Teen-only gym: Virtual reality, real sweat

A gym called Overtime aims to entice the digital generation with virtual reality and Xbox 360 games.

By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--One of the country's first teenager-only gyms opens this week, and it's hoping to do for the inactive, plugged-in generation what Curves did for middle-aged women.

The gym, called Overtime, will have its grand opening here on Saturday, a stone's throw away from the Googleplex, a Wi-Fi-enabled Starbucks and a Gold's Gym (where the older set works out). Unlike Gold's and other adult-oriented gyms, Overtime restricts access to members ages 13 to 18. Little kids and parents must wait in the lobby.

The gym is playing on teen's love of technology and video games to encourage workouts on high-tech gear ranging from the likes of "Dance Dance Revolution" to virtual-reality bikes that make it feel as if the rider is racing around an apple orchard.

Overtime Gym

To enter the gym, teens are identified by thumbprint with a biometric reader, which calls up a photo of the member on a PC screen and then unlocks the door. Inside, there are rows of cardio machines wired to beam MTV and ESPN to individual video screens. Several high-definition flat-screen TVs hover over weight-training gear and a rock-climbing wall.

The "Flex Arcade" is where, among other offerings, kids can play a virtual-reality boxing game called "MoCap Boxing," in which they take swings at a 3D image of a trash-talking opponent. Or they can play an Xbox 360 game where they use their abdominal muscles and upper body to manipulate a player.

"If we just threw some weights down on the floor and told teens to come in, they'd say, 'Up yours,'" said Patrick Ferrell, CEO and founder of Overtime. "This is a little bit of a lab because it's the first time it's been done in the U.S."

Overtime is attempting to carve out yet another piece of the multibillion-dollar fitness market, much like Curves did for women and My Little Gym did for 2- to 8-year-olds. Its target is a portion of the population that's become much more inactive, thanks to cuts in physical education programs and an affinity for engaging in activities like playing video games and surfing the Internet.

Industry analysts say the Overtime concept may be a tough sell, given that teens are a fickle lot. But the company could be on the right track with gaming technology.

"It's an intriguing idea, it's obviously not a market that's been addressed," said R.J. Hottovy, senior research analyst at Next Generation, a financial firm based in Chicago. "It bridges the gap between a traditional arcade and health club operators," he added.

Ferrell, himself a father of three teens, conceived of the gym while coaching high school baseball and soccer. Racing some of the junior boys, he said he beat at least half of them, while the other half were huffing and puffing pretty hard. And Ferrell, admittedly, is no Lance Armstrong.

Ferrell is no newcomer to the world of technology. He founded GamePro Magazine in the late 1980s and sold it later to a larger publisher. He also co-founded early social-networking site SocialNet, and helped establish the game conference E3. He's sunk about $1 million of his own time and money, along with angel funding, into Overtime in the last two years, he said.

With the gym, Ferrell says he's combining fitness and games, while creating a private place for teens.

One piece of equipment, called the Cybex Trazer, is an interactive virtual-reality machine. A player first puts on a belt, which includes an infrared sensor that can track movements and heart rate.

"Jump Explosion" is a video game that eggs the player on to jump up to hit balls that appear on an overhead video screen. Points are scored when the virtual version of the player reaches a ball. The game ultimately encourages cardio and strength building.

"MoCap Boxing," developed by a Japanese company Konami in 2001, also combines a workout with a video game. Players put on real boxing gloves, then jab, duck and throw punches at a virtual opponent on the screen. Infrared sensors detect how the player moves in order to control the opponent's response and keep score.

Kids can then sculpt their bodies on the Exer-station Pro, otherwise known as the Kilowatt Station. The system, which is hooked up to an Xbox 360 and a high-definition TV, acts essentially like a full-body joystick so that the player, standing upright in the station, uses his abs and upper body to move a virtual player in the game.

Finally, teens can boogie by playing Roxor's "In the Groove 2" arcade game, which is like "Dance Dance Revolution" but with more music, according to Ferrell. Kids must keep their feet moving constantly to keep up with the beat and lights changing on the floor, which is wired with sensors.

"None of these games can be played without moving," said Ferrell. "It adds some fun into fitness."