The Wii Balance Board Story

By: Martin Graf

It's now been just over a month since Wii Fit was launched in the United States and although response to the game has been mixed, overall it has been a huge success, showing once again why Nintendo continues to lead the video games market. In the run-up to the launch of Wii Fit, the Nintendo marketing machine went into overdrive and the buzz surrounding the game was phenomenal but what many people seemed to miss was the real innovation behind the game, namely the Wii Balance Board.

Described by some as a glorified bathroom scale, this amazing peripheral is as revolutionary as the Wii Remote was when it was first launched, and like the Wii Remote, it will have Microsoft and Sony playing catch-up as they try to bring the same functionality to their consoles. When the excitement of Wii Fit dies down, it will be the Wii Balance Board that's remembered as the device that took gaming to the next level.

But there's quite a story behind this seemingly simple piece of kit which took months to develop and went through numerous prototypes of various shapes and sizes before it became the slim white board that's found itself at home in living rooms the world over.

A Scale For Miyamoto-san

Before you can understand the thinking behind the balance board you need to take a step back to understand the original vision that resulted in the need for such a peripheral. That vision was thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's Senior Managing Director.

As the driving force behind games such as Pikmin and Nintendogs, Shigeru developed a reputation for creating games based on his personal hobbies. Wii Fit is no exception as the original concept for the game came from his interest in weighing himself and recording his weight on a daily basis. This led to the start of a project called 'Health Pack' which was later to become Wii Fit.

From the onset, the challenge was how to take something as simple as weighing yourself, something he enjoyed but many would see as mundane, and turn it into an activity that could be fun for the whole family. This proved to be a major challenge for the development team which, at one point, was on the verge of being broken up.

Two Scales Are Better That One

Progress on the game was slow until one of the developers brought in two scales after seeing how Sumo wrestlers have to use two scales to weigh themselves and the team suddenly realised that it was quite fun trying to balance evenly on both of them. It was at this point that measuring balance became the central theme of Wii Fit and the team started to consider using balancing exercises as a means of keeping fit.

Initial talks with scale manufacturers received little support and the team soon realised that they would have to develop their own device. It would also have to be more functional than an ordinary scale and so the idea developed of it measuring balance on four points. At this stage the team started to realise that it could be more than just a scale but actually a game interface.

Circles, Squares And Octagons

Once the overall concept of the balance board had been decided and that it would contain four sensors, work began on figuring out the optimum shape and size of the board together with the way it communicated with the Wii console. This proved to be a long process of trial and error and a constant battle between cost and usability.

Initial prototypes of the board were circular, and then square and even at one point octagonal but it soon became apparent that these shapes were impractical especially when considering exercises like push-ups. Once again, the solution came from Miyamoto who realised that a person's natural stance before training was to stand with their feet at about shoulder width apart so it was decided that the board would become more rectangular.

The second major challenge was deciding how the balance board would communicate with the Wii console. Initially, to keep costs down it was decided that the balance board would actually connect to the Wii Remote but that was soon seen as too much of a pain and the idea dropped. Eventually it was decided to rebuild the Wii Remote's wireless component from scratch to create a wireless module that could be built into the board itself.

Once these two major obstacles had been overcome it then became a process of fine-tuning the design, making sure that the board was strong enough to stand on and that it was safe to use. The end result was the revolutionary new peripheral that we see today.

What's Next For The Wii Balance Board?

Several members of the Wii Balance Board development team admitted that at first, they never really understood Shigeru Miyamoto's vision for such a device. But as the board took shape they began to see it as more than just an accessory that could weigh players. Even before Wii Fit was launched globally there was talk internally of possible Wiiware titles and even the possibility of a balance board version of Nintendo 1080? Snowboarding.

Fortunately for balance board fans, developers like Namco, EA Sports and Ubisoft have already committed to releasing exciting new titles in 2008. In fact, Namco's We Ski was already available with the launch of Wii Fit. Games like EA Skate It and Shaun White Snowboarding have been confirmed and more games are in the works. One thing is for sure and that is that Nintendo's latest innovation, the Wii Balance Board, has a bright future.

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