Reluctant computer science major creates video exergame

By Logan Wells ’15

As a young boy, Nate Blanchard may not have wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a computer scientist, but he always liked video games and sports.

Last summer, the senior was able to combine those two interests at the prestigious game2learn lab at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, working on an exergame called “Washboard: Gut Killer,” for Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360.

“(The project) gets at the age old question of ‘can we get kids to exercise through video games?’” he said. “I have been intrigued by a lot of aspects of (exergames) and combining the fun of a video game with the engagement of getting up and actually doing it is exciting.”

Working with students from other colleges and UNC faculty, Blanchard participated in the university’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Exergames have been in existence since the late 1980s, but started taking off in 2006 with the emergence of the Nintendo Wii. In 2009, it was worth an estimated $2 billion, according to exergamefitness.com. and has grown exponentially ever since with the addition of the Xbox Kinect and the development of new titles.

The team developed their game, “Washboard: Gut Killer,” from the initial concept, designing algorithms and addressing specific problems they ran into along the way. While exergames rely on technology that tracks body movement or reaction in order to control the game, Blanchard saw several flaws in the genre and set out to counteract them.”

“Take a game like ‘Dance, Dance, Revolution,’ for example,” said Blanchard of the industry’s early frontrunner. “So much is based on your skill level. If you’re really great at it and do it for a long time then you’re going to get a great workout. But if you’re not very good, your workout will suffer.”

He and the team designed an algorithm to correct for player ability, as well as other unique adjustments.

“Most exergames attempt to get you a purely aerobic workout. Not many people (research) anaerobic workouts with these games. Where motion sensing technology is right now, though, anaerobic workouts can get you a more intense workout in a shorter period of time.”

“Washboard: Gut Killer” focuses on a full anaerobic workout. Using motion sensing technology, the player controls a floating sphere and attempts to pop balloons that fly across the screen in different patterns by performing a series of sit-up exercises meant to engage multiple core muscles.

To ensure they could tailor the game specifically to an effective core workout, the team collaborated with a UNC fitness expert.

In addition to changing the design several times, Blanchard and team ran into an important flaw: potential consumers liked the product, but over time found it boring.

“It was sort of circular in that you just kept doing the same thing over and over,” he said. “There was nothing to play for.”

They counteracted the problem with the addition of a high score feature as well as a lives system that added point value. 

Unfortunately, due to the software giant’s licensing agreements, Blanchard won’t be able to find the results of his hard work on the market anytime soon. However, that didn’t diminish the value of his summer experience.

“It was a great introduction to doing research,” he said. “Without this, I would have had no idea about all the things that go into research and design. Building the game itself was difficult at times, but we were able to get help from graduate mentors and other staff. It was great to be around some of the top-tier computer science students from all around the U.S., and the lab had some really great facilities.”