Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wii Balance Board

I've been asked for a little more info on the Wii's Balance Board accessory. I guess I assumed people were familiar with the concept, so here we go...

The Balance Board is about 16" x 12",  about the size of a small bathroom scale. The footpads on the four corners double as weight sensors, so that it both notices that there is a load on it (most programs will have a calibration step involved) and the relative placement of that weight on the board spread among the four corners. Think of a joystick with X and Y axes, but instead of position of the joystick along those axes the BB registers center of mass. 

During some of the wait screens in the Wii Fit program, there is a pulsing green pixilated blob that moves around the screen as you shift your weight. 

The BB comes with four extenders for the footpads if you want to use the device on a carpet. We have a rather thick Persian carpet in our living room, which sits on installed carpet of modest thickness, and the extenders work just fine. The whole point is to get the bottom of the unit above the carpeting so that it can move up and down and register the change in center of mass.

The entire unit sits about two or three inches above the level of the floor, which is just high enough that I'll be nervous when my mother uses it, but it's fine for anyone not prone to falling over. Interestingly, the added height adds considerable tension when you play the Rope Walk balance game on Wii Fit, which is not for those with vertigo. 

Depending on the program, you might only worry about moving left or right, or just back and forth, or both axes. In We Ski, you lean forward to go faster in addition to turning. As you can imagine, with only two axes there's relatively little control you can add, at least compared to the Wiimote, which not only has buttons, but works in three dimension, as well as a fourth dimension of yaw (how much the control is twisted so that the front panel is no longer facing up). At the same time, the control is incredibly intuitive. I haven't skiied in years, and I was admittedly very bad at it, but for just skiing down a slope I felt extremely comfortable very quickly. Just like in skiing, the trick is to learn when to turn and how much, which is more difficult if you want to do moguls. 

Of course, the BB can only do so much, so in We Ski you have to do air tricks using buttons on the controller. If you sidestep up a slope, that requires hand motions, as does skating or doing other special movement. The crouch is a little more intuitive - you twist the Wiimote and nunchuk inward to pick up speed. Snowplowing uses a button as well, as does stopping (although a sufficiently sharp enough turn does the same thing). I would have liked an option to lean forward to crouch, although I think that the word "option" is important here. Interestingly, this is exactly what the Slalom Skiing balance game in Wii Fit does, and it makes the game a little harder as a result. I consider We Ski an early title, and am looking forward to what improvements a snowboard game would make. 

Snowboards and skateboards have a different foot orientation, of course. The balance board has a definite front/back orientation, with the power button in the back. I'm not sure if it works via IR or RF (line of sight or not), but Nintendo *must* have thought of this during design. I know that some elements of the Wiimote seem to be IR dependent, as the hand pointer icon on the screen disappears if I move too far back from the parallax IR sensor, but the button presses work fine even if the Wiimote is pointed up at the ceiling, for example. For a snowboarding game, you'd need to turn the BB so that your feet were oriented correctly - that, or you'd be going down the hill with your head turned 90 degrees. I have no idea how they'll handle when your feet are in a normal over-the-shoulder stance, which I know is part of operating the board when you aren't flying down a hill. With We Ski, you shift to a side view, but at those times the BB isn't providing control. 

Even though I understand that the BB isn't a professionally calibrated device like those used by physical therapists, what it does excel at is the relative position you're in. Some programs will work better if your feet are spread further apart, but the Wii Fit yoga programs are often intended to have your feet close together. There is no way the machine can know if you are doing this when both feet are on the board, of course, as there are only four sensors, but then again you are only cheating yourself.

The Wii Fit feedback is quite good. For a given exercise, a small two-d graph is shown to the side, which represents the possible center of mass distribution, and a yellow highlight zone shows you where you should be. A red dot shows where you actually are. As you do the exercise, the dot moves around on the graph, and keeping it in the yellow area will improve your score on that exercise. For example, the Sun Salutation position (fancy-schmancy touch your toes) has an oblong area oriented along the vertical axis, which corresponds to front/back balance. As such, where your weight goes front to back is much less important than your right/left balance for the exercise. For the Warrior pose, you only have one foot on the pad, but weight distribution is more important so that your knee is bent correctly, so front/back is important (and, I'm guessing, total weight), and the yellow area is a smallish circle that you want to bullseye the red dot in. 

All of which is no substitute for a real Yoga instructor, but at the same time the cost is considerably cheaper and you don't have anyone sticking their foot in your face in a crowded studio. Believe me, I've been there. Plus, unless you had a yoga studio across the street from your house, as we did for a brief time, you probably have to get in your car to get there, so your carbon footprint is probably a little less. We go green where we can. 

As for upcoming titles, I've learned not to pay too much attention to anything until it's actually out, although the fantastic luck I had in picking up a BB could easily have ended with me running around town looking for a BB had I not been at Fry's that one specific day. Games don't seem to be as much of a problem, fortunately. My problem is that if I'm waiting for a game to come out, I typically buy it that day without knowing if it's actually any good. As such, I've learned to wait until it comes out, read the reviews, and then make a buying decision. With the Wii, that's been a really good idea as so few of the games have been well received critically. I'll probably pick up the snowboarding game when it comes out now that I know about it, but probably not the skateboarding. I've tried a Tony Hawk title or two, and my wife even got me a skateboarding controller for the PS1. Having never skateboarded, the damned thing nearly killed me, which may have been the ultimate goal. We ended up giving it to a friend's kid. I'm just the wrong generation for skateboarding - it was a shortlived fad when I was in my early teens, and didn't make a comeback until I was in college, but boy has it stuck around this time. What I'm saying is that skateboarding just doesn't speak to me much. 

There's a hilarious send up of the Wii Fit package put out by Sarcastic Gamer on You Tube, well worth watching. They use the Wii promotional materials with a hilarious voice dub, it's quite good and well worth searching out online. Of course, it missed the point that Wii Fit isn't a game (although it includes games), it's an exercise program for your console. And for those who mock Yoga but have never given it a serious try, I'm here to tell you that it's a whole lot harder than it looks. We ended up getting (and I sh*t you not) a walker to help with my balance - anything that involves one foot leaving the ground that isn't involved in getting me from one physical location to another is a real challenge for me. I use it to balance my elevated knee for Tree position, for example - otherwise I simply can't maintain my balance. Let me tell you, seeing my mother at 85, and knowing that her largely excellent bone health is the product of 15 years of thinking ahead with calcium and vitamin D supplements, and seeing that balance is a huge problem for her makes me want to start working on it *now* instead of after I've tried to imitate Paul Hamm on a staircase sans the stuck landing. 

Anyway, that's my take on the BB at this point. I think it's a brilliant addition to the Wii, and more importantly, it broadens the appeal of the console in ways that I will guarantee Microsoft and Sony will begin to emulate. When you see Wii's used for physical therapy and played by seniors in retirement communities, you know that this is not your older brother's console anymore. I predict that at some point in the next decade the Wii and BB will be in MOMA's Industrial Design wing along with the original Mac, the Newton, the iPod, and the iPhone. And well it should because those designs took their historical predecessors in new directions just as the Wii is taking console gaming into new realms. 

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