26  July 2021, by Maximilian Gaub

The exergaming fitness trend: boosting motivation with games and competition

What role can a mix of exercise and gaming play in fitness studios in future? A discussion of target groups, user behaviour – and the impact of power users. 

© Icaros

Johannes Scholl is one of the founders of ‘Icaros’, a company whose products combine training with elements of game-playing. 

A few years ago, Icaros’ founder Scholl told Wirtschaftswoche that he wanted to “create something for the people who think that the equipment in conventional fitness centres is boring.” The product that he and his partner Michael Schmidt had created combines dynamic planking with a VR experience: users lie face-down on a device that allows them to balance in any direction – so that they can use their muscles to control a variety of virtual experiences, including flights and diving expeditions. 


Recently the company expanded its product portfolio with the addition of an inflatable fitness device known as the Cloud, which looks like a round surfboard with a slight bulge. The concept behind its use remains the same: by performing various balancing exercises, trainees are able to play games or do sports training. These devices were primarily found in gyms and hotels – even after the device’s creators launched the first models designed for home use in 2018. Following a year of the coronavirus crisis, however, private households now account for fully half of these devices. Johannes Scholl: “Now we want to be the home trainer of the 21st century.” 


How does this mixture of exercise and games work?

Scholl: In our case, we started out with humanity’s long-standing dream of flight. We create an experience that does not exist in the real world. We have also seen that competition is fun, and it is a great source of motivation. No matter why people choose to do sports, they share an urge to outdo themselves. The result: binge training – or binge gaming – and the belief that “Next time I’ll do even better.” Our experience has shown us that the ideal length of an exercise is about two minutes – this leads users to repeat the exercises significantly more frequently than they believe or realise. 

Who are the typical users of your products?

Scholl: The classic ‘Icaros’ with its futuristic design is more likely to be used by men aged 30 and up with an affinity for design, technology and sports. Demand has been driven by two groups: those who are active in gaming and want to do more sport, and people who are already fitness fans but are interested in this new type of training as a way to improve their coordination and core stability. With the Cloud, 50 percent of our users are women, and the entire family gets involved. Everyone uses the Cloud differently: fathers do HIIT, mothers do yoga, and children like to ride virtual dragons.    

Early exergamers: Johannes Scholl established Icaros in 2015 with his colleague Michael Schmidt to create mixed reality products    © Icaros 


A powerful balancing act: Icaros combines a virtual experience with dynamic core training  @ Icaros

What role can exergames play in fitness studios?

Scholl: They can be used to attract team sport enthusiasts and as a means of generating customer loyalty. Lots of people in gyms train alone, with some taking courses, including in groups. Otherwise, fitness studios have not generally been seen as places for team sports. Our virtual races, on the other hand, allow trainees the chance to join together and compete against one another and really take flight. We have noticed that top ‘pilots’ entice more people to start using these devices. Wherever there is a successful user, three or four new users generally appear. These role models’ enthusiasm for the product is contagious. They are multipliers – and that is also the case in global fitness chains. We even give pilots from different gyms the opportunity to test their skill against one another. 


These pilots compete in ‘Icarace’, a league that has been established explicitly for your core product and which already counts over 500 pilots in its ranks. What does a competition like this offer from a business perspective?

Scholl: It allows us to interact closely with customers. Clusters are formed: every ‘Icarace’ user is a lead user – and they are very valuable. Lead users attract new users. They have a better command of our equipment then we do, and they foster the creation of a high-quality global network. That is why ‘Icarace’ can be played free of charge. This elite community is growing slowly, but continuously, and its members are almost like family to us. 

With the newest versions of your equipment, a smartphone is often all it takes to create a virtual experience. How are gyms benefiting from this development?

Scholl: Trainees have their user profiles on their smartphones, so they are available at all times. That means that I can start my training at home and continue it wherever I find another Icaros system. It is a great way to maintain ties with the customer. People can check our website or go on social media to see which hotels and gyms feature our equipment. If my fitness studio has one or two Clouds, for example, I can use these to approach users. This gives me an opportunity to ‘trigger’ them – for instance with a push notification: “Your record has been broken.” These offers expand reach. The use of own hardware also has practical benefits: studio operators can offer high-tech fitness without having to purchase expensive or sensitive electronic equipment.


Where do you think the exergaming market is headed? 

Scholl: Over the past year, a lot of people have gone out and acquired home fitness equipment or new apps. I believe that if we are going to maintain their enthusiasm for coming to the gym or get them to return, we will have to offer them more than barbells and courses. There has to be a unique fitness experience that is worth the trip in every respect. Technology can be beneficial here if it is not intrusive, but instead serves to make training more effective, entertaining or sustainable. With everyone leading data-driven lives, digitalisation that expands the product experience will increasingly come to be a matter of course. Conventional weightlifting will continue to exist 100 years from now, but there will certainly be new digital and technological components. 

Muscular play: The ICAROS Cloud combines fitness training with (smartphone) technology  © Icaros 


About the ‘FitTech Radar’ series

Technology is increasingly extending its tentacles into the world of fitness and health. What tech trends can we look forward to in coming months? In this monthly series, the people behind our partners at FitTech Summit share their insights into the future world of fitness and health technologies. 

About the author Maximilian Gaub

He is the co-founder and CCO of FitTech Summit, which is based in Munich. The conference and network platform focuses on fitness technology and the future of well-being and active lifestyles. In his words: “We establish links between market participants and provide support – you could say we’re the dating agency for the world of fitness technology.”