Wii Fit, Tipping The Scales on Exercise

The Wii Balance Board, part of a long line of gaming devices that encourage physical activity.
The Wii Balance Board, part of a long line of gaming devices that encourage physical activity. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, May 25, 2008

After all the good times we've had together, it's nice to know my Wii doesn't think I'm fat.

Last week, Nintendo launched an unusual product designed for use with its fast-selling game console. Called Wii Fit, the $90 package comes with a game disc and a sturdy, 10-pound platform that users stand on, shifting their weight from side to side to control their in-game characters. The device and its software can also weigh users and calculate body mass.

Nintendo's Wii system is famous for getting people off the couch to play its tennis and bowling games; now the company aims to introduce users to yoga moves, ab crunches and push-ups, all performed atop the new Wii Balance Board, as the platform is called.

Wii Fit has already proved popular in Japan, where it has sold 2 million units since its release last year. Design of the hardware and software was overseen by Shigeru Miyamoto, the famous Nintendo game designer behind many of the company's biggest hits, such as the Mario franchise.

Game companies have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of trying to tie physical activity to video games. The idea goes back at least 25 years, to the heyday of the Atari 2600 game console, which had a similar-in-spirit device called the Joyboard. In more recent years, some games designed for the PlayStation 2 used a special camera to try to "watch" users' movements as they did aerobics programs with the system.

One device on the way, from a company called iToys, aims to motivate kids to move their bodies more in the real world by offering rewards in the virtual world. As they play and move, a pedometer records points that can be redeemed in a virtual world when the device is plugged into a computer. The device, called ME2, is scheduled for release late this summer.

Ben Sawyer, a co-director of Games for Health, a regular conference where software developers discuss and show off game technology that improves health and health care, said there's a lot to like about Wii Fit.

He said he'd like to see school districts eventually adopt the system, in the same way that some school districts have successfully incorporated the popular Dance Dance Revolution games into exercise and weight-loss programs.

That's a long way off for Wii Fit, he observed. After all, even if price weren't an issue, Wiis are still notoriously hard to find. "The biggest strike against it is that there aren't enough Wiis," he said. "People still can't get one."

Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said other game developers were already working on games and software that incorporate the Balance Board. She said the company was still trying to meet demand for the Wii, but she would not say when the device would be in ample supply.

There are more than 40 activities packed into the Wii Fit disc, ranging from skiing and hula hoop games to rowing, squat and leg-extension exercises. In keeping with the traditional structure of video games, users can't access every feature on the disc at first: The more you "play," the more activities you unlock.

Heck, if you feel like going for a run, you can even stick the Wii controller in one pocket and jog in place, and off goes your "Mii" avatar on a circuit run around a virtual video-game park, populated with all the avatars that you and your friends have put together on the system.

Never has a game console put itself into your personal business as aggressively as the Wii does shortly after you pop in the Wii Fit disc.

"Did you sleep well?" "Did you have breakfast yet?" Log on in the mornings before work, and you're greeted with a such questions. Skip a few days, and the Wii Fit gently tries to make you feel guilty for being a slacker.

Maybe the Wii doesn't think I'm overweight, but it does seem to regard me as a klutz after I flubbed a few balance-related tests. I'm not sure I like the implications I detect in some of its questions: "Do you feel like your body isn't responding the way you would like it to?" "Do you find yourself tripping when you walk?"

The software is set up so you can also use it to track any exercise you're up to when you're away from the Wii; those worried about privacy can keep their weight fluctuations and workout habits password-protected.

So far, I have yet to break much of a sweat with the Wii Fit. As I contort my torso to follow the directions of the software's mellow yoga instructor guy, he encourages me to "visualize" my "ideal body" as I focus on my breathing and balance.

Wii Fit is interesting, and I look forward to spending some more time with it. But if I were to ever do more than just visualize that ideal body, I think I'd have to start going to the gym again. The real one.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company