back after making the wrong choice was a rather lengthy process. These issues can be alleviated by using the voice commands which I found to be much simpler than the clumsy Kinect interface.

When performing the exercises, I felt that the level of feedback was quite poor, and what feedback there was was often hidden behind the athlete showing you what to do. Also, having visual written prompts on screen is not terribly useful if you're currently contorted into an odd shape and can't read the screen. I had visions of this system tracking how I did the moves, and telling me off for not doing the exercises properly and using the athletes to correct what I was doing wrong. But typically I found that when the sensor actually picked up what I was doing, I could get through quite happily with pretty poor form. Sometimes in fact I could only get it to recognise what I was doing by using very poor form! One particularly amusing example was that by the time I got myself settled to do some swiss ball dumbbell presses, it seemed to think that I had already finished a set of 10 and was moving onto the next exercise.

To be fair, most of this is a failing of the Kinect system rather than the game itself, but unfortunately it does make it somewhat unusable for its purpose. A lot of the problems can be improved slightly by increasing the play area, and I suppose that moving all of the furniture in my lounge beforehand is a good warmup. But realistically this is not something that I would do regularly when I can just crack on with a set of weights in the corner of the room like I usually do.

Exercises

The number of exercises available is a real boon for MiCoach, and it is pretty comprehensive with around 400 individual exercises available. There are fitness plans available for a number of different sports and a number of different levels depending on your level of training. I focussed on the running-specific exercises as these are more useful to me, and worked through a number of different difficulties to get a feeling for what was available. Some exercises rely only on bodyweight, whilst others need various additional props like a swiss ball (or spacehopper in my case) and weights. You can use whatever weight you are most comfortable with so in some respects you can make things as easy or hard as you like.

Exercises ranged from strength training and speed training, to core strength work and muscle building exercises, with a few light cardio exercises thrown in for good measure. Although I'm not entirely sure how useful the stretching exercises were as there is evidence that static stretching can actually reduce running performance by reducing power output as you stretch outside of your normal range of motion for running. Workouts were broken down into speed training, strength training, and general conditioning, and were well annotated with the duration of the routines, what equipment you will need, etc. This side of things was really quite well thought out and presented.

Annoyingly there is a lot of loading and calibrating of the sensor between exercises, which makes it feel like you're waiting around a lot. On top of this, you are forced to take regular breaks while the need to stay fully hydrated is forced upon you. I wonder what Professor Tim Noakes would have to say about that! This really didn't help with making me work up a sweat, and got very frustrating when combined with fighting with the Kinect sensor. After doing two back to back workouts I was barely sweating, and most of that was from cycling 20 miles beforehand.

There is a lot of external functionality available by setting up a MiCoach account and using the various phone attachments, shoe pods, and apps available, allowing you to track your progress over time externally from the game. Although I didn't make use of these in my testing, the ability to link your devices and create your own personal calendar for tracking your activities seems like it may be very useful for people looking for that extra kick in the pants to get exercising. Of course, to do all this will be very expensive, and you can really over-complicate these things.

By the time I've got into this position, it's already counted 8 reps!

Final Thoughts

So overall, what did I think of MiCoach? Unfortunately, I wasn't overly impressed. The game is certainly a comprehensive package, containing everything that you might possibly need to create your own personal training system. Unfortunately it is let down by the actual implementation, as the lack of feedback and the inability to actually keep the momentum of a workout going is completely lost in a non-stop fight with the control scheme. It feels like there is probably a useful tool in there somewhere, but more as an aid to keeping fit than as a tool to enhance performance. I can't see it working for someone like me who wants to take their running to the next level (in all honesty I never really expected it to), but as a way to stay generally fit and healthy this kind of system may be a good way of keeping motivation levels high. Unfortunately, there are some serious performance issues. I suspect that these are mainly due to Kinect itself, and perhaps the PS3 version (which uses a "wand" similar to the controller for the Wii to track movements) is more accurate, but as it stands I just found the game to be unfit for purpose. Perhaps people with much larger lounges may not see as many issues with the sensor as I did, but for me it just did not work.

There are other issues on top of the main performance problems, such as the lacklustre role of the Adidas athletes involved and little mistakes in the presentation that all smack of a lack of polish. On top of the training modes, there are also a couple of training games: a football game where I failed to kick a single ball, a basketball game where couldn't even catch the ball (never mind throw it), and a tennis game that's just like Breakout and actually quite good fun. There is also a "conditioning" mode which I actually found to be the best mode in the game. Here you do about 30 seconds on each exercise and just do as many reps as you can in the time. This means that the problems with Kinect not recognising your movements is no longer a problem. Of course, you could get the exact same results using a stopwatch...

And this is really the crux of the matter. MiCoach seems to be a perfectly functional (if unremarkable) personal training aid, but is more like a Buns of Steel video than an interactive personal trainer. The motion sensing technology utilised in Kinect is just not sensitive enough, and the only time the game works is when the flaky system is bypassed. It was interesting to play with but I won't be using it again. There are already many exercise games on Kinect, and I can't say where this sits in the continuum of quality, but I suspect that all of these suffer similar problems. Perhaps in the future the technology can provide that real-time feedback that a training aid such as this really needs, but for the time being I'm afraid it just doesn't work. If you're looking for a little extra motivation to get off the couch and get fit, you have a huge living room, you have already bought a load of fitness equipment and now want an excuse to use it, then this may be for you. Otherwise, just stick on some trainers and get out for a run!

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