AR rocks, as climbing gyms become real-life video games

Rock climbing comes to grips with augmented reality, the tech that helped make Pokemon Go a sensation.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
5 min read
Woman scaling a wall in a rock climbing gym.
Enlarge Image
Woman scaling a wall in a rock climbing gym.

With augmented reality, denizens of the rock-climbing gym can star in their own video game.

Mark Licea/CNET

As I clung to holds mounted on the climbing wall, the energy drained from my arms. Sweat threatening to flood my eyes, I peered at the gray padded floor 10 feet down.

This wasn't your usual day at the original Brooklyn Boulders gym. Yes, I spent the afternoon scrambling up and down its walls, but it wasn't just for the satisfaction of the climb. Instead, I was racing to tap digital checkpoints projected on the wall.

Think of it as a real-life video game -- one at which I happen to suck.

It's called augmented reality rock climbing, and it's popping up in gyms around the world. It's an extreme twist on AR, a technology that slaps digital overlays onto the real world to enhance what's in front of you.

Watch this: Rock climbing gets a tech twist with augmented reality

In the past year, AR games have surged in popularity, thanks to the megapopular Pokemon Go, which uses your phone's camera and GPS setup to unleash Pikachus, Magikarps and other critters in front of houses and on street corners for you to catch. The game, which broke $1 billion in revenue just seven months after its release, showed the world just what AR is and what it can do. Even before Pokemon Go, AR had enriched the experience of playing horror games, Dungeons and Dragons-style board games and, yep, porn.

In my case, AR simply made rock climbing even harder. It feels like a video game, but your body is the controller. There are no headsets to wear, no buttons to press, no performance lag to blame -- except yours.

It took me 35 seconds to tap all five points. Then I watched someone clear the course in less than a tenth of that time.

(Augmented) reality check

Augmented reality rock climbing is the brainchild of Boston-based startup Randori, which worked with Brooklyn Boulders' Boston location to launch the first game in October 2015.

The setup is easy; you just need a laptop to run the program, a webcam to capture the climber and a projector for the checkpoints. Because it's digital, you can drag and drop the checkpoints anywhere, and move them around based on the difficulty setting. The webcam watches the climber and registers when people "tap" a checkpoint by passing any part of their body over it.

The Brooklyn Boulders in Brooklyn had its first augmented reality climbing event in the borough on January 29. The event was supposed to be 10 rounds during a three-hour block, but the AR climbing was so challenging they cut it short.

"After an hour, everyone was so exhausted they had to do only five rounds," Brandon Mercer, Brooklyn Boulders' events and marketing coordinator said.

The technology provides a more nimble way for climbing gyms to shake things up. It takes time to change a course, which includes a week for planning and another day to actually rearrange the holds. With Randori's digital climbing, adjusting the course took just a few seconds.

"It's easy to change up your route, just because you're only moving pixels," Mercer said. The game is now played by climbers in New Zealand, Japan and China.

That customizable nature also means different kinds of games are available. The most popular mode is Time Trial, but Randori also offers Hex -- imagine "the floor is lava," except with vertical rocks sticking up that you can't touch -- and Hold Chaser, in which a ghost chases you around the climbing wall, like in Pac-Man.

The climbers at Brooklyn Boulders told me Hold Chaser was difficult to win. "This is an insane mash of what I used to play in arcades, and climbing," Mercer said.

The author tries out the technology at the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym.
Enlarge Image
The author tries out the technology at the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym.

As you can tell from the time projected on the wall, I'm not good at rock climbing.

Mark Licea/CNET

Easy mode

During Brooklyn Boulders' first competition in January, most climbers were exhausted after an hour of playing. Climbing typically involves patience, taking your time to figure out the best route without falling. But turning it into a game adds a new rush.

"Once you're on the wall, you gotta go fast, and I think that's something that climbers aren't used to," said Jon Cheng, who started Randori.

Rock climbing is already more difficult than it looks. It's also more mental than it is physical, because figuring out the right technique and finding the fastest path are more important than grip strength.

Now add an inexperienced climber (me). It felt like being in a race to solve a Rubik's Cube, followed by 10 push-ups with each turn.

But thanks to the digital part of it, I went from chump to champion with a few clicks of the mouse. After the organizers dropped the checkpoints by about 3 feet, I finished the course with my personal best: 5.5 seconds.

For this month's AR climbing event, Brooklyn Boulders is considering a handicap system so climbers of every skill level can join in the fun. (Sign me up for the baby league, please!)

The organizers at the Mesa Rim climbing gym in San Diego used Randori Climbing for the first time last summer, but they're not sure AR climbing is headed for the mainstream. Though climbers at the gym liked the high-tech twist, the organizers wanted to make sure AR would really add value to the experience, said Mesa Rim spokeswoman Bree Hopper.

"If AR can help people connect to themselves and each other, we'll definitely find a place for it in some of our facilities," Hopper said in an email. "If we feel that the technology interferes with their ability to make meaningful connections, we'll probably only use it on request for private parties."

Cheng doesn't see his game becoming the new craze for contests -- just as an add-on to what climbers already love.

"We have a lot of recreational climbers who have a lot of fun with it because they don't see it as a climbing competition," Cheng said. "We're using technology to change the way that you climb."

It was actually pretty fun, once I got feeling back in my arms.

First published Feb. 15, 8 a.m. ET.
Update, 3:15 p.m. ET: Adds background and quote from Mercer.

Batteries Not Included: The CNET team shares experiences that remind us why tech stuff is cool.

It's Complicated: This is dating in the age of apps. Having fun yet? These stories get to the heart of the matter.