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A Wii Bit of Exercise

Thursday, April 12, 2007

This video game console won’t make us fit—but future ones might.

WiiYesterday morning, the muscles in my shoulders and upper arms hurt. Badly.

I haven't thrown a javelin or bench-pressed 400 pounds. Nor did I embark on a pull-up marathon. Rather, I've been playing video games for hours at a time. I recently scored a Nintendo Wii on eBay—still quite a feat as the device has been sold out since its debut last November.

The Wii's innovation is that the controllers are motion sensitive. The console comes with Wii Sports, including tennis, bowling, golf, boxing, and baseball, and players literally go through the motions. Boxing, the only two-handed game, put me in my current state of agony.

The idea behind Wii was to build a video game system for people who don't normally play video games. The media reports that nursing home residents enjoy Wii Sports. Glamour helped promote the system to women. The games play easily enough that one needn’t have “background” in video gaming to pick them up.

To this day, eBay bidding wars impose about a $100 premium over the suggested retail price of $250. Cheap as I am, I put in a few days’ work and got a used Wii, along with some compatible GameCube controllers, GameCube games and other accessories for a mere $380.

Nintendo sold 1,860,000 Wiis from November through February—beating out the new PlayStation 3 (1,100,000) and the Xbox 360 (1,000,000, though it had been out a year already)—according to NPD Group. That number will rise considerably before the Wii’s supply meets its demand at $250.

Business success breeds emulation, so motion-sensing games are likely to spread like kudzu. Before Wii even hit the market, Sony modified its PlayStation 3 to include limited motion sensing.

The media reports that nursing home residents enjoy Wii Sports.

Journalists and academics have toyed with the thesis that the Wii will launch a kind of unintentional fitness revolution. One British study projected that the average gamer could burn 27 pounds per year for his investment of 12.2 hours per week.

Some personal trainers use Wii as a tool, so the console works as an aid to intentional fitness. But beefed-up nerds are unlikely in the short term. It’s hard to imagine them opting it for a year’s worth of 12-hour weeks of exertion, especially if the games require the stretching and breaks that fitness trainers say should be part of an exercise plan.

Consider The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, perhaps the platform’s most-hyped game. I had envisioned swordfights, with the motion sensor tracking every swing and block. But the instruction manual advises players to "[s]wing the Wii Remote gently," sometimes pressing buttons at the same time. Link, the animated on-screen character, gets the real workout.

“First-person shooters,” where the player sees through the character's eyes and kills everything in view, a la Doom—show more promise for weight loss, but less for sales. The player holds his arm up continuously (these games cater to male aggression), aiming the controller like a gun at the screen and burning some calories. But many wimps get tired and put the game down.

And even when it comes to physical games like Wii Sports, the console doesn't do a good job of policing movement. The controller's pointing feature—as in those first-person shooter games—works with precision, but only when the player aims at the screen.

Meanwhile, the controller’s multiple accelerometers detect tilt and acceleration through three-dimensional space, but they can't tell where the controller is relative to the TV. A college friend of mine found a trick for boxing that might have prevented my aches and pains: Just flick the controllers toward the screen like drumsticks, and the character punches like a madman.

The acceleration pattern approximates that of a punch, forward and fast, so the controller can't tell the difference.

Finally, players can only hold one controller in each hand, so the games do not detect any movement whatsoever in a person’s elbows, knees or feet. Playing baseball, one writer remarked that there is "no reason to assume a batter's stance."

Not yet, anyway. Video game history suggests motion sensing will become better and more common following the Wii's success.

In the next 10 years, home video game users will likely stick motion sensors on their arms, legs, feet and torsos. If the technology hooks enough people, the world could see a significant health payoff.

Robert VerBruggen is Assistant Book Editor for The Washington Times.

Image credit: Photo by Ian Muttoo

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