OK we will be honest. This is not the only dance mat guide or dance mats review. But we think it is the most complete dance mats guide and dance mats review. So read on to find out all about home use and commercial dance mats - which include school dance mats and leisure centre dance mats as well as a system for the third age to have fun on; foam and metal dance mats; wired and wireless dance mats; DDR and PIU software; PC and Console games and software; and 4 arrow 5 arrow and 8 arrow dance mat systems.
So here it is:
The Ultimate Dance Mats Guide
Introduction with links to main topic sections
We pretty much said what we are going to be looking at above, but this introduction is explains how we have put the dance mats guide together. It is all one page so you can print the whole review out in one go should you wish, or click here and we will email you a PDF of The Dance Mats Guide . But it's a long page, so if you want to go straight to the section you are interested in we have put links (in blue italics) into the following summary.
We start by covering what dance mats are all about for those who have not yet encountered one. Then a quick look at terminology so you know what we - and others - are talking about. Then we discuss how you can assess that dance mats are a real fitness product as well as fun. The first products we look at are commercial dance mat systems. There are several suppliers and a range of different products which we have categorised as console based fully interactive, PC based fully interactive, and PC based quasi-interactive (essentially projector based dance systems). Given the price of some of these systems, it is essential to have an overview of what is available for different parts of the market such as schools, health clubs, leisure centres, youth facilities etc., to ensure that you get best value depending upon your requirements, and we do this in the market links section. We then look at home use systems covering mats and software for PC and console based systems.
What Dance Mats Are All About
Dance mats started out as an arcade game, and quickly spread to games consoles for home. Its not just kids that play, but however serious you get about dance mats, it is always fun. And that is a big attraction to the fitness industry as adults and children alike find traditional fitness equipment such as treadmills intrinsically boring.
Whatever the type of software and hardware, you will have a mat or platform divided into nine rectangles with arrows pointing outwards from the centre, for example left, right, forward, and back. The software displays a set of target arrows at the top, one for each of those on the mat. When the music starts a stream of arrows comes up the screen from the bottom, showing you which of the mat's arrows you should be stepping on. When the moving arrow hits the target line you step on the corresponding arrow on your mat. Simple!!!!! At the easier levels you have just one target at a time to hit, as you progress jumps are introduced, where you are required to step on two different arrows simultaneously. The software judges how close you are to matching the arrival of the moving arrow on the target arrow, and scores higher the nearer you are to making an exact match. Scores for each step are accumulated with the total scores given at the end. The software will have different levels of difficulty from beginner to expert, and various other features that add to the experience and fun. A word of advice: do NOT be put off to begin with if you don't get straight into it. Most people need to play a game or two to get their timing right, but usually do so quite quickly and progress on from beginner to higher levels.
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Before we look in more detail at commercial dance mats lets get the terminology and fitness issues out of the way.
Mat, pad and platform are all used interchangeably, but we prefer to use mat for the foam versions that fold up, except when talking about the whole genre of dance mat usage, platform for the solid metal and wood or plastic versions, and pad as a last resort. So if you see the term "metal mat" you know it will be a platform, and will not fold up!
DDR stands for Dance Dance Revolution, the original arcade and pc game from Konami that started it all off. PIU stands for Pump it Up, an alternative to DDR from Andamiro using a 5 arrow system, and ITG stands for In the Groove, a similar product to DDR which resulted in a successful court action by Konami against the ITG authors Roxor.
"Multiplayer" generally refers to the PC based wireless products that have been launched over the last 4 years. This can be slightly misleading as there are wired, console based systems that can accommodate up to 4 players.
A number of products have recently been launched that are labelled as active gaming or fitness gaming products, with a focus on bringing fun into fitness for all users no matter what their age. Dance mat systems are the most popular of these products. The fitness industry has looked on them with some reservation, seeing them as fun, potentially a fad and not "real" fitness products. We know that these are serious fitness products, so we put our extensive fitness and our gaming experience together and defined the fitnessgaming ratings. This consists of carefully defined sets of five criteria for fitness and five for gaming which together ensure that fitnessgaming products deliver real fitness results and are sustainable as well as true, fun gaming. For a bit more about them follow this fitnessgaming ratings link.
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Commercial Dance Mats
This section is split into two: first of all we cover the different types of product, and then we provide links through to pages that cover each main market area, education, local authority including leisure centres and youth extended services provision, and private health clubs. Follow this link to go straight to the market links section.
