Up Against the Wall

Where computer gameplay and excercise coincide.

Gamers sometimes get the reputation of being couch potatoes because they sit around all day playing. But if you spend all day playing with the Sports-PC interactive backboard, you are more likely to end up looking like Kevin Sorbo than Bill Gates.

The Sports-PC wall is another example of computer games making inroads into areas they have stayed traditionally away from, including the local gym. The Sports-PC wall is an interactive backboard that challenges players to hit targets as they light up. But instead of a game gun, players use an actual racket and ball. In this manner players gain skill, have fun and get a great workout.

We bounced a few questions off of Cathi Lamberti of Sportwall International, the makers of Sport-PC, about upgrading the traditional backboard, the importance of entertaining users with any task and how they found a niche market with so much potential.

Sportwall International – http://www.sportwall.com

GiN: Can you start off by just telling us a little bit about your company?

Lamberti: Sportwall has been in business for 11 years, making a wide variety of non-computerized backboards for the tennis industry. It came to our attention that the consumer needed something more interactive and entertaining than the standard backboard. It was time to take the backboard out of the 70s and get with the times. That's just what we did when we created Sports-PC.

GiN: Your latest product is called the Sports-PC interactive backboard. Can you tell us what exactly is an interactive backboard?

Lamberti: An interactive backboard is a ball rebound wall that is loaded with electronic sensors to determine the point of ball impact, lighted targets, time clocks and scoreboards to one or two players/teams. The Sports-PC interactive backboard plays computer games that involves the whole body to play. You score points by using a ball to hit electronic lighted targets. The more efficiently you capture the targets in the time allotted, the more points you score. This interactive backboard uses computerized games to develop the central nervous system for physical coordination and high performance sports.

GiN: Is the unit small enough to fit into someone's house, or are we talking about mostly being used by gyms and places with racquetball and tennis courts?

Lamberti: You can fit the smallest unit into a basement or on the driveway of someone's home. The smallest unit-a 2 panel unit-is eight feet high, and requires 25 feet x 10 feet wide of playing space.

GiN: Along those lines, who exactly is the market for this product?

Lamberti: In the public sector, we are targeting parks and recreational centers, YMCAs, military, schools and colleges. In the private sector, we are targeting clubs, resorts and private residences of people with incomes above $100,000. Many corporations are buying systems and donating them to inner city programs as well. The Sports-PC is doing very well in the corporate sponsorship end of the market. Companies buy them, donate them to inner city programs and get recognition by putting their logos on the system. This ensures a flow of systems to sectors of the market that can't afford them.

GiN: Are there plans to make backboard walls for other sports?

Lamberti: We are in the process of making a "Cross-Trainer" system, which will incorporate all sports. The current Sports-PC is a multi-sport system; however, the Cross-Trainer will be better equipped to train players in all sports because the Cross-Trainer will have targets located on the lower part of the panel. The Cross-Trainer will be available before year's end, 2001.

GiN: You have made other backboard products in the past. How much of a difference was it between those products and the Sports-PC backboard?

Lamberti: In order for the Sports-PC to function properly, it must be well structured as a standard ball-rebound backboard. Most of the research used in producing that product went into making sure that the ball performance was as close to natural as possible. All of the backboards we've made have that technology. Where the Sports-PC differs is that we added electronic technology. All of our backboards, computerized and non-computerized, are focused on true ball performance that is quiet and performs as close to natural as possible.

GiN: How much of a game is the backboard? What types of game-like activities can you play with it?

Lamberti: There are 20 different games available on the Sports-PC. They include:

Lights Out, which is a ball control game, in which you have to hit the lights with the ball in order to earn points;

Chase the Panel, which is a game focusing on reaction time and ball placement, in which you have to hit the randomly lighted panel;

Chase the Target, which is a game focusing on competitive response and ball placement, in which you have to hit the randomly lighted target. The faster the time taken to put the target out the more points you earn;

Racquet Wall, which is a strategy game, like single-walled racquetball, complete with automatic scoring;

Tic Tac Toe, which focuses on ball placement and strategy, is a two-player game where players try to get three X's or O's in a row before the other player

Enter the Zone, which teaches players how to get into "the zone." It is more of a meditative drill that brings forth all of the skills required to get in the zone;

Rattle the Panel, a game for beginners, which focuses on consistency, where players get points for hitting the ball above the white line and lose points for hitting below the line;

Volleywall, which focuses on high speed volleying, in which players have to hit a randomly lit target at eye level;

GiN: How do you keep the games interesting?

Lamberti: The games get interesting because you are on a time clock. A score needs to be achieved within a certain time. You can set the time yourself, but once the time is set, all players are competing for scores within that same time period. The score achieved is relative to the time it took you to rack up points. This makes the game exciting because you are fighting for time.

GiN: Have you had any athletes test the backboard? What was their reaction in terms of both the level of fun and the value of the training received from the backboard?

Lamberti: Yes, we have had several athletes test the backboard:

When Billie Jean King tested the backboard, she just screamed and said that this product is an absolute must. In her exact words, "We should put a Sports-PC in every public park, school and athletic facility. It’s a great way to get today’s young computer game players off the couch and exercising again. Believe me when I say you’ve never experienced anything like this before. The Sports-PC is truly a blast."

Jim Connor tested the Sports-PC and compared it to the backboards of the ’60s and ’70s. He commented that in the '60s, kids played against a garage door and as a result, the US produced lots of world-class tennis players. In the ’70s, we lost the backboard to the ball machine and tennis declined. The Sports-PC has the elements required to capture today's kids and get them using a backboard again. He believes that this product should produce more champions.

Peter Burwash, the owner of Burwash Intl.-which manages over 100 of the world's top tennis resorts-endorses the product. He gave me five years of mentorship in coaching me how to bring the product to the market.

Jack Kramer drove to Santa Barbara to meet with me and personally coached me how to do bring the product to market.

GiN: Computer games, in general, have started to become mainstream. Do you think the fact that people of all ages are used to game-like technology will help your product find acceptance?

Lamberti: Absolutely! There are two kinds of consumers that play with the Sports-PC: the adults who have never played a computer game and people who are very familiar with computer games. The adults who have never played before have difficulty even understanding what the scoreboards or time clocks are doing, but they enjoy the system, when they get it.

As for the latter group, they take to the Sports-PC like a duck to water. They understand the technology instantly. They engage themselves and get hooked. We just transferred the elements of computer games to a full-body workout. Anyone can enjoy this kind of technology!

GiN: This is certainly a niche market that you are filling. Do you have any future plans to enhance the Sports-PC backboard or to make other similar, or not so similar, products?

Lamberti: We have a two to three year roll-out plan. Our base system, the Sports-PC, has been released. We are in the midst of developing and producing many more incredibly exciting enhancements that are internet friendly so that there can be competition between systems over the Internet and home systems, which will be appropriately priced for middle-class, middle-income households. Furthermore, these systems will only require small playing areas. Future enhancements include full voice animation, connectivity to a PC for statistically tracking performance and pay for play by credit and ATM card.

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