How wearable devices are reinventing our cities as open-air gyms

The 20-metre-long Paris Navigating Gym is propelled along the Seine by human power. Carlo Ratti Associati, Author provided

When Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, arguably the “father of gymnastics” and the inventor of the horizontal and parallel bars, opened his first gym (or Turnplatz) in 1811, he decided to locate it outdoors in Berlin.

At the time – and for thousands of years beforehand – physical exercise was primarily an open-air activity. Only in the 20th century did the gym begin to be relegated indoors, due to the increased regimentation of physical activity and the need to compare results with peers.

But could today’s digital technologies, which enable us to measure our physical exercise in everyday life, challenge the models of the last century? Could cities again be transformed into open-air gyms?

Tech takes training back outdoors

As newly invented appendices to our bodies, personal electronics help us to measure everything in our lives, including body activity. Through connected shoes, bracelets or belts, the Internet of Things has been morphing into an “Internet of Bodies” for the past several years.

The Nike+iPod tracker dates back to 2006. The first FitBit was released one year later.

Today, every smartphone can measure how we move in the city – whether we cycle, run or walk – and detect every step we take. Even the most intimate aspects of our lives – as shown by BangFit, the slightly ridiculous concept from the website Pornhub that combines sexual activity and fitness – can be monitored to calculate calories burnt.

In such a context, one might argue that the need for indoor fitness might become less relevant. We can accurately monitor physical activity everywhere and share collected data with others.

Let’s look, for instance, at cycling: using Strava every street segment in the city can be turned into a virtual racing circuit. Our own Copenhagen Wheel (now manufactured by the MIT startup Superpedestrian) can be retrofitted to any bike, allowing individual torque to be measured on a sub-second frequency. As a result, the performance of both the wheel’s motor and the rider can be assessed in real time.

All the data are stored online, so the Wheel can leverage artificial intelligence to provide information about paths, speed and calories burnt. Basically, it acts as an informed personal trainer.

Furthermore, this information can be shared and pooled with others. This illuminates how citizens are using public infrastructure, opening up opportunities for municipal improvement.

The Copenhagen Wheel can monitor, store and share real-time data about the performance of rider and bike.

Augmented reality adds to experience

Augmented reality could add a new layer to urban exercising. In 2016, we witnessed the great success of Pokemon Go. The augmented reality game mobilised hordes of city dwellers to invade public space all across the world for the sake of gaming.

In an interview with the Financial Times, the game’s developer, John Hanke, observed:

I don’t think we were built to sit in a dark room with a piece of electronics strapped on our head. I’m more enamoured of going outside and building real social connections.

Similarly, we can imagine augmented reality fitness targets spread out through the built environment – as in a digitally augmented parkour.

The blending of augmented reality and quantified self is what we imagined in our recent Paris Navigating Gym. Developed with fitness equipment manufacturer Technogym and New York-based non-profit architectural office Terreform ONE, the gym is a 20-metre-long vessel that glides across the Seine propelled by a very particular kind of energy: human power.

Producing a kilowatt-hour not only allows us to move, it also makes us fitter. The very energy we produce becomes an alternative way to measure physical exercise and make it tangible.

All around the boat, augmented-reality screens show guests the amount of energy being generated, as well as individual and collective targets. These targets are constantly updated as participants move through the city. The digital and physical realm blend into an augmented version of that quintessential Parisian exercise: strolling.

Augmented-reality screens show how much energy is being generated, as well as individual and collective targets. Carlo Ratti Associati, Author provided

Using the city as a digitally enhanced playground is not without unexpected and sometimes negative side-effects. “Digital exhibitionism” is a growing phenomenon, led by pranksters who crisscross urban space in paths intended to draw obscene shapes on online maps for everybody to see.

On a more serious note, Pokemon Go was used to commit hundreds of offences – fostering opportunities for robberies, thefts and assaults. Even Strava has been accused of putting people in danger, as amateur cyclists aim to improve their personal records in the city, often mistaking tranquil asphalt strips for virtual velodromes.

Still, if we learn how to manage such risks and learn from them to improve the design of urban public space, today’s technology has the potential to bring physical activity back to public outdoor spaces. It could thus enrich our enjoyment of cities and reunite two dimensions of urban life that have remained separate since Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s Turnplatz in 19th-century Berlin.

The Conversation

Carlo Ratti has received many private and government funds to carry out research on smart cities at the MIT Senseable City Lab. He is chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Future Cities, member of the Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS), Special Adviser to the President and Commissioners of the European Commission and a full member of the Aspen Institute Italia. He was the curator of the Future Food District pavilion at the 2015 World Expo in Milan and directs the the design office Carlo Ratti Associati. The Paris Navigating Gym project has been developed by Carlo Ratti Associati, together with other partners including Technogym, Terreform ONE, Urbem, UR Lab. The project was conceived in response to a public call organised in Paris and was inspired by a preliminary concept for a “River Gym” initially designed by Terreform ONE in 2008, for use in New York City. Professor Ratti also contributed to the invention and launch of the Copenhagen Wheel. Together with Matthew Claudel, he is the author of "The City of Tomorrow. Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life" (Yale University Press, June 2016).

How virtual reality technology is changing the way students learn

Emerging digital technologies are being used in thoughtful ways by teachers. from www.shutterstock.com

For many years, schools and universities have had to change the way they work and teach in order to fit in with technology.

