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Sportwall jumps to success

By   /   Friday, July 25th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Sportwall jumps to success

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Cathi Lamberti boasts about her company’s gym more than the average chief executive.

“This is the fitness center of the future,” Lamberti said, walking into the showroom and testing center of Carpinteria-based Sportwall International, the exercise-game company she founded and heads. “It’s like a combination of a group training room and an arcade.”

Sportwall designs and builds “computer games that make you fit,” as Lamberti puts it, selling mostly to schools, parks and recreation departments, and YMCAs.

From the start the systems have won the praise of tennis legend Billie Jean King, and more recently the U.S. surgeon general commended a Boston-based fitness program in which Sportwall’s products played a key role.

The company’s flagship device is an 8-foot by 4-foot computerized wall equipped with seven flashing targets, impact sensors, a clock, a scoreboard and voice to give instructions.Within this framework, Sportwall programs interactive games that challenge players to be active if they want to win.

The walls gained favor in schools because they withstand hits from almost anything: kick balls, baseballs, tennis balls, basketballs, foam noodles, hands or medicine balls for strength training.

Sportwall installs one to eight of its units, allowing for up to 32 players – an entire class. “All we’ve done is use the time clock and scoreboard to ‘incentivize’ group play,” Lamberti said.

The company makes pro-level versions as well, training for strength, balance, speed or reaction time. “We had Shaquille O’Neal’s managers in here the other day,” Lamberti said. “They absolutely loved it.”

The systems, Lamberti said, offer cognitive benefits in addition to physical ones. To nail the shifting targets requires split-second decisions, a skill vital to nearly all professional sports.

Cross-handed games, in which the player uses the right hand to hit targets on the left and vice versa, seek to make the two sides of the brain work together better.

In addition to the Sportwall, the company builds a line of dance pads. The hardware uses the same layout popularized by the game Dance Dance Revolution, whose hardware Sportwall distributes.

The dance pads have five sensors, on which players step according to on-screen instructions. While wildly popular, Dance Dance Revolution hasn’t translated to schools and fitness clubs because it allows for only one player, takes up space and can’t be moved easily.

Sportwall’s dance pads, on the other hand, are light and communicate wirelessly. With the aid of a personal computer, instructors can link 32 of the pads together for group play.

The system features 150 songs with dance steps that start off simple, encouraging even reluctant dancers.

“Eventually you pick up more rhythm, and your dance gets more flow to it,” Lamberti said. “The most amazing thing is number of little boys who absolutely love it.”

The Nintendo Wii has given the idea of video games as exercise a major boost in recent years. Lamberti has pushed the exercise-computer-game concept since 1990, when Sportwall was founded and Nintendo was still focused on laser blasters and two-button controllers.

She welcomes the added attention and doesn’t think the Wii will cut into the market for Sportwall’s rugged systems, which cost $2,500 to $50,000.

“When something obviously has its right time, it’s going to show up in multiple places,” Lamberti said.

She added: “Nintendo has the home version, we have the commercial version. Our systems have got to handle a 300-pound person whacking on them three times a week.”

Sportwall took more than decade to come to fruition for Lamberti, a native of South Africa who describes herself as “an ex-school teacher who decided we need to have more fun in PE.”

Although Lamberti started Sportwall in 1990, it wasn’t until 1998 that tennis legend Billie Jean King saw her concept, believed in it, and helped Lamberti raise the money to mass produce it.

Sportwall started with five employees in Lamberti’s Santa Barbara garage. Her landlord kicked her out because of the noise, and she moved Sportwall to Carpinteria in 2000. The first unit shipped in 2001.

These days, Sportwall builds its units in a 13,000-square-foot factory in Carpinteria. The company employs about 85 people, up from just 26 late last year.

Sportwall has landed its products in 1,200 locations, including Carpinteria’s middle school, the Santa Barbara YMCA and more than 50 schools in Los Angeles County.

Sportwall plans a major rev-up in production in the next year.

Lamberti declined to release revenue numbers because she doesn’t want her competitors – which include industry giants such as Nautilus – to know the size of her company.

But she did say revenues had risen 300 percent over the past three years and are projected to more than quadruple by next year.

No matter how large Sportwall becomes, though, Lamberti focuses on the firm’s secret weapon: fun.

“Everything we’re doing has a really powerful science and health component,” Lamberti said, “but is a game.”

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