Gaming couch potatoes may not want this much exercise, but the Balance Board could bring Nintendo some nongamer converts
Any gamer accustomed to picking up a control pad bristling with buttons and thumbsticks may find stepping onto Nintendo's Balance Board somewhat jarring. The two-foot by one-foot device, an accessory to the best-selling Wii gaming console, stands flat on the ground, resembling a plain bathroom scale. A player stands on the board while viewing a monitor or TV and uses the board to perform various balance games and interactive exercises. Its purpose—helping people stay fit, rather than boosting high scores—may seem alien to hard-core game-playing couch potatoes.
But Nintendo is hoping the idea takes off when the tentatively named Balance Board is released in Japan later this year and in the U.S. in the first half of 2008. Like the innovative Wii, the board is part of a new breed of motion-sensitive devices aimed at getting players, especially nongamers, to physically interact with games. Embedded within the board are sensors that measure pressure and balance to determine how well the user accomplishes various feats. Nintendo hasn't announced a price for the board.
Head Butts and Hula Hoops
I recently had the chance to test a prototype of the board at the SoHo Grand Hotel in New York City on July 30, using it with a sampling of the approximately 40 interactive games (collectively titled Wii Fit) that are due to ship with the board. My short take: The Balance Board is an innovative approach to physical fitness and may help Nintendo widen its customer base, but I'm not sure how much early versions will appeal to typical Wii users.
Some games were straightforward, such as the one that required me to maintain my center of gravity while balancing on one foot. Others seemed specifically designed to showcase my lack of flexibility. In this category is the one that asked me to perform yoga poses in step with on-screen instructions. A handful were slightly more complex, like the one that had me twirling my hips to spin hula hoops, then leaning to one side to catch another hoop.
In the most difficult game I tried, virtual characters kicked soccer cleats and soccer balls in my direction. I had to quickly bend left and right to dodge the cleats and head-butt the soccer balls. I spent only a few minutes on each game as I wanted to sample as many as possible, but it became clear that regular, extended use could give the gamer a decent workout. The whole experience is rather unique, given that I'm not accustomed to having my physical movements represented on-screen. The final product will be also able to measure health indicators, such as body mass index.
The board held up well during all the tests, and it was responsive without ever being too sensitive. It feels sturdy underfoot and has tiny grooves that help with traction. The prototype seemed to require frequent recalibration of the user's center of balance in between games, but all of the software was both easy to use and offered challenging exercises.
Out of the Gaming Aisle
None of the games included in the demo were particularly breathtaking, but the board does have some interesting implications for future game design. Think of all the sports that have the word "board" in them: skateboarding, snowboarding, surf[board]ing. Nintendo first revealed the Balance Board to third-party developers at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in July and says several studios are just beginning to look for creative ways to utilize it (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/16/07, "Gamers Feel the Burn").
The next hurdle for Nintendo will be creating demand for its rather unusual product. Sure, gamers have broken a sweat with Konami's rhythm game Dance Dance Revolution, but the Balance Board is the first add-on aimed directly at improving fitness.
George Harrison, a senior vice-president at Nintendo of America, says the key is getting the board out of retail stores' video game aisles, where nongamers rarely go. A Canadian chain of health clubs is already using the Wii console as a workout tool, and Harrison suggested the possibility of doing promotions with fitness trainers.
"If we can get people to try it, they'll get intrigued and hopefully buy it," he says.
What's In a Game?
In the last year, Nintendo has been significantly pushing the concept of what constitutes a video game. The company has sold 8.6 million copies of Brain Age, a puzzle game developed with a Japanese neuroscientist for the handheld Nintendo DS (47.2 million sold and counting).
Nintendo deserves praise for unique ideas, and if successful, Balance Board will become a case study in how to expand the use and audience of video games. But I wouldn't expect early versions of the device to resonate deeply with the hard-core gaming set.