Virtual Sports, Real Sweat

A friend and I went windsurfing one morning. We golfed the same day. Then we strapped on boots and skis and schussed downhill. And to think we performed these feats without wiping out on the high seas, traipsing across a fairway, or feeling any of the nip of winter.

So it goes in the virtual--and indoor--world of simulated sports machines. Active people bent on trying out various pastimes no longer need to make concessions to the weather. If they're trying to learn a new sport or hone existing skills, these simulators can help teach proper technique. And the physical workout is almost as good as the real thing.

The two of us demonstrated our, uh, prowess on three large computerized contraptions at the ritzy Reebok Sports Club/NY on Manhattan's Upper West Side, though similar machines can be found in other locations across the country. Reebok members and guests use these simulation machines in the company of professionally trained instructors, for which they pay handsomely. On the Force 4 Enterprises windsurfing device, for example, one-hour lessons cost $78. You step onto a board, lean back, and pull the sail as the "wind velocity" changes. If you fall, you'll land inside an inflated tube. I was better able to keep my balance than when I attempted windsurfing for real in the Caribbean, though I didn't try out the machine's advanced levels. The simulator can help build your upper-body strength, and a Reebok representative insisted that after a few tries, you'll be able to get up on a real board.

My experience on the MetroSki simulator was far more rewarding. As a novice skier, I stuck to the virtual equivalent of a bunny hill. The skier, using real skis or a snowboard and strapped into a safety harness attached to an overhead bar, stands on a carpeted platform that tilts to replicate the slope of the hill. When the instructor turns on the machine, the carpet starts scrolling backward and the skier makes turns, holding a bar in front for support. The one thing that gave me pause was having to sign a disclaimer informing me that "I am voluntarily participating in these activities with knowledge of the danger involved, and hereby agree to accept any and all risks of injury or death."

UNFORGIVING. The club also has a more advanced, first-of-its-kind, hydraulic simulator that runs on six axles to create the gravitational forces you would feel on a real mountain. A giant video screen lets you follow the path of an instructor skiing a real slope. The video is synchronized with the simulator apparatus: As the skier on- screen tackles a steeper hill, the platform moves, and you attack the more challenging hill, as well. "The carpet is not as forgiving as real snow and requires precision in regard to technique," says Jim Rodnunsky, president of MetroSki Simulation and the machine's inventor. Rodnunsky is installing a second advanced ski simulator in Vail, Colo.

Golf simulators are far more common. Full Swing Golf in San Diego, which built the Reebok club's machine, says that some 500 of its simulators have been installed at indoor golf facilities, sports bars, hotels, and health clubs. Other companies market similar installations. Inside the booth is a 12-foot video screen that players--using regulation clubs--whack a real ball into. An overhead view of the hole you are about to play is projected onto the screen; the next view is of the tee. Players can set wind and green conditions.

When the ball is struck, a tracking system simulates its flight across the fairway--even when it bounces off trees or splashes into a pond. Each time you swing, the screen flashes such stats as how far you are from the pin and how long the ball was in the air. Golfers who want to practice putts under 12 feet can hit the ball into a cup inside the booth.

If you're not a real golfer but want to challenge one on the PC, Sports Sciences peddles a product called PC Golf built around a 26-inch-long golf club shaft. The weight of this short club approximates a 5-iron. You don't actually strike a ball. Instead, a red-light beam shining at the bottom of the club represents the head. Sensors in a base unit, which connects to the PC, read the light to detect your swing. Sports Sciences' club, which costs $169 with the software, is compatible with PC games such as LINKS 386 Pro from Access Software and Picture Perfect Golf from Lyriq International. Sports Sciences also sells a club for Sega and Nintendo video games.

Virtual athletics can't replicate every aspect of the actual sport, but one result was all too genuine: My soreness and muscle aches were very real indeed.

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