Before the existence of Wii Fit, before the Nintendo Power Pad or Dance Dance Revolution, there was the Puffer. Or rather, there was almost the Puffer.
The Puffer -- an exercise bike that lets you control the movement and speed of a game character by pedaling -- came this close to hitting stores in 1984, before an industry-wide crash led to Atari's sale.
Now comes news that the company wants in on the burgeoning wearable fitness market, with a "gamified fitness experience" involving "full-body circuit workouts, running programs and custom routines." It's called Atari Fit, and it will be released as an app for mobile devices in 2015.
The idea that exercise can become a game is a persistent one, even if attempts to put the idea into action have had mixed results when it comes to the actual value of the exercise. Although a Puffer would look comically out of place today, the basic concept is the same as Atari Fit's: Use the appeal of gaming to motivate customers to become physically active.
Here is how Puffer was going to work: Pedal the exercise bike to control the speed of a controllable character on the screen. There were buttons on the handlebar for navigation or deflection or what have you. The faster a player pedaled, the faster they went in the game -- and also, Puffer's designers hoped, the more exercise a player would get.
It was one of many projects out of Atari's corporate research division, which functioned like "this blue-sky think tank," Jim Leiterman, a former assistant research engineer for the project, said in an interview. He and the other engineers in the research wing designed all sorts of prototypes for Atari, including robotics, before robotics were a thing, and an artificial intelligence fish tank. "We were coming up with ideas that weren't even related to video games," Leiterman said.
Work on Puffer began in earnest in 1982, and Leiterman was part of the team, along with a mechanical engineer who made injection molds of the parts the team designed. Although there were reportedly several models of the bike in the works, Leiterman remembers working with only one: A kit used to adapt an off-the-shelf exercise bike into a controller for the game. It was less bulky, and presumably would have been more affordable, than selling an entire, customized exercise bike with the controls built on.
Leiterman's job involved coming up with new games for the Puffer and also re-purposing existing ones to work with the bike. As he worked, he learned that the best games were the ones that focused on pedaling for motion, and brakes to slow down. Ones that worked with, not against, a player's intuition.
This worked well for games like Jungle River Cruise, in which players pedaled to navigate a river. Another game created for the Puffer, called Tumbleweeds, was a little harder to get a handle on; the gameplay was more or less like Asteroids, but with players avoiding tumbleweeds instead of objects in space. "If you kind of lost your mind a little bit," Leiterman said, "you would start throwing your weight to try to avoid tumbleweeds. Next thing you know, you and the bike are starting to go over."
One of his better successes, he said, was an adaptation of the car racing game Pole Position. "As you're peddling, you could shift gears low to high," Leiterman said. "It was kind of cool."
As it turns out, a lot of research went into making the bike as health-conscious as possible. Leiterman said that his team consulted with doctors about the bike's design and discussed the possible effects of Carpal tunnel syndrome -- "before Carpal tunnel syndrome was really a thing." Based on that feedback, he said, the Puffer team "changed our design accordingly."
So. Why would Atari want to make an exercise bike? Leiterman had little to do with the marketing of the project. But documents collected by the Atari experts at AtariHQ give a possible clue:
"There is a whole generation of kids (and adults) out there who aren't into sports and/or don't get enough exercise. At the same time there is a huge fitness market ... we are going to hook up an exercise bike to a video game, where the bike is the controller ... we can make fitness freaks out of the kids and game players out of the keep fitters."
Another memo contained stationary exercise bike purchase data from 1981. It noted that the market was 68 percent female. "Hence, great new potential market to attack!"
A third memo showed more of the company's attempts to deal with potential carpel tunnel problems. "I have found that we needed a hand controller that was healthy, and not harmful. It must be of such design, that it must keep wrists straight, prevent repetitive gripping, and keep hands from being in odd positions." Those problems, the memo noted, were present in some of the company's joystick and paddler control models.
Leiterman, whose name appears on several of the conceptual documents in the archive, believes the materials are authentic. Atari kept meticulous archives of its projects before the company was sold in 1984, he said.
Puffer is kind of a big deal among vintage Atari enthusiasts. The bike almost came into being during the last few years before a major downturn in the video game industry. By 1982, video game consoles were in as many as 17 percent of U.S. homes. The big success for the company at the time was the Atari 2600, which sold as many as 30 million units after its launch in 1977.
Although Leiterman only recalls working on a Puffer version for the Atari 800 home computer, it was also rumored to be in the works for Atari's new video game console at the time, the 5200.
But the 5200 never took off and is now known among Atari enthusiasts as the machine that inspired a ton of prototypes that never made it to market.
By 1983, stagnant sales had devolved into a full-blown industry crisis. Remember earlier this year, when people dug up a mass landfill in Alamogordo, N.M., filled with old Atari games? The burial happened around the time of the industry collapse.
In 1984, Atari's consumer division was purchased by Commodore founder Jack Tramiel after the stocks of parent company, Warner Communications, lost about two-thirds of their value. Leiterman, like many who worked in the industry at the time, chalk up the crash to market saturation.
"The market was saturated with games, and so essentially the bottom fell out." he said. "They started closing down assembly lines."
In March of 1984, Leiterman said, he was laid off. By April, the entire research unit was gone. Tramiel bought the home computing and game console division of the company in July.
When Leiterman left Atari, he recalled recently, the Puffer prototype was more or less finished. "All we had to do was start manufacturing, and have someone in the company retrofit existing games to work with it," Leiterman said. "Three to six months, it would have been out ... probably in time for Christmas."
Update: This post has been updated to clarify details pertaining to the 1984 sale of Atari's consumer division to Jack Tramiel.