A High-Tech Climbing Wall for the Seriously Competitive
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a workout that compels you to work harder.
By Zara Stone
Any indoor climber, amateur or seasoned, knows the adrenaline boost that floods your system when you get close to the top of the wall. Gritting your teeth, you pull yourself up, hand by hand, palms chalky and red, wedging your feet into awkwardly sized crevices, reaching the summit by sheer force of will — and a dash of upper-arm strength. You’re triumphant at the peak.
What could make this experience better? Seeing your high score, based on your personal climbing prowess, blazed across a wall. Aranea is a climbing gym in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, that has outfitted its walls with high-tech sensors that add competitive scoring to climbing workouts.
The place is massive, attracting 50,000 climbers on average per year.
This “Climbing Challenge” concept was dreamed up by Aranea manager Pascal Parodi, who’d noticed how climbers would carry notebooks and record their achievements after each session. Figuring there should be a more efficient — and fun — way to do this, he approached researchers at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Researcher Adrian Moser took up the challenge, combining radio-frequency identification wall sensors with a connected wristband that monitors a climber’s position relative to the wall, tracking their speed and style. It’s a novel way of gamifying indoor climbing — when competitive climbers can compare scores on touch screens, they feel compelled to up their game. “[Climbers] are more courageous,” says Parodi via email. “They try harder to get to the top.”
This isn’t the first climbing wall to get a high-tech makeover. Many have tried to modernize the sport, adding a dash of internet connectivity to those chalky palms and death-defying ropes. At Dartmouth College, indoor climbing walls have been 3D printed to mimic natural crevices and German creative agency We Are Fluid designed a climbing wall that doubles as an art installation, with glowing geometric cutouts for handholds. But these innovations are still prototypes. In 2016, Aranea became the first-ever gamified climbing gym, outfitting eight of their 210 climbing routes with high-tech sensors (there are 202 standard routes, including 35 outdoor climbs). The place is massive, attracting 50,000 climbers an average per year.
In efforts to make the Climbing Challenge appeal to all ages, the gym stylized the different routes; the “smiley track” features sensors with bright yellow emoticon faces, complete with blinking eyes and thumbs up, while another route features holds that rotate on touch, adding complexity to the climb.
A session starts at 20 euros ($23) for adults. So far, though, kids are the biggest fans of the gamified walls. “We almost doubled the children’s entry,” Parodi says. “More children want to go climbing for fun on a rainy day — and they don’t want to take a long climbing course.” Plus, the allure of winning can supersede a fear of heights, helping people of all ages become more self-assured. “They’re proud of themselves after that,” Parodi says. “They want to come again and try to do it better!”