Innovation & Design

Wii Fit Puts the Fun in Fitness


0521_wiifit
Editor's Rating: star rating

The newest add-on for the popular Nintendo console challenges players with yoga, strength training, and aerobic exercises

Nintendo's (NTDOY) Wii strategy was conceived from the get-go to encourage a less sedentary form of gaming. Now the company is unveiling its calorie-burning coup de gr?ce, Wii Fit.

Wii Fit is Nintendo's second act to the wildly popular Wii console, which has sold nearly 10 million units in the U.S. since launching in 2006. The $90 pressure-sensitive plastic slab, released May 19, comes packaged with sophisticated exercise and fitness tracking software. It is yet another piece of hardware in the company's expanding ecosystem of unconventional gaming products related to the Wii, which also includes the Wii Wheel for racing and the Wii Zapper for shoot-'em-ups.

The brainchild of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Wii Fit is a sturdy board slightly larger than a bathroom scale, about an inch high, that communicates with the Wii console wirelessly. Players step onto the board, which senses their movements, balance, and center of gravity. Included software features dozens of activities based on strength training, aerobics, and yoga, as well as a calendar that tracks goals such as weight loss or improved flexibility. Players employ the board differently depending on the activity, standing on it to do a tree pose in yoga, for instance, or stepping on and off it for aerobics.

Interactive Elegance

As with the Wii console, players initially create avatars (or can adapt their existing avatar), entering details about age, gender, and weight, and obtaining a body mass index measurement. Wii Fit then sets some basic balancing tests to give a general indication of fitness level, indicated by your Wii Fit age. The bigger the gap between your actual age and your Wii Fit age, the less in shape you are.

Wii Fit offers two modes: more serious strength building and yoga or more casual, but still active, aerobics and simulation games. For the former, players pick from preprogrammed fitness routines or focus on individual exercises such as leg lifts or push-ups. It's also possible to create a playlist of exercises in which personal trainers??ittle-detailed 3D silhouettes??ct as guides. Alternatively, the eight simulation games let players walk a tightrope or ski jump. The number of exercises and games available grows with time and practice, a nice touch that's an incentive to keep playing.

So, can Wii Fit take the place of a gym membership? Not really. But it's a good place to start and happens to be a lot of fun. Nintendo has created another easy-to-use, stylish lifestyle device that seems to have more in common with hip gear like Apple's (AAPL) iPod than with geeky video games. It doesn't offer everything you can get in a gym, but what it does, it does elegantly. In other words, the Wii Fit's slick interface, inviting graphics, and sophisticated sensors make even the most mundane exercises enjoyable.

Room to Grow

Wii Fit's major downside is its lack of tact. The company decided, in the name of being useful, not to pull any punches. If you're overweight or obese, Wii Fit will tell you so. (Gamers 330 lb. and heavier need not apply, as that's the game's official weight limit.) But some of the game's messaging seems overly harsh. I, for one, wasn't too pleased when the Wii Fit told me my balance was "weak" and that in some poses it considers me a yoga "novice." And, forums have been abuzz in recent weeks with parents concerned the game could damage their children's self-esteem.

Some minor ego-bruising aside, Wii Fit accomplishes its mission. It may not replace your trainer, but it will allow beginners to start at their own pace and give fitness freaks yet another exercise outlet. What's more, the device is only likely to get more interesting over time. Nintendo and other major developers such as Electronic Arts (ERTS) have committed to developing more and varied games based on the technology. That means, like the Wii, it could become a platform for video game developers looking to experiment and innovate.

Ultimately, Wii Fit shines because the bar to entry??nd enjoyment??s extremely low: Almost anybody can unpack and play. Even at $90, the bundle provides good value. For the moment, at least, Sony (SNE) and Microsoft (MSFT) have nothing like it. More important, and dovetailing nicely with its mission to improve general fitness, Wii Fit can be incorporated into everyday life relatively easily?5 to 30 minutes a day is enough for a sense of accomplishment. And the software's sophistication provides an appealing experience for casual and hardcore users alike.

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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