Your mother always said video games and endless hours trolling the Web would turn your mind to mush, but now many Americans are hoping that their game habit and Internet attachment can actually help them get their bodies chiseled.
That's because couch potato technology is reinventing itself as the new fitness frontier. Next-generation interactive software is getting gamers off the couch and into the gym — at least virtually — while fitness professionals and enthusiasts are finding innovative ways of using the Web as a workout tool.
Gamers Getting Game?
Although gaming has traditionally been seen as an entertainment activity, a number of companies are betting that game consoles and PCs can become digital hubs for all aspects of gamers' lives. With Americans spending $14.8 billion on gym memberships in 2004, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, it's not surprising that technology companies see the fitness business as great place to start.
For example, Sony is betting that health-minded gamers will spring for its virtual physical training game "EyeToy:Kinetic," which the company released in December for its flagship Playstation 2 console.
The "EyeToy" is a tiny USB camera that plugs into the Playstation and sits atop a TV. Using high-tech motion capture technology developed in conjunction with Nike, "Kinetic" is able to recognize gamers' body positions and then guide them through a series of real-time fitness routines.
"Kinetic" has two virtual trainers, Matt and Anna, to guide gamers through 12-week training programs or just a quick 15-minute workout. Matt gives gamers a more drill sergeant-esque "feel the burn" type instruction while Anna's chipper "you go, girl" personality coaxes reluctant gamers though the routines.
Although "Kinetic" is not a replacement for one-on-one instruction, gamers will find themselves working up a surprising sweat in the game's workout regimes that are inspired by pilates, yoga, T'ai Chi and kickboxing. The "Kinetic" trainers will even bust your chops if you start using poor form when you get tired or skip a day of your training regime.
Carrie Gouskos, 26, features editor of Gamespot.com, says "virtual fitness" is challenging the way technology is involved in gamers' daily lives and is reaching out to people who might not have welcomed an Xbox 360 or Playstation 2 into their daily routines before.
"A lot of video game systems these days are trying to bring in more members of the family. They are not just focusing on the gaming demographic, which is traditionally the 17- to 35-year-old male," Gouskos said.
Despite experiencing some technical glitches with the "EyeToy" camera, Gouskos said she was impressed with the technology behind "Kintetic." However, she thinks virtual fitness may find better footing elsewhere.
"While a lot of the games in 'Kinetic' are fun — sort of — you don't really lose sight of the fact that you're working out. It looks and acts a lot like a fitness video," Gouskos said.
Instead of straight-laced physical training, Gouskos thinks that virtual fitness will be more successful when burning calories is a side effect of gaming rather than its goal. Gouskos points to the wildly popular "Dance Dance Revolution" series of games, in which gamers break a sweat while breaking it down, as a more appealing model.
In "DDR" — as aficionados call it — gamers stand on a square mat with arrows pointing up, down, left and right. The game directs players to step on the arrows in time to music. As the game progresses the tempo of the music and complexity of steps increases.
The latest iterations of the games on Xbox and Playstation 2 — "DDR Ultramix 3" and "DDR Extreme 2" respectively — allow gamers to log on to the Internet and face off with dancers from all over the world.
Even die-hard "DDR" veterans can find themselves out of breath after just one or two songs. The workout gamers get from playing "DDR" is so similar to a traditional aerobics class that West Virginia is adding it to all 765 of its public school physical education programs.
Mike Crackel, 47, says "DDR" has been a runaway hit in the high-tech physical education classes he teaches at Madison Junior High School in Naperville, Ill.
"We have kids who come to class who look forward to working out on that equipment that previously didn't look forward to working out on anything," Crackel said.
Mind, Body, Spirt ... PC?
Virtual fitness doesn't necessarily mean breaking a sweat. Unlike "Kinetic" and "DDR," the Wild Divine Project's "Journey to Wild Divine" is aimed at the alternative medicine crowd seeking a holistic approach to fitness.
"Wild Divine" is a beautifully animated adventure game that looks alot like the popular "Myst" series of games. Users connect their PCs to a so-called "Light Stone," which is in turn attached to three of the user's fingers via sensor clips. The "Light Stone" is actually a biofeedback device that measures gamers' heart rate variability and skin conductivity.
Through activities that either raise or lower these levels — like laughing or yogic breathing — gamers are able to gain energy to explore the New Age philosophy-filled fantasy world.
"Wild Divine" aims to teach gamers self-control and improve concentration. The game's sequel, "Wisdom Quest," is even narrated by Oprah-approved enlightenment guru Deepak Chopra. Chopra plays a spiritual guide named Rama who teaches transcendental lessons based on Chopra's best-seller, "The Book of Secrets." By teaching stress-reducing techniques, "Wild Divine" aims to improve its users' long-term health.
"There is no doubt that technology has started to be integrated in to medicine," said FOX News medical contributor Dr. Manny Alvarez. "In the future you're going to see more interactive devices that will help the individual get better."
Not only are more Americans getting their workouts virtually, but they're also using the Internet to plan diets and devise exercise regimens. Nutricise.com, for example, offers clients 24-hour access to registered dieticians who will personalize a meal plan. By keeping track of what they eat and which exercises they do, Nutricise's staff can offer tips and suggestions on how to optimize health through lifestyle changes. They have even been know to suggest a recipe or two.
Web technology can even breathe new like into one of the country's tens of million of neglected home fitness gadgets — or as many have come to know them: coat racks. On sites like DigitalRowing.com, crew fans from all over the globe can log on to compete in virtual races on their stationary rowing machines.
A California company, FitCentic, says its upcoming NetAthalon 2.0 system will be able to retrofit other kinds of home fitness equipment for use in online competition. It will even support VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) so you can talk to or taunt your completion.
So if you think you are the StairMaster, you might soon have a chance to prove it.
Alvarez said fitness-themed gaming can go a long way toward combating American's battle with its ever-expending collective waistline, especially for younger gamers who can learn healthy, life-long habits while having fun.
"I think it's a wonderful thing. I think it's the wave of the future," Alvarez said. "If we can improve the interactivity to improve health, I think that's great."
Alvarez said the important aspect of virtual fitness is that it puts positive messages about physical activity in a medium that teens and tweens are especially enthusiastic about.
"Technology for the new generation is part of their daily living," Alvarez said. "If we can take advantage of that ... then ultimately that generation will be much healthier than we have ever been."