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Originally published Monday, May 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nintendo hopes to snag new audience with Wii Fit

This week, Nintendo brings what started in the bathroom of a legendary game designer to the North American market. The Japanese company is...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Console wars

CURRENT GENERATION console sales in the U.S., through April:

Xbox 360: 10.1 million

Wii: 9.5 million

PlayStation 3: 4.2 million

Note: Xbox 360 has been on the market a year longer than the Wii or PS3.

Source: NPD Group

Wii Fit

What is it: The latest advancement in video-game controls is a weight-sensing balance board from Nintendo, packaged with fitness software.

Price: $89.99 for software and Wii Balance Board.

Availability: Broadly available in North America on Wednesday.

Source: Nintendo

This week, Nintendo brings what started in the bathroom of a legendary game designer to the North American market.

The Japanese company is hoping that the Wii Fit, a balance board and fitness program for the best-selling Wii console, once again changes the way people interact with video games.The hardware and software package, to be released in North America on Wednesday, takes players through a series of exercises including yoga and aerobics. It measures body mass index and helps people set and track fitness goals.

Analysts expect the peripheral device to further accelerate sales of the Wii, which, until recently, has remained hard to find on U.S. store shelves a year and a half after its debut. Through April, the console had sold 9.5 million units here, nearly as many as Microsoft's Xbox 360, despite hitting the market a year later.

The Wii has succeeded in drawing a new audience into video games. Rather than a controller crowded with buttons, triggers and sticks, the Wii introduced a slim, simple, motion-sensing remote control and games like tennis and bowling that gained favor on cruise ships and at senior centers, as well as with traditional gamers.

"I see Wii Fit as being mostly targeted to the nontraditional gaming audience," Anita Frazier, video-games analyst with the NPD Group, said in an e-mail. "Part of the success of the Wii has been its ability to bring the whole family together to try out gaming, and this is a way to keep some of those that have tried the Wii interested in continuing to use it in a unique way."

The Wii Fit has its origins in the bathroom of famed Nintendo executive and game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who is revered as a genius by the Nintendo faithful. He created Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda.

"Wii Fit is actually something that existed in the center of Mr. Miyamoto's brain as a concept for the Wii before the console was released," Takao Sawano, deputy general manager in Nintendo's Entertainment Analysis & Development group, told a rapt audience of game developers at a San Francisco conference earlier this year.

Sawano, speaking through an interpreter, said Miyamoto told the team that he has fun weighing himself regularly and tracking his weight over time, "so this is bound to lead to something interesting."

This was before the Wii was released, before its natural user interface had been praised by the likes of Bill Gates and millions of people new to video games.

Creating health feature

Sawano received the assignment to take Miyamoto's daily weigh-ins and create a health feature for the Wii. Starting with the bathroom-scale concept, he and his team set out to design a package of hardware and software aimed at fitness. He acknowledged being skeptical at first.

He started with the scale, with a goal of keeping costs as low as possible. A hallmark of Nintendo's products, particularly relative to the other current-generation consoles, is their low price. Wii Fit, including the balance board and software, retails for $89.99.

Traditional bathroom-scale makers couldn't come up with a prototype that met the requirements. Over the course of several weeks, Sawano fretted as he tried other technologies — a rotary encoder that was part of an earlier Nintendo console controller, for example.

Nothing worked.

Inspiration finally struck in the form of a 330-pound sumo wrestler.

Heavy idea

Sawano said wrestlers in Japan's national sport are typically too heavy to weigh in on a single scale. They use two scales, with one foot on each.

Now, instead of just being used to track weight, the device he was building could be refined to sense weight shifts from one foot to the other, expanding the movement-based game control Nintendo was after with the Wii remote.

Sawano began to see the potential of the balance board as a controller.

An early prototype consisted essentially of two scales side by side with a rotary encoder from the N64 game control thumb stick in the center to detect weight, Sawano said.

The software team made several simple games controlled by shifting weight from left to right.

Then Sawano began experimenting with modifications to detect forward-and-backward weight shifts, too.

In addition to cost concerns, members of the team had to build a durable controller that could stand up to physical use. They tried to limit the complexity and keep mechanical parts to a minimum.

They settled on using four strain gauges to detect weight shifts in each direction — front, back, left and right. Sawano said this increased the cost, but the team agreed that it made for a superior controller.

From here, formal development work began. They changed the shape from square, like the bathroom scale originally envisioned, to rectangular, allowing a wider stance and more realistic feel for activities such as snowboarding.

But there were constant trade-offs, including making it large enough to be comfortable for people with big feet, but small enough to fit in tiny Japanese living rooms, Sawano said. (Nintendo has sold more than 2 million units in Japan since it launched there in December.)

To save costs, Sawano said the team intended to use the Wii remote as a means of communicating between the console and the balance board. That clunky solution was dropped, and the board got its own power button and Bluetooth link.

Tracking progress

The fitness software to complement the board is positioned as "a tool that helps family members manage their health just by playing casually every day," Sawano said.

Players create a profile and weigh in. The software measures their body mass index, tests for balance and helps set goals.

Wii Fit tracks progress and compares results with other players sharing the console.

The training portion of the software includes 15 yoga poses, 15 strength-training activities, nine aerobics activities and nine balance games.

It also allows a player to continue a Wii Fit aerobics routine while watching TV. Instructions come through the speaker on the Wii remote.

The software gives instruction and provides feedback — evaluating a player's performance through the sensitivity of the balance board. It can detect weight shifts to the tens of grams, recognizing when you're flailing an arm to try to hold that tree pose.

In one demonstration, a "trainer" gives encouragement. "Hey, your muscles won't train themselves, you know," the trainer says in a British accent.

Teams at Nintendo of America in Redmond localized the North American version of the software with different accents and phrases. For example, players earn credits for time spent exercising. These can be used to unlock other activities and are stored in the "Fit Piggy" in the U.K. version of the game. That was changed to Fit Bank in the U.S.

"We Ski"

Game developers are putting the Wii Balance Board to use in other games, such as "We Ski" from Namco Bandai. In it, a player holds the Wii remote and nunchuck as they act as ski poles.

"Namco has done a remarkable job at making the game feel like a natural ski experience," Robert Workman, wrote in a Game Daily preview. "[The board] adds a dynamic new feeling to 'We Ski,' as you can actually lean into your turns with the board's support."

Sawano said the Balance Board "could dramatically change the way we think about game control."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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