Photo of road in early morning

Comedy & competition: putting a virtual race app through its paces

I was interested to read The History of the Pedometer (and the Problems with Learning Analytics) by Audrey Watters, published on 22 June 2017, in particular as this week I was putting a virtual race app to the test.

The virtual race I took part in was a paid for race, for a charitable cause, and its premise is that you can run wherever and whenever you choose, tracking your progress and then adding your results to the ‘global leader board’ – raising funds in the process. I signed up because 1) I was curious to try out the app/virtual race concept, 2) I wanted to support a good cause, even if in a small way, and 3) the idea of taking part in a race without having to physically go to one appealed to me as someone who isn’t particularly competitive and prefers running at dawn.

The marketing around the race & app was very similar to the kind of things you read in Learning Technology press releases but the reality did not quite measure up to its vision of being part of a global army of empowered fundraisers each experiencing a fun & inspiring ‘personalised’, celebrity endorsed run. Instead I came up against a lot of small, technical niggles that made using the app less than ideal and required giving it access to a lot of information on my phone before the running had even begun. The account I had to create and the data I had to share only added to this.

The actual running was supported by a prerecorded soundtrack of comedy commentary from celebrities sharing their ‘race progress’, something along the lines of “I just made it to the halfway stage – keep going!”. Personally I thought it was too simplistic to be really amusing. You could listen to your own music as well, although I failed to make that work. For runners who were more competitive and wanted to know how they were doing, the app did not deliver either. Despite tracking your progress via GPS it was unable to tell you how fast you were going, which made the whole idea of competing with the celebrity runners from the soundtrack a bit pointless. You could guess how much time had elapsed since they passed a particular time marker, but that was it. Given that the soundtrack was so limited, it seemed to me that neither comedy nor competitiveness were served well.

My 5k run was soon approaching the finish line and the end of the race was for me the most disappointing moment: a half-hearted soundtrack of cheering was interrupted by a signal and then “You can how stop running”. That was it.

When I turned to check the app I also realised that the timer had kept going, counting the minutes, although I had already crossed the virtual finish line. For a race app this seemed a fatal flaw as it felt frustrating to not have an accurate race time even for a casual participant like myself. I can only imagine what more serious runners made of this.

Having used a lot of different running apps and gadgets over the past year I think you could do a much better job building a virtual race app and organising a race – indeed I think it could be a really good experience! It has great potential. But in this particular instance neither the technology nor the delivery measured up. It was a soulless experience for me that seemed to fall flat and left no scope for the imagination and seemed to not even try to cater for or understand its users. If any actual testing of the soundtrack took place, I would be very surprised. I hope at least it raised funds for a good cause.