State of play
A common experience for anyone who frequents a gym is the loss of motivation. It's a shame not everyone can afford a personal trainer to push, prod and ensure one gets a good workout and achieves steady progress.
Dance and sports-simulation video games designed for the home can help you break a sweat and enjoy the experience with family and friends, but these serve only as karaoke-style alternatives.
What if the software were the trainer? That is the aim of Nintendo's soon-to-be-released Wii Fit, the first in a new generation of exercise video games - known as exergames. The game uses a Wii-console exclusive, pressure-sensitive pad called the Wii Balance Board, which measures shifts in weight and posture. It incorporates three balance tests, including for agility and standing on one leg, and its design resembles oversized weighing scales.
Wii Fit software delivers a variety of avatar-assisted fitness mini-games, including yoga, push-ups, football heading, ski jumping, ball rolling and hoop twirling.
These programs were designed to deliver a mix of cardiovascular and strengthening exercises, the results of which can be recorded and compared by the user in the system.
'Wii Fit is something anyone can play and is very different from anything we've seen so far,' says the game's designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, director and general manager of Nintendo's entertainment analysis and development unit.
'My family and I have become more health conscious in recent years, going to the gym and tracking our weight ... Simply weighing yourself doesn't make much of a game, though, so we decided to build games around it,' says Miyamoto, noting the balance board was developed in consultation with hospitals and universities.
Wii Fit was unveiled in July at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, an annual trade show in California, in the US, for the computer- and video-games market. The game is slated for release in Japan on December 1.
It will be available in the US and Europe early next year and Japanese-language versions of the game are likely to show up at some stores in Hong Kong this Christmas.
Early reviews have been positive, which should encourage couch potatoes everywhere.
'It is a video game with a purpose,' reports gaming and entertainment website IGN. 'You don't just shoot some bad guys or race some cars in a virtual world. You use the peripheral and the software to perform a wealth of daily exercises laid out and controlled to test your physical prowess.'
Howard Jones, a local corporate communications executive, has seen the online demo of Wii Fit at e3nin.
nintendo.com/wii_fit.html. Jones sees the product combining the addictive fun of video gaming with exercise. 'Why then hire a personal trainer at the gym if you've got this program set up at home?'
This is not the first exergame to be developed. The 1986-released Computrainer had users riding a bicycle through a virtual landscape generated by the Nintendo Entertainment System, a top-selling 8-bit video-game console. The following decade, virtual-reality technologies were used with high-end gym equipment by various providers, including Nintendo.
The expense of these systems prompted the development of the exergames market. As the performance of computers and gaming consoles improved, products that could provide a cardiovascular workout were increasingly used by consumers at home. These included Konami's music-game series, Dance Dance Revolution (using a dance pad), and Nintendo's sports-simulation line, Wii Sports (using wireless remote controllers), which allows the user to 'play' tennis, baseball and golf, and to 'box' and 'bowl'.
Billy Pidgeon, gaming analyst and program manager for consumer market research at International Data Corp (IDC), says Wii Fit is a vast improvement on previous exergames and games adopted as workout routines.
'Wii Fit is a very positive application of video-game technology, countering stereotypes of video gaming as a sedentary and unhealthy activity. The software's design encourages regular exercise by tracking progress for individuals and for families,' says Pidgeon.
'The exercise is hidden in the fun factor. It also plays to a worldwide emphasis on changing habits to promote healthy lifestyles.'
In findings published last year, Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics, reports activity-promoting video games have the potential to increase energy expenditure in children to a degree similar to that of traditional play time. The report says: 'Low activity levels coupled to, on average, eight hours of screen time per day are widely recognised as major factors in obesity. Many attempts have been made to promote activity at home, at school and in the workplace. Part of the problem is children value screen-based activities; therefore, attempts to have children replace their gaming with less-valued activities, such as walking in the park, often fail.
'If sedentary screen time could be converted effectively to activity, then this could be an effective approach for promoting physical activity.'
The value of exergames is likely to be significant to older players who want a gentle fitness regimen. The Entertainment Software Association, a trade body formed by computer- and video-game suppliers, estimates 24 per cent of gamers in the US are above the age of 50.
The console-gamer profile is of a male between the ages of 16 and 34 who is interested in complex games with multiple layers, a challenging game-play environment and a good storyline, according to research firm Gartner. These gamers are the heart of the console-gaming industry and they demand continued improvement in the realism, storyline and game-play experience from video-game developers and publishers.
'The issue with this segment of the gaming audience is that it is already well penetrated,' says Van Baker, research vice-president at Gartner, which estimates more than 100 million game consoles are in active use worldwide, with more than 700 million titles in gamers' libraries - an average of seven titles per console. 'To continue to enjoy strong revenue growth, the console-gaming industry needs to attract incremental gamers who have not been drawn to the console-gaming experience.'
Nintendo has pushed harder than rivals Sony and Microsoft to expand the gaming market. IDC says Nintendo has designed its latest hardware and software to be more inviting and fun, and less intimidating for non-gamers, including those who may never be identified as a gamer by market surveys. It projects hardware shipments of Nintendo's Wii will capture a little more than a third of the worldwide market by next year, becoming slightly more popular than Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360.
'With the Wii, Nintendo is abdicating the specification war, leaving Sony and Microsoft to slug it out in the hardcore market,' says Pidgeon. 'I think Nintendo's Wii Fit will sell strongly worldwide and I expect the title will drive console sales.'
The potential of Nintendo's strategy has not gone unnoticed by financial analysts. Thomson Financial's mean estimate of all Nintendo sales for its financial year ending in March is 1.5 trillion yen (HK$102 billion), up 56 per cent from 966.5 billion yen the previous year.
'We believe concerted efforts to broaden the appeal of video games beyond the traditional enthusiast/hardcore base will deepen the industry's penetration,' says Pidgeon. 'Beyond titles such as Wii Fit, games are being integrated into exercise equipment and I can see this enhancing standard exercises on stationary bikes and other equipment with competitive fun.'