Nintendo's Wii console has undoubtedly revolutionised the way people play games. Forget the eye-candy high-definition visuals on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3... The motion-sensitive Wiimote controller has enticed a whole new demographic into the videogames market.
Nintendo's 'casual gaming' strategy is resonating strongly with buyers - the Wii is poised to overtake the Xbox 360 as the world's best-selling next-gen console. And Nintendo's not resting on its laurels either. At this year's E3 Expo, it revealed yet another new and unique controller - the Balance Board.
Wii Balance Board
The Wii Balance Board might look like a set of futuristic bathroom scales, but it's actually a pressure-sensitive controller. Stand on it and the Balance Board measures acute changes in your weight distribution, allowing you to control a game by leaning and moving your body in different ways.
Just as Nintendo packaged the Wii console with the superbly playable Wii Sports game, the Wii Balance Board will be sold with Wii Fit. Like Wii Sports, Wii Fit is a simple set of mini-games that encompass both fitness and party-style play.
Nintendo is yet to put a price on the Balance Board bundle, but £50 is the estimated figure (which is reasonably cheap if accurate). Although a release date is also yet to be announced (it's expected out before Christmas), tech.co.uk had an early chance to try it out.
The Wii Fit regime
The surface of the Balance Board itself is completely rigid - it doesn't move or tilt at all as you shift your weight around. It doesn't contain giant buttons either, like a PlayStation 2 dance mat. Instead, the Balance Board operates by using multiple pressure sensors housed in both sides of the board.
We emphasise 'both sides' because, as we found with one of the yoga mini games in Wii Fit, this means that the board can interpret your balance (via your weight distribution on the Board) even when you're standing on one foot.
It's extremely accurate, too. Before you start playing, a marker appears on screen to show how it is calculating your position. Even while we were trying to stand as still as possible, the board was able to highlight even the slightest twitches and shifts in balance.
The games that make up Wii Fit use the Balance Board in different ways. For fit freaks, a selection of yoga exercises task you to mimic the movements of an on-screen character. The game measures and records your balance data over a set time and scores you at the end of the session.
Not for couch potatoes...
Of course, the board doesn't directly track the position of your limbs - only your balance. So you could cheat. But the mini-game has an almost eerie ability to detect whether or not you're doing exactly what it asks based on your balance data. It demonstrated this in one post-yoga examination by informing us that we had lowered one leg before it had instructed us to, and suggested we need to exercise that leg more.
Other, more fun-orientated mini games in the Wii Fit collection include ski jumping. You crouch into a skiing position as the on-screen character shoots down a ramp, and spring up suddenly to leap from the ramp and then lean forward to get the biggest jump distance possible.
Another game has you leaning your torso left and right to make an on-screen footballer head back incoming balls. While another mini game gives you control of a tilting platform with rolling balls that you must guide into holes in the platform.
Like the Wiimote, the Balance Board makes gaming accessible to a whole new audience by mimicking real-life actions. Gaming becomes an 'active', 'physical' experience rather than a passive, couch potato session with button-heavy joypad. To be honest, the Nintendo Wii can wear you out.
The Wii revolution continues
These are the first of many more applications that will ultimately appear in Wii Fit. For example, we've already seen how a push-ups mini-game would work (you place your hands on the board instead). And, as you can imagine, anything from step aerobics or dancing will be possible.
Future titles could also use the board in different ways. We could see snowboarding games, rhythm-action dance titles or even shoot-'em-ups.
Wii Fit doesn't currently use the Wii Remote for gameplay, but imagine using a Wii Remote in your hand as a gun while leaning left and right on the Balance Board to take cover. Games could become a whole lot more immersive.
It's a brilliant idea, and its inevitable popularity will attract the attention of game developers from where these new ideas are bound to come. It will undoubtedly take time to expand the Balance Board's initially limited appeal - like racing wheels and dance mats, the Balance Board is a luxury peripheral. Nevertheless, we'll be keeping a close eye on its progress.