Software like PowerPoint, for example, which has long been used as an education tool, wasn’t designed for education. Nonetheless, it has been a staple tool in education settings, used as a way to present information in template, bite-size formats.

But this isn’t always a good thing.

The use of digital technologies sees some teachers and students presenting information using templates, which means much of the individual character of teachers’ practices can be lost.

Research shows that software such as PowerPoint can homogenise and sanitise the way teachers present information to their students.

Only more recently are we seeing technology being designed and utilised specifically for education contexts, and it’s changing the way students learn and understand things.

Virtual and augmented reality technology

For a number of years, teachers have been customising their own virtual worlds to enhance the way they represent content.

A virtual world is typically a multi-user, computer-based environment in which users interact with one another through pre-programmed avatars or digital representations of the user.

These worlds allow teachers to “take” students to otherwise impossible locations.

Science, medicine and maths tend to be particularly suited to virtual environments.

For example, some mathematical and scientific worlds allow users to represent abstract topics in ways that would otherwise be difficult or impossible in real life.

The use of virtual worlds for simulation of medical procedures is well documented, as it allows for errors to be made without the catastrophic consequences in real procedures.

One particularly innovative initiative was conducted in a virtual world called Second Life.

The program allows teachers to design, create and teach in a virtual world with 100 university students. A series of collaborative activities were used to introduce aspects of Chinese language and culture to students in Australia before they spent time on exchange in China.

When the effects of this program were researched, data illustrated significant improvements in a number of key areas including:

  1. Reducing apprehension and embarrassment, which otherwise impede experimentation in activities like role-playing.

  2. Allowing students to revisit and repeat lessons multiple times to reinforce key understanding.

  3. Encouraging better social interaction between students as they were reacting and sharing a virtual world, rather then through email.

  4. Putting students in control of their avatar, not the teacher, which meant they could explore and interact independently. Unlike PowerPoint, where everybody sees the same information in the same way at the same time, a virtual world allows students to create their own understanding.

  5. A lack of non-verbal clues, including body language, gestures and facial expressions, has been cited in studies as negatively impacting communication. Some students have reportedly said that they feel restricted because they can’t use their hands for gestures. However, in increasingly sophisticated virtual worlds, avatars move and respond in more realistic ways. Improved graphics cards in computers also allow students to infer more meaning through these conversations.

In the classroom

Research is starting to provide examples of where and when these technologies may fit into the pedagogical repertoire of teachers. Studies have reported increased student motivation, improved collaboration and knowledge construction and enhanced classroom practices.

In the recent past, students and teachers were able to access virtual worlds only through a desktop or laptop computer.

They are now able to access different devices that can be worn on the user’s head, allowing for a more immersive experience.

The release of relatively low cost, virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now allow teachers to design three-dimensional interactive and individual environments for their students.

While the technical skills associated with this kind of work are beyond the capacities of many teachers, advances in the way we can program these kinds of tools mean this is likely to be a real option for many teachers in the near future.

Augmented reality

Using an Augmented Reality application on a mobile device to be able to examine the inter-relationships between different systems in the human body. Greg Ford, Author provided

One of the most recent forms of technology to enter the educational landscape is Augmented Reality (AR).

Unlike virtual environments, in which the real world is obscured and the user is immersed in a fully digital experience, AR overlays digital information on real world objects utilising the camera on a mobile device such as a tablet or smart phone.

In some educational uses of AR, three-dimensional images, video, audio or text are “triggered” to appear by a printed image.

The potential of this form of educational technology is beginning to be realised not only in tertiary settings but also in secondary schools.

Research shows that although this type of technology enhanced self-directed learning, there are still technological and pedagogical challenges such as slow response times, incompatible softwares and incompatible environmental settings.

The future

Over the past 18 months, I have been working on a different educational AR application for use in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

This work is grounded in considerations of the technological, pedagogical and content (TPACK) requirements of teachers.

The Technological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework. tpack.org

Research of the TPACK concept argues that teachers integrate digital technologies most effectively when they consider the ways in which different platforms allow them to represent content in different ways. This means they can engage their students in more comprehensive learning activities.

My work at the Royal Botanic Gardens has been designed to use AR technology with a particular pedagogical approach (constructivism) and to represent particular content (environmental sustainability and Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander histories and cultures) to students in ways that would be otherwise difficult to do.

For example, students are introduced to the concept of the carbon cycle through an AR overlay of the cycle triggered by the geometric shape of specific trees.

Looking through a tablet device, an animated representation of the carbon cycle appears over the real world setting in front of the students, allowing them to grasp a concept that can’t be seen with the naked eye, heard, touched or smelled.

The carbon cycle represented in real time on a tree that students look at through a digital device. Author provided

Once the students have been able to grasp this abstract content with the help of the technology, teachers then have the choice of other digital or non-digital activities from which they can choose to have their students apply this knowledge.

Emerging digital technologies such as AR are now being considered in complex, subtle and thoughtful ways by teachers.

While considering the technology, pedagogy and content influencing their choices, teachers are also considering the contexts in which they are working.

These considerations are helping teachers to make choices other than just PowerPoint when it comes to the inclusion of technologies in their teaching practice.

The Conversation

Michael Phillips does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.