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As someone who turned into a gooey sack of shit throughout the pandemic, I’m not exactly a leading voice in the fitness industry. I used to do Muay Thai and train with weights three times a week, but I have about as much energy as a supermarket home-brand AAA battery these days, and I’m as motivated as a stoner post-Cheeto binge.

Still, during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I went to a hotel room, sat on a bed, and watched someone else sweat it out on a new gaming and fitness invention. No one can ever say I don’t bleed for my art. (Disclaimer: I did play for about five minutes, but I didn’t want to add to the general musk of a conference filled with gamers so I tapped out at the first sign of sweat).

Quell is a new gadget that uses motion sensors and resistance bands to pull your movements into a range of video games and give you a full workout as you play. The game I saw, Shardfall, is the first of many, featuring a post-apocalyptic world you sprint through in first-person by running on the spot, before punching the crap out of robotic bad guys, blocking their punches, and jumping over their sweeps.

A look at the Quell harness, which comes in various sizes. I went Big Boy Mode. 

A look at the Quell harness, which comes in various sizes. I went Big Boy Mode. 

It’s simple to set up, with an adjustable belt that goes around your waist, resistance bands that clip onto the harness, and Wii nunchuck-style remote controls attached to the end of the bands.

You can get a similar experience in VR, but Quell allows for more intensity, and without a bulky headset soaking up all your exercise juice. Ring Fit is another competitor, but that’s essentially a list of exercises for you to tick off, whereas Shardfall just plonks obstacles in front of you and lets you go completely ham.

The idea is, you’ll still do squats, resistance exercises, tuck jumps, and run, but you’ll be so immersed in the experience that you don’t realize you’re doing it. Fitness is a byproduct of the game, instead of being the game itself. That’s why I always enjoyed Thai boxing – it’s brutal, but you’re too busy thinking about not getting your head kicked off to care. Bliss.

It’s an elegant solution to the fitness problem for people who find exercise boring, but it didn’t start out this way – Shardfall is the mid-point of years of iteration. Speaking to Quell CEO Cameron Brookhouse, I can’t help but laugh when he tells me the first prototype was a punchbag that you slotted your phone into. We’ve all wanted to punch our phones at some point, but it wouldn’t take much testing to see the flaws in this plan.

See this jump? This is where I took it off and saved my peers from me being a stinky little git. 

See this jump? This is where I took it off and saved my peers from me being a stinky little git. 

“In the early days, when we were literally cobbling it together with soldering irons and sewing machines in my living room, we had more than a few explosions and things snapping across the room,” Brookhouse laughs. “Now we're obviously working with professional company insurance so it's all been through rigorous QC and we know that it can withstand way more than the loads that we would expect it to.”

It does seem robust. It shrugs off shadowboxing haymakers with ease, and transfers that power onto the screen, giving you a more powerful punch against the enemy based on the effort you put into it. The only issue I had was with some faster combinations not registering all the punches, but there’s still time to iron that stuff out before the end of the year.

When you’re running between fights, it reminds me of a first-person Sonic game, speeding you across the landscape when you hit the perfect cadence, changing your direction with the triggers on the controls. It’s designed to give you a full high-intensity interval workout, pacing exercises between fast and slow to get the heart rate up and bring it back down again. The game itself is a roguelite, which is basically a digital HiiT workout anyway.

The kit looks and feels premium, which is definitely better than punching your phone. 

The kit looks and feels premium, which is definitely better than punching your phone. 

The rewards for doing this – outside of, you know, reverting all that COVID cushion – are cosmetics, new enemies, and new biomes to explore. Keep progressing through the game and you’ll get meatier gauntlets, giving you a sense of how far you’ve come. It’s a fun time.

Not only is Quell backed by experts from across the gaming sphere, but it has people from the fitness world working on it, too. The person demoing Shardfall for me is Maia Gummer, Quell’s Fitness Lead, who comes from a background in space physiology, helping astronauts train for working and living in low-gravity environments.

It’s refreshing to see something like Quell at a conference filled with startups all chasing the same trends. There was no escaping NFTs, blockchain gaming, and other gimmicks at GDC. Stands and stands of glassy-eyed spokespeople attempting to hawk their snake oil to anyone who will listen. To find this little hotel room away from the noise, filled with people who believe in the thing they’re creating, felt like coming across an oasis in the middle of the desert. Whether it will be a success or not remains to be seen, but the Collector’s Edition of Quell is available now to pre-order on the website if you’re keen.