Exercise bikes and Mario Kart: pedalling a new way to

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Exercise definitely feels less arduous if you can imagine you are a giggling toadstool zooming along a rainbow-coloured racetrack, chucking tortoise shells at your rivals and dodging pesky pitfalls. This psychedelic-sounding scene is brought to life at Pure Fitness in Hong Kong, which is currently trialling a unique exercise bike that links real-life pedalling and steering with Nintendo’s famed Mario Kart go-kart-style racing video game series.
The smart concept was the brainchild of Pure’s digital marketing manager John Leung, known within the company as a “techspert”, who wanted to turn bike-based spinning into a fun and addictive multiplayer gaming experience. Gym-goers at the Quarry Bay branch of Pure Fitness will be able to try out the system, which launched late in October and will be dismantled in early December.
The hybrid bike/game is the latest in a series of experiments rolled out by the gym’s Innovation Lab, which allows members to test cutting-edge fitness equipment and have a say in which equipment becomes a permanent fixture at Pure gyms.
“My job is to bring the latest fitness technology for cardholders to try, and then give feedback. Three months ago, we launched a single-player VR (virtual reality) bike, but we wanted to introduce multiplayer gamification of fitness,” he says.
Leung devised a plan to hack a RealRyder bike – a machine that can rock back and forth, lean and turn like a real bike, to give a real cycling feel – rewiring it so it linked to a game of Mario Kart loaded on a Nintendo Switch console. Tilting the bike from side to side controls the game’s steering, while hitting a big red button in the middle of the handlebars releases the items your character picks up along the way.
The basic set-up means that the rider’s pedalling speed does not affect the speed of the character’s car on screen, though this was easy to forget when approaching a large jump or racing to catch up with a rival, and we found often ourselves instinctively pedalling faster.
Contrary to biking’s reputation as a cardio activity, the game is more of an intense workout for the abdominal muscles, and requires a good deal of strength to take a tight bend or swerve to avoid an oncoming hazard, such as the game’s dreaded banana peels. The evidence was clear the next day when we hobbled into work with aching abs and bruised buttocks.
Unlike conventional spinning bikes, which are immovable and static, RealRyder incorporates a tilting motion to make riders feel like they’re slaloming their way along open country roads. The company was founded in California in 2007 by CEO and inventor Colin Irving, a former professional cyclist, who wanted to make stationary cycling feel more real. Pure was the first fitness centre in Asia to introduce RealRyder classes, and claims that the bikes promote a 20 per cent increase in calorie burn compared to a stationary bike.
The gym’s ICBC Tower location in Central is also currently trialling Skillrow, an indoor rowing machine developed by the Italian company Technogym. Users can mount their smartphone on top of the machine for data display, or race with a group and see their progress visualised on a screen.
The gamification of fitness is already widespread, with countless wearable devices and apps designed to make exercise feel more like tracking and unlocking a series of tangible achievements. Though movement-based games date back to the ’80s, Japanese gaming company Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution, released in 1998, sparked a craze for dance mats, where players stand on a mat or platform and step on arrows to musical or visual cues.
Nintendo’s Wii Fit console, launched in 2007, is one of the most popular platforms in the “exergaming” genre, and uses a plug-in ‘balance board’ to check the user’s weight, core strength and aerobic ability, linked with an on-screen avatar.