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Kickboxing comes home

A French body-sensor game controller gives fight fans an active way to get their kicks, says CNET's Michael Kanellos.

French start-up XkPad has come up with a way to move mayhem off the video screen and take it into the living room.

The company's BodyPad--which could end up a big consumer electronics hit this holiday season--is a group of wearable sensors that essentially turn a person's arms and legs into a joystick for PlayStation 2 or Xbox fighting games.

Thrusting your right arm forward at shoulder height prompts your onscreen counterpart to whack his opponent in the head with a fist. Stepping forward and pushing "down" on one of the handheld directional controllers that comes with the package results in a knee kick.

XkPad founders
Photo: XkPad
XkPad co-founders Frederic Claudel
(above)and Frederic Nicolas put the
BodyPad through its paces.

"If I do this, look, I kick him (the opponent) in the head," said 29-year old Frederic Claudel, CEO of XkPad, kicking his own foot over his head. "My character might do a somersault too, but I don't need to do that."

You can play games against a computer opponent or another person. The system is also compatible with the vast majority of fighting games.

Initial sales show promise. Consumers snapped up 20,000 BodyPads--which sell for a little under $80 at the moment--in France in the first six weeks of sales, at the end of 2004. Ten thousand units got snapped up in the first two weeks of sales when released more widely in Europe, before a shortage hit. The company hopes to sell 100,000 there this year.

"Our objective is to sell 50,000 in the U.S. in 2005 and 100,000 in 2006," Claudel said. "We think that it is conceivable to hit 200,000 in the U.S. a year, in a few years."

A second product, called MagicTap, will come out at the end of the year--in Europe, at first. While BodyPad is designed for use in fighting games only, MagicTap will be a full-body controller for other games. Think sports games like driving or skiing, Claudel indicated. XkPad sells products under its own name, but also licenses the technology to companies like European console accessory maker BigBen Interactive.

Granted, the phrase "French video game" does sound like a contradiction in terms. The first thought is of titles like "The Red Balloon II--Bruno's Revenge" or "Citroen Rampage." But France, though companies like local game developer Ubisoft, accounts for 20 percent of the video game business, according to Clara Gaymard, president of the Invest in France Agency.

Besides, European technical sophistication infused with cheesy American sensibilities is often an unbeatable combination. After all, it worked for James Bond creator Ian Fleming and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The innate appeal of BodyPad is apparent to anyone who has been a 13-year-old boy. During that period of life--which can last anywhere from 18 months to 21 years--martial arts are absolutely enthralling. Unfortunately, most kids don't have the discipline or coordination to master one. Instead, they find it much more gratifying to hit each other on the head with bamboo sticks in the backyard. (I speak from personal experience here).

The BodyPad gives them an outlet that may not result in a scar. Parents, of course, need to rightly worry about destruction in the living room and other types of potential injury. Ground rules will be necessary--such as stand a few feet apart before kicking.

European technical sophistication infused with cheesy American sensibilities is often an unbeatable combination.

On the upside for adults, however, is the fact that the system could help curb the obesity epidemic, which in part can be blamed on the sedentary habit of video gaming. Claudel and co-founder Frederic Nicolas came up with the idea as a way to blend video games with their interest in Tae Kwon Do. (PowerGrid Fitness has taken a similar tack with a video game controller that sort of works like a Bowflex.)

How does BodyPad work? Four round sensors--one on each bicep and one under each knee--send a signal to a radio unit on a person's belt whenever the pressure underneath changes, and the radio unit forwards the signal to a receiver attached to the game console.

Crook your arm at 90 degrees and place your other hand on your bicep. Now straighten the arm. Did you notice how the center of the bicep comes up? The muscle's contact with the sensor trips it. (Extend your leg and you will see how the leg muscles do the same thing.)

To a PlayStation 2, that signal is the same as someone pressing a button on a joystick. Because the sensors only send a simple on/off signal when pressure gets applied, it doesn't matter how fast someone kicks or hits. It won't measure speed or force. The focus on pressure also makes the system compatible with most games.

Moving forward, back, down or up is controlled by a small, cylindrical bar.

The fact that the sensors only have to send an on/off signal additionally helps keep down the price. It costs more than a lot of game controllers, but it's not the most expensive item in the $2.5 million accessory market. Each new product only costs about $200,000 to develop. Overall, XkPad makes about $4 in royalties per unit sold from products made under license by third parties, and $4 to $10 on products it sells itself.

Ironically, the possible success of the company's products won't become an advertisement for the European IT market. Claudel is visiting the United States to raise venture capital funds so the company can move to California.