Spotlight on Science

Spotlight on Science: Samantha Finkelstein

Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect were some of the first companies to profit from the idea of “exergaming,” a term that combines “exercise” and “gaming.” Now, more and more people are looking to virtual reality exergaming as a real solution to encourage adults and children to exercise. In this month’s Spotlight on Science Q&A, we asked Samantha Finkelstein (Carnegie Mellon University) about some of her VR exergames research, which she  shares in “Astrojumper: Motivating Exercise with an Immersive Virtual Reality Exergame” (Presence, February 2011). This topic will continue to get hotter—MIT Technology Review recently referenced Finkelstein’s 2011 study, as did Mental Floss. Read the article for free on our SOS page.

Why does virtual reality immersion increase motivation to exercise?

One of the most beautiful benefits of technology is in its ability to personalize to a user’s wants or needs (and these often aren’t the same thing!) A surprising amount of what we do as humans to better ourselves is done without real-world context—whether that’s running on a treadmill at the gym, or learning how to divide fractions in a classroom. Technology, and VR as a subset of that, can be useful for giving us a context for why we’re doing what we’re doing. Suddenly we’re not just running on a treadmill because we know it’s good for us, but because there are enemies chasing us. We’re not learning how to divide fractions because we’re told we have to, but because we can see how it’s hard to manage a successful virtual lemonade stand without those math skills. Immersion is a goal in so many aspects of what we do, far beyond exercise, and technology can give us a context that draws us in.

Who do you think will benefit the most from exergames?

I actually started doing exergame research because I was interested in technologies to support children with Autism Spectrum disorders. There’s all of this evidence that regular, rigorous physical activity can reduce a lot of the overwhelming behavioral responses endured by children with autism and other disorders. However, because a lot of these children may struggle with social interaction, typical outlets for physical activity like team sports or outside games can be absolutely daunting. And though they struggle with social interaction, many are exceptionally skilled with and fascinated by technology. We built an exergame called “Astrojumper” based on some of the typical developmental needs of children with autism. For example, we wanted something that would require broad body movements, rather than anything fine-grained, because those movements can be difficult. We wanted something that didn’t require any verbal instruction beforehand, and wouldn’t ask the players to make any socially-based decisions. Finally, we wanted a design that would play off of a common ‘special interest’ children with autism often have—outer space. As we expected, though neurotypical players also enjoyed “Astrojumper,” the children with autism we brought in were especially captivated by the tool. This was before the Microsoft Kinect was widely available, and so for a lot of these players, it was their first time doing anything like this. They were thrilled to be doing it, and that response was really encouraging. All of that to say—I don’t think that exergames can or should replace ‘real world’ physical activity for those who are doing it already… but for those people who aren’t getting the real world physical activity because of struggles with developmental disorders, mental illness, or dozens of other legitimate, important reasons, exergames can help structure this sort of important activity in a way that works for them.

What was the most valuable feedback that you received from your test subjects about “Astrojumper?”

At the time we built “Astrojumper,” one of our biggest limitations was how many sensors were required to make the system work!

We embedded sensors in sweatbands that players wore on their wrists and on their forehead, and they had to carry all of these wires in a backpack that helped to track their position. This was, as you can imagine, not particularly pleasant. With more affordable and advanced tracking techniques, like what the Microsoft Kinect affords, we can achieve these same sorts of end goals way more easily.

What are some other ways in which virtual reality is being developed outside of entertainment or exercise?

I’m actually a learning scientist by training, so I think here is where I plug this. I’m especially excited about the ways that these immersive technologies can augment education. And, because humans are such social creatures, a lot of how learning happens is through social interaction with peers. But! While peer learning is really effective when it’s working well, when it’s totally unstructured, it can be chaos. And not even particularly productive chaos. These days, I mostly work with virtual humans, which are life-size virtual characters that look like and act like the population you’re working with. I’m interested in how these virtual peers can provide structure in the learning process while still allowing children to benefit from peer interaction. Research out of the lab I’m currently working with, led by Dr. Justine Cassell, has found that these characters can support children in acquiring literacy skills, help children with autism demonstrate theory of mind, and support science learning in peer-tutoring situations. You can read more about our work at

Read “Astrojumper: Motivating Exercise with an Immersive Virtual Reality Exergame” for free.