Entrepreneur Eesha Sheikh is preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Keeko, a fitness game she is developing at Innovation Pavilion, a high-tech co-working center in Centennial. She was inspired to create the app by her own difficult battle with childhood obesity. Photo by Peter Jones
BY PETER JONES
A primitive prototype for Keeko, which is expected to eventually incorporate a wearable fitness band that would track a player’s progress and synch it with the onscreen character. Photo by Peter Jones
In an era in which sedentary electronic “devicing” may be among the greatest obstacles to fitness among young people, leave it to Eesha Sheikh to toss a common assumption into calorie-burning headstands.
“Why fight the tide? Just move with the tide,” the 26-year-old entrepreneur said.
Sheikh means “move” quite literally, by winning one for personal health in the same gaming world that birthed a new generation of cellphone-dependent teenagers.
A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity says electronic devices have had a significant and negative influence on cardio-respiratory fitness among college students, concluding “high-frequency users were more likely … to report forgoing opportunities for physical activity in order to use their cellphones.”
Sheikh, a Centennial-based millennial, is running circles around such studies, hoping to prove that the answer to such problems as childhood obesity and poor fitness might be found in the same device that houses such apps as time-consuming Facebook, Tinder and Minecraft.
But first, Sheikh is playing another game, crowdfunding Keeko, her in-development game app designed to help players reach new levels of health and fitness through their own behavior and that of a personally designed onscreen character.
“It’s all about making exercise fun,” she said. “You’re doing it in a way where your focus is the game. The right balance of psychology, game design and game theory—that is what is going to set this apart from all the other apps out there.”
And it isn’t just exercise at play. Eating habits and other lifestyle choices are part of Keeko’s game design. Some are already incorporated into a prototype that Playpal, Sheikh’s parent company, has tested in focus groups. Plans are to incorporate a wearable fitness band that would track a player’s progress and synch it with the onscreen character.
“Everything is being tracked—your oxygen levels, your heart rate, your activity, how much you’re walking,” Sheikh said. “Your game play and how it evolves and how your character transforms throughout the gameplay is a direct consequence of your life. You are the game.”
One’s food choices would be entered manually, at least for the time being.
Players would also be able to compete with or track the progress of friends and strangers as they strive to improve the lives of their character—err themselves.
The entire apparatus—including the wearable band or ring and an app-trackable water bottle—would likely sell for something in the neighborhood of $100 to $150, Sheikh said.
There’s an app for that
A game like Keeko is something this tech entrepreneur wishes she had 20 years ago when she was struggling with her own childhood weight problem.
Born in Pakistan, her family emigrated to Texas when Sheikh was in elementary school, where the young transplant was bullied—not for her family’s Muslim faith or social customs, but for her weight, which had reached 170 pounds by the time she was 8.
“It was very bad. I was called the human jelly doughnut,” she said. “The popular kids used to come and just throw my food away. I became a very aggressive child. I would cry and scream at my parents and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
The family’s Pakistani cultural norms did not help matters when Sheikh’s traditional father and mother failed to take the problem seriously at first.
It was only when a doctor finally diagnosed the grade-schooler with clinical obesity, running afoul of the family’s health insurance, that her parents realized how serious the situation really was. Sheikh’s father soon incentivized his daughter’s weight loss with the promise of new toys, and in less than two years she lost 65 pounds—though not in the best way possible.
“I did it in a very unhealthy manner,” she said. “I went on fad diets. I went on banana and milk for a month. The doctor didn’t refer me to a nutritionist, which I thought was the weirdest thing ever. I love to eat. It’s hard to suppress it even now.”
As a young woman, Sheikh’s struggle continued. It was not until she was in high school that she says she fully understood what her battles with fitness were all about.
“I started to realize that my self-worth was more in my intellect and my service to the world,” she said. “You’ve got Victoria’s Secret, America’s Next Top Model. We forget the service we can give to the world as women, as opposed to just looking like Barbie dolls.”
Sheikh would eventually receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medicinal chemistry, with an eye on somehow helping others. Her research was published and she was working to create cancer drugs by the time she was 18.
“I’ve always been an overachiever. I don’t think I would have been this courageous or ambitious if I hadn’t [gone through the weight-loss ordeal] at such a young age. I believed in myself like a crazy person,” she said.
After returning to Pakistan to work in her repatriated father’s business, Sheikh says she had a revelation about her future in helping the world through technology.
“I felt like if I combined both passions together, it could create something really magnificent,” she said. “I thought about the running-game genre. What about myself when I was a big kid running as a character collecting good foods and avoiding the bad foods—and what if it got synched with my body?”
In 2015, Sheikh relocated to Colorado and Centennial’s Innovation Pavilion to find her niche. With a few thousand dollars to her name, the young entrepreneur began supporting her dream project by developing other games, including one for Pepsi’s Sting energy drink.
Sheikh also hopes to raise between $500,000 and $1 million on a soon-to-launch Kickstarter campaign. If Keeko turns out to be worth its weight in financial investment, who knows where her socially conscious gaming may lead her?
“I come from a culture where women don’t get to do this,” Sheikh said. “They don’t get to leave their husbands for two and half months after getting married. Women don’t work. Women are expected to conform to certain roles—this is the biggest revolution of all of these.”
Could a game that sees a young Middle Eastern woman get points for striking out independently and starting her own international business be in the offing?
“That would be amazing. That’s a really good idea,” she said.
2017 All Rights Reserved. Villager Publishing |