Video Games, Put To Serious Use

The Spark, an Expresso Fitness indoor exercise bicycle with 17-inch LCD screen, movable handlebars and PC game technology software to simulate being on the open road, allowing riders to race against other users, themselves, or virtual competitors.
Expresso Fitness
Put a kid in a car for long enough and you're bound to hear the question, "Are we there yet?" Put an adult on an exercise machine and the mantra changes only slightly to "Am I done yet?"

Let's face it, elliptical machines, indoor cycles and treadmills are boring. When I'm on one of these devices, I try to make the time go away by listening to music or watching TV. When it comes to the activity itself, my only goal is to be done with it.

That's why I sometimes cut my routine a bit short. I know I should go for at least 40 minutes but I often find myself looking for an excuse to get off the machine after about 25 minutes.

That's rarely the case when I exercise outdoors. I'm almost never bored when I'm on my road bike, especially if I'm riding with a group. The scenery, the camaraderie and sometimes even a little friendly competition help make the time go by faster.

One indoor solution to workout ennui is to attend classes. But technology can also come to the rescue.

Silicon Valley-based Expresso Fitness has developed an indoor exercise bicycle with 17-inch LCD screen, movable handlebars and software to make the ride a little more fun by simulating the experience of riding on the open road.

The key to The Spark, which the company is marketing to health clubs, is software that allows the user to take a tour on any of several routes that are programmed into the machine. In addition to some great scenery and varied terrain, the software also supplies virtual bicyclists, who can be treated as either competitors or fellow riders whose progress can be used to pace yourself.

The fledgling company is still in the process of rolling out its first production models but I was able to test a mature prototype that was set up at the Supreme Court 1 Athletic Club in Sunnyvale.

The bike looks and feels pretty much like the Life Cycles you'll find at fitness centers and, by itself, the LCD screen is nothing unique. A lot of clubs these days have indoor bikes with TV and even web surfing.

What's different is the software and the interface. When you sit down on the bike, you have the option of choosing from a variety of tours, some of which will seem familiar to outdoor bicycling enthusiasts.

Novice cyclists or someone looking for an easy ride can select the mile-long "Lost Rolling Thunder" - an easy scenic loop that takes you on a tour of California history. More experienced riders might opt for the seven mile "stump puller" ride that starts with a big climb and winds up with a descent towards the ocean. Riders in very good shape might attempt the nine mile Monkey Pass or the 13 mile Temple Ridge, with steep climbs through scenic roads.

Whatever tour you select, you first set the riding strength of the pacer: a virtual cyclist wearing a yellow jersey. Once set, this other rider will appear on the screen in front of you. You can stay behind your pacer, try to keep up or, if you're up to it, you can pass him. You can also try to pass other riders on the route with you.

The bike has a movable handlebar that allows you to pass other riders but, if you're not careful, you can oversteer and wind up off the road. The programmers are kind enough not to let you crash. No matter what you do, you always wind up back on the road.

I tested the device for about a half hour and, when I was done, I was tired and sweaty but not bored. In fact, I found myself working extra hard to keep up and pass my fellow riders on various routes.

The device also lets you watch TV or listen to music from a collection that includes classic rock, rhythm and blues, dance and techno, dance club, 90s, urban, and rock ballads.

The Spark doesn't currently offer Internet access, nor does it allow you to compete with any real riders, but according to the company, those features are in the works. A spokesperson says future plans include the ability to compete with buddies at your own club or other clubs via the Internet.

With health clubs looking for ways to distinguish themselves from all the other clubs in the area, this device could be a good draw. The spokesperson said that the cost of the device - about $4,700 - is comparable to what clubs already pay for high-end fitness equipment.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid