Reflecting on our iGYM project

Roland Graf, associate professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design, and Michael Nebeling, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, with Bryan Kreps during a “play test” for iGym. (Photo by Roger Hart, Michigan Photography)

Professor Michael Nebeling was part of the U-M team that created a first version of iGYM, a system designed for school and community-based sport or recreation facilities seeking to provide novel and accessible ways for people with different levels of mobility to play and exercise together. In our current implementation, iGYM produces an interactive gaming floor for inclusive play of a “life-size version of air hockey” using a simple form of projected augmented reality.

Funded by U-M’s ESSI program, the project achieved many of the goals that are envisioned by U-M’s exercise and sport science initiative. It involved the target audience and demonstrated large impact on the users that helped us test and improve it, in this case, the kids, their friends, and their parents. The project also received a best paper award at CHI Play 2019, and wide media coverage in December 2019 (e.g., in U.S. news, ABC news, VRScout, as well as in local news papers).

Most media articles provide Professor Roland Graf‘s perspective, our friend and collaborator and the lead researcher on the project. For Professor Nebeling, it was a very rewarding project to be a part of and something he won’t forget. While it is of course nice to have helped the team win a best paper in the HCI research discipline, the professional and personal impact on Professor Nebeling was much larger than that.

First, he was able to recruit a first selection of UMSI master’s students taking his brand new AR/VR courses, SI 559 and SI 659, Pallavi Benawri and Amy Whitesall, as research assistants. Both really played a significant role in the success of this project!

Second, with most research projects, a researcher is happy when a user study produces great results and demonstrates effectiveness of the system design. With iGYM being a system that is quite complex and difficult to study given the various design parameters, it was a little different. While overall received positively, our user study revealed some mixed feelings about the system. Despite the use of algorithms and manual fine-tuning to help adapt the difficulty and balancing model of the system, it remains a challenge to make it both fun and fair, especially since with the range of parameters we can control, it was quite easy to “overbalance” the system. The results helped us understand how we could make the system better in the future, and this is what we consider a success.

But perhaps the greatest success of this work was that we could begin to see how iGYM might be adopted in the future. To this end, Professor Nebeling really enjoyed helping organize and host two play days with the larger team, including our consultant Betsy Howell, the kids, and of course their parents. It was an amazing atmosphere and really interesting to see our research prototype in action, having our participants “break test” it through creative use, and misuse, of the features and glitches of our implementation. 🙂

Many thanks to the team, especially to Roland Graf, Pallavi Benawri, Amy Whitesall, and Besty Howell.