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

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

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.

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