October 21, 2007

Article at CNN

Business warms up to 'exergaming'

Video games and exercise could work out well together. Consider: While video games might entertain you, they generally fail to burn many calories. And while bicycle machines can improve your cardiovascular health, they're monotonous to ride.

Add to this situation decreasing attention spans, expanding waistlines and the continued rise of video games' popularity and you've set the stage for "exergaming."

The trend is in its early stages, but Dance Dance Revolution kiosks have already infiltrated many schools, where they trick easily bored kids into healthy exercise. Such games "have been researched and proven to be substantial forms of cardiovascular activity," notes Biray Alsac, whose Arizona-based FITTmaxx Institute helps fitness professionals navigate this new field.

Meanwhile, gym chains are turning to virtual reality cycling machines that allow users to ride "through" virtual routes -- coastal, rural and so on -- on a big monitor placed before them. Users can lean into turns and must pedal harder to make it up on-screen hills. Internet-linked bike machines from Expresso Fitness, for instance, can be found at gyms across the U.S. Users compete for high scores on particular courses against members from across the country.

Some clubs hold competitive events based around such high-tech bikes. Earlier this summer, the chain Crunch Fitness held a "Tour de Crunch" competition in conjunction with the Tour de France. Users competed for the best time rather than engage in live online racing -- there isn't a satisfying critical mass for that yet -- but "these contests have been very successful and we intend to do more of them," notes Brian Button, CEO of Expresso Fitness.

Button says his company is planning a new fantasy-oriented route where users chase dragons on a mythical island. Because the bikes are linked to the Internet, he notes, new routes and software updates can be easily added. "When's the last time you showed up at the gym and your treadmill had a new feature?" he asks. "Our bikes do that all the time."

Of course, getting gym-goers to chase virtual dragons is relatively easy compared to motivating couch-potatoes or computer users at home to break a sweat while playing games or exploring virtual worlds. "If I'm not running in real life," asks Alsac, "would I run in Second Life?"

The Wii console from Nintendo gets credit for enabling game developers to incorporate physical actions into the gaming experience. Titles for the popular console allow you to swing a virtual tennis racket, for instance, by swinging its wireless remote control.

This is healthier than sitting nearly motionless, but the physical exertion can be intermittent and of varying intensity levels, notes Alsac. In other words, it isn't generally the kind of prolonged, steady-state physical activity needed to get in shape.

So how to reach the home user with robust exergaming? A number of outfits are making attempts, but so far nothing has taken off.

Many systems now on the market are simply too expensive and technically difficult for mainstream users (and exercise enthusiasts in particular) to bother with. And if users are not already at the gym, they might jog outside rather than use, say, a complicated PC-connected treadmill to control an on-screen avatar, the novelty of which could quickly wear off anyway.

But technology has a way of evolving, Alsac notes, believing "these innovations will manifest into a commercial trend some day."

In any case, even in its warm-up stages, exergaming already looks promising.