Exercise-Based Video Games Combine Fitness And Fun

Tuesday, August 23, 2005
By Melania Zaharopoulos

The testimonials on GetUpMove.com seem like those for any other diet or exercise product:
“I lost 95 pounds!”
“I lost 40 pounds and…”
“I shed 140 pounds.”
But look closer at the site and an interesting pattern emerges. Rather than talking about elliptical machines, powders or pills, the teens and young adults whose before and after pictures populate this site are extolling the virtues of a video game.
Exercise-based video games like Konami’s fanatically popular Dance Dance Revolution are indeed poised to revolutionize the video game industry, according to gaming producers. With an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among American children, they also couldn’t come at a better time.
“Kids today want it now, right now,” said Tim Osbaldeston, vice president of product development for Sportwall, a Carpinteria, Calif.-based producer of game-based exercise equipment. “The whole basis for our company is about getting kids moving, so our game play involves using real balls, (foam) noodles and activities. It’s done in a play atmosphere, though, so it’s got that instant gratification hook that they demand.”
Sportwall, a game that was originally developed to exercise the skills of tennis players, now manufactures games intended for group play in physical education classes, gyms and daycare centers, said Osbaldeston.
Sportwall’s game equipment, asks players to chase and hit lights along a board using either their hands or medicine balls and foam tubes. Timely hits generate point scores, allowing players to compete against one another. Currently in service in 150 schools and 50 health clubs, the company is starting to install its $5,000 to $25,000 systems in YMCAs and Gold’s Gyms around the country, too.
For home use, companies like Red Octane, owner of GetUpMove.com, produce dance pads that function with games like “Dance Dance Revolution” and their own dance game, “In the Groove,” which is produced in conjunction with Rockstar Games. Gaming systems like Sony’s Playstation 2 and Nintendo’s X-Box can run Dance Dance Revolution with the use of a $110 foam mat, a softer replica of the arcade game’s metal play floor that includes two four-button squares controlled by a player’s feet. “In the Groove” is produced only for Playstation.
Dance games ask players follow arrow commands in time with music, offering dances for a variety of skill levels. And unlike conventional sports, which pit players against one another, kids can challenge not only each other, but computer players and their own high scores.
“There’s this really strange phenomenon where some of the kids who are really the hard-core users play for three or four hours a day,” said Tracie Snitker, vice president of public relations for Red Octane. “And right now, the dance pads are the best-selling peripheral on the market.”
Matt Keene, a 21-year-old resident of Charleston, S.C., is just the kind of user Snitker is talking about. At age 18, he topped the scales at 460 pounds. Nine months later, he’d reached his current weight, usually between 210 and 215.
“It was something to make an ass out of myself on at first,” said Keene. “I failed a bunch, but it was really fun.”
Keene kept playing, frequently racking up six games a day at his local arcade before he got the home version of Dance Dance Revolution.
“When I got it at home, I’d play it two to three hours per day,” said Keene. “It was like, ‘Oh, man. ! can’t wait to get home to play!’ I don’t know exactly the day, but I knew I was losing weight when my pants didn’t fit. There were no more holes on the belt.”
Kids aren’t the only ones inspired by video technology, though. Dr. Ken Burres, a sports medicine specialist and CEO of Montclair, Calif.-based FitCentric Technologies Inc., has been a part of the interactive exercise field since 1988. His company produces fitness software and hardware designed to turn stationary bicycles and treadmills into racing games.
With average users in their 30s, FitCentric caters to outdoor enthusiasts who cannot work out in the settings they prefer.
“Say you’re a school kid in Chicago during the winter or a 50-year-old man who’s recently had a heart attack and is now on rehabilitation,” said Burres. “It’s not that easy to get outside sometimes, but we can give you that escape, that feeling of walking or running outside, even if you’re really not.”
Burres’ systems can also provide companionship - the latest version of FitCentric’s virtual training systems, a system being introduced this week that incorporates game-worth graphics of real-world and fantasy-driven simulations, allows users not only to race computerized pace setters and old personal bests, but to compete against fellow users from all over the world via the Internet. The hardware and software, designed for wireless attachment to existing exercise equipment, retail for $169.95
“We’re able to do things like crash sequences, and you can interact with cars, trucks and other bicyclists like you would if you were riding outdoors,” said Burres. “We have stoplights and traffic, and things that would impede the exercise experience in the real world, but you can’t get run over by a car and you can do things that are pure fantasy, like taking a ride on the surface of the moon.”
Active video games may not be mere weight-loss devices, either. They may finally deliver the positive effects that video games promised in their earlier years: improving coordination and even making better athletes, according to Osbaldeston.
“I’ll use the example of a PE instructor who’s had this system for over two years now,” said Osbaldeston. “Karen said that when you teach kids to play baseball, they only want to play it out in the field, but if they haven’t been taught to throw and catch at home, it’s more challenging to teach them that way. This game develops that form and technique. It brings you into the zone of using hands, feet, eyes, ears, sense of balance and an awareness of your surroundings, and when you talk
about getting those better athletes, that’s what you need.”
Later this year, Sportwall will introduce its latest computer-driven activity center, designed to conduct a variety of complete 40-minute training sessions for varying age levels. The system, which offers groups of users audio instruction, will be able to alternate skill and difficulty levels based on age, and provide training sessions centered on strength, cardio and coordination training.
Other businesses are hoping to cash in on the arcade and residential markets, designing peddle, treadmill and live-action games, some of which require players to act out the motions they want their characters to follow, including crouching and turning.

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