Playing video games is more than just a single game; it is a journey of discovery. Whether the game has a definite beginning and end or is played continuously over days, month or even years, the player can spend countless hours doing thumb push-ups while being planted firmly on the couch. Although video games have been “blamed” for many negative consequences in our society they do bring great value to the players playing them (fun, enjoyment, physical relaxation, mental stimulation, problem solving skills, creativity, hand-eye coordination).
Now … imagine if video game technologies existed that combined the games with physical activity? Could innovative technologies exist that map the player’s body, hands and feet to the video game character’s virtual ones? Of course! Exergaming (aka. Active Gaming) is the combination of physical activity and video games where the gamer uses his or her body as a “human joystick”. Although the advent of the Nintendo Wii has brought exergaming to the forefront of entertainment technologies, active video games have been around since the 1980’s.
Evolution of Exergaming – 1982 to 2010
Take a journey through the history of exergaming starting in the early 1980’s to present day. The following are a listing of some of the groundbreaking technologies that played a part in getting people more active and moving (don’t forget sweating) in a virtual way!
1982: ATARI JOYBOARD
In 1982, Atari released the “Joyboard,” a simple four-switch balance board controller for the Atari 2600 that placed standard joystick components into a ridged, black plastic platform. The four directional latches of a joystick were installed on the bottom of the board. The primary game for the Joyboard, called “Mogul Maniac”, was released to replicate the experience of slalom skiing. A second game, “Off Your Rocker” was also said to work with the Joyboard.
1982: ATARI PUFFER
Left unreleased due to the videogame industry crash of the early ‘80s, Atari’s “Puffer” could have introduced gaming and exercise (a.k.a. “exergaming”) into not just the home, but also the gym. The concept was described (in an internal memo) as: “A whole generation of kids (and adults) exist who aren’t into sports and/or don’t get enough exercise. At the same time there is a huge fitness market. We have seen how kids can become addicted to our video games. We are going to hook up an exercise bike to a video game, where the bike is the controller. Hook up a bike to “Pole Position” and you have to pedal to make your car “go”. Hook it up to “Dig-Dug” and shovel faster – or else! We can make fitness freaks out of the kids and game players out of the keep-fitters. We capitalize on the combination of the two powerful markets — video games and aerobic fitness.”. Three models of the Puffer system were planned:
- Pro Model – This was the commercial unit for use in gyms and health clubs, including a heart rate monitor.
- Arcade Model – This model for use in video arcades. It was planned to be a one-piece device that included a coin slot. A game similar to Atari’s arcade game “Paperboy” was under consideration for this unit.
- Home Model – This model would hook up to an Atari home computer or Atari 5200. It also came with the necessary hardware to connect your existing exercise bike to the Atari computer/game console.
The Puffer project was ready to go when Atari declared bankruptcy in the mid-1980’s.
1986: RACERMATE COMPUTRAINER
RacerMate produced the first “wind trainer” exercise bike, which used a fan for resistance instead of friction from a belt or weights. With that success, RacerMate released the “CompuTrainer,” which hooked up to the rear wheel of working road bicycles, providing electro-magnetic resistance and a connection to a computer. Many used the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) version of the CompuTrainer, but the earliest models were powered by the Commodore 64. RacerMate evolved the CompuTrainer line, releasing updated versions of the hardware and software for PCs, as well as adding 3D graphics. The latest version models wind resistance based on body shape, pairs up with topographic maps to allow virtual riding on real roads, and overlays the 3D rider on HD video of real courses. Multiple CompuTrainer bikes can network with “MultiRider” software that allows eight players to compete in real time.
1988: NINTENDO POWER PAD
Nintendo licensed Bandai’s 12-sensor plastic mat and released it along with World Class Track Meet in the NES “Power Set” bundle. For the player who may not have been successful using the handheld controller, the Power Pad was a blessing.Bandai released several compatible games in Japan, but few came to the United States. Perhaps the most influential would be Dance Aerobics, released in March, 1989, whose high-stepping choreography pre-dated the dance game revolution of the following decade. Most of the exercise value of the Power Pad quickly diminished once it was discovered that the easiest way to mash the sensors in the slippery pad was by slapping the triggers by hand.
1989: NINTENDO POWER GLOVE
VPL’s sophisticated Dataglove was a robotic glove that precisely measured yaw, pitch and roll with fiber optic sensors, capable of detecting up to 256 points of articulation in the digits. This creation, too sophisticated for its time, was redesigned by a team at Nintendo to produce the Power Glove. In reality, the Power Glove was all but unusable. The downscaling of VPL’s Dataglove technology resulted in a glove that could only detect roll and vigorous movement of the fingers. Although it was essentially a failure, the Power Glove’s pedigree in the history of exercise gaming is well- earned. The Power Glove was never marketed as an exercise device but it did help kids exercise, although accidental.
1992: TECTRIX VR BIKE & VR CLIMBER
The Tectrix VR Bike was a commercial-grade piece of fitness equipment, featuring a recumbent pedaling position, an integrated CRT, and fans that blew air into the face of the rider. The game included a number of different “worlds”, all stored on an internal CD-ROM. A version of the VR Bike was even developed for the US military, based in part on classic tank games like “Battlezone”. Networked VR Bike machines running the “Tank” game could disable and destroy tanks controlled by riders on other machines. The Tectrix VR Climber offered the same sort of interactive adventure, replacing the bike with a stair climbing machine.
1995: EXERTAINMENT SYSTEM
The Exertainment System, a collaboration between Nintendo and Life Fitness, is a commercial grade exercise bike that connects to a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Two games that supported the technology included “Mountain Bike Rally” and “Speed Racer”. The product never made it to market.
What’s Next in the History of Exergaming …
In “Making Exercise Fun – The Evolution of Exergaming (Part Two)” we continue this journey in the evolution of exergaming to the present day.