Eric Johnson

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Exclusive: Huang Brothers’ Next Project, Blue Goji, Will Layer Games on Top of Cardio Fitness

bluegoji-logoGuitar Hero co-inventors Kai and Charles Huang have already convinced millions of gamers that, with a little button-mashing, they could be rock stars, if only for a few minutes. Their latest project is about creating habits that could last a lifetime.

It’s called Blue Goji, and the idea is that exercising could become a regular habit for more people if they had fun games to distract them while they work out. The stealthy startup, founded in late 2011, will start talking about its plans this week, with Kai Huang at the helm as CEO.

Blue Goji’s goal, Huang told AllThingsD in an interview, is to “make time go faster” while people use machines like treadmills, ellipticals and exercise bikes. The company hopes to release a bundle of fitness accessories by the end of this year that will both track physical activity and let users control specialty games, designed for enhancing and rewarding exercise, on mobile devices.

Huang said Blue Goji games will be more immersive and habit-forming than other popular workout distractions such as reading, watching TV or listening to music.

Blue Goji CEO Kai Huang

Blue Goji CEO Kai Huang

“The objective is to make them so fun that you want to come back, and you want to play them, and fitness becomes a byproduct,” he said.

Blue Goji will start by making games in-house, with ambitions of becoming a platform open to outside developers as soon as possible. Huang said that, like Guitar Hero, he wants the new company’s games to create “mass appeal” — in this case, by offering potentially thousands of games that could please all audiences.

Company reps asked that I not take pictures of their accessory prototypes, but here’s what I saw when I visited Huang’s office. The different pieces came packaged in a minimalist black box, with three main components inside: A small activity tracker, which would clip to one’s clothes or slip into a pocket; the “controller,” two adjustable-width black bands, each with two buttons on them, in blue, yellow, red and green; and two lightweight “batons.”

For bikes and ellipticals, the controller bands strap onto the machines’ built-in handles, but the batons also accommodate the bands so that runners can reach all four buttons without holding on to the treadmill itself. Both the tracker and the bands communicate wirelessly with mobile devices via Bluetooth.

Of course, gamifying fitness is not an entirely new trend. Three of the wearable fitness trackers recently reviewed by AllThingsD’s Lauren Goode — the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up and Nike+ FuelBand — allow users to measure their workout progress versus that of friends and family members. And Six to Start, makers of the audio game/story hybrid Zombies, Run!, recently announced its second fitness title, a neo-noir thriller called The Walk.

Still, Blue Goji is different in a couple of ways. For one, it’s aimed only at people who either work out at a gym or who own exercise machines, because being in the same place makes it easier to focus on playing games without crashing into something. Plus, that focus is directed at a screen, so the psychological rewards of making progress are more instantaneous than those discovered after the workout is over and you’ve uploaded the results.

This melding of the healthful and the addictive is right in line with the “big idea” recently pitched to me by Ben Sawyer, organizer of the Games for Health conference. The holy grail of his genre-industry, he said, is reaching a mass audience, with documentable health benefits.

“Not to sound lame, but if we could get the Candy Crush Saga of walking games …” Sawyer mused.

And it’s certainly possible that such an addictive game (though Sawyer clarified that he’s less interested in “addiction” than in pervasive games that provide the “architecture for good habits”) could emerge if the Blue Goji platform takes off. Newly scooped-up COO Zach Fountain helped oversee the Guitar Hero franchise at Activision after the company acquired the Huangs’ first company, Red Octane, and he spent the past five years at Nintendo. In our interview, Kai Huang made sure to credit Nintendo’s Wii Fit as proof of the viability of “motion gaming” for fitness.

Blue Goji does not yet have a price point planned, but the first bundle is currently slated to come out, with iOS and Android compatibility, in time for 2013 holiday shopping.

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