All commercial dance mat systems are made up of two elements: multiplayer software and commercial grade dance platforms.
There are two different ways of running the software, on a games console or on a pc.
Console Based Commercial Systems, Fully Interactive
Console systems combine consoles such as PlayStation or Nintendo Wii, dance software like Konami's DDR dance games and commercial dance platforms. This combination offers the familiarity and economy of consoles, games that are widely available for home use and the durability of commercial platforms. Dance platforms for these systems tend to be wired rather than wireless, however fitnessgaming does offer a wireless upgrade option for the Cobalt Flux " Just for Schools" Wii based systems they provide. With games consoles you are restricted to the number of mats that can be connected to the console, and the number the software is designed to accommodate. For example the Wii can handle up to 4 platforms, the PS2 2 platforms, Konami's DDR Hottest Party software will take up to four players on the Wii but only 2 on the PS2. Software is widely available, with Konamis DDR (previously known as Dancing Stage in Europe) four arrow system the best known. The most flexible console based dance mats system in this respect is the Cobalt Flux Just For Schools dance mats which in its standard mode has 8 arrows functioning, so can also run the forthcoming Konami DDR release with an 8 arrow option, or the 8 arrow software already available from Dance UK or Dance Party.
PC Based Commercial Systems, Fully Interactive
On PC based commercial dance mat systems there are two different modes, full interactivity where each player has their own arrow stream shown on single or multiple screens (dependant on the number of players participating) or by one single screen offering a maximum of three different arrow streams, none of which is truly interactive. Because they are not truly interactive we call this type of system, from iDance/Machinedance, Xerdance, and Game2 Move quasi interactive, see below about those systems after a discussion of fully interactive systems.
The Blufit wireless multiplayer system from Cobalt Flux is the only fully interactive multiple screen system available, and consists of one 8 mat unit and projector, with each player having their own section on the screen. Consequently each player has their own target arrows, and their own step stream, just like the four player version on the Nintendo Wii. And like the Wii there are games other than dance being developed, with a cross curriculum content for education, all using the dance mats as controllers, though other peripherals will be added where needed.
The Blufit wireless platforms run the four arrow (left, right, forward, back) DDR system, but can also run the five arrow (four corners and middle) PIU, and the 8 arrow (all but the middle) system that will be an option in future DDR releases and that provides more realistic dance moves than either the four or five arrow software. Cobalt Flux mats are renowned for their reliability and this experience has been used in the Blufit mats.
Another factor to consider with all of Cobalt Flux's dance systems including Blufit is that the platform, and in particular the most important part the sensor contact, uses the simplest possible design. There are therefore fewer parts to go wrong, and maintenance is very simple, as discussed in the Wikipedia article on Cobalt Flux.
Cobalt Flux is the developer of Blufit software and hardware therefore licensing and copyright are secure. Blufit's dance software, Streetfeet, is a fully interactive four arrow system which has been deliberately written to avoid copying any of Konami's DDR design properties.Blufit records each users performance, calories burnt and other physical activity data and logs it on their personal activity record. This recording occurs either automatically through an internet connection or semi-automatically through usb flash keys, so users can see how they are improving over time. The web site enables competitions to be created and performances recorded. Up to 8 Blufit units will link together using local wireless link to produce a 64 user system, making it the biggest gaming console available.
There is also a 2 user version of Blufit that has been specially developed for the "grey" market, called Blufit Dancetown. This has an extra extremely easy level, a range of music from across the decades, and a safety rail on the platforms for added stability and security.
The only other truly interactive system is Cyber Coach, which offers games in addition to dance. The software is relatively unsophisticated in gaming terms, the football game for example being performed on a two dimensional pitch, with markers on the pitch for the players. The dance software does have an 8 arrow option, however using the same arrow stream rising from the bottom to the target arrows at the top. This is less intuitive than the Dance UK/Dance Party method where the arrows come out of the middle to the target arrows around the edge of the screen, exactly where they are on the dance mat itself.
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PC Based Commercial Systems, Quasi-interactive
The other PC based commercial multiplayer systems use projectors and sound systems for the audio visual delivery so there is only one screen for up to 32 users. The screen is usually split with different levels of difficulty running in each section. There will usually be several users on each level, but only one arrow stream per level, so only one user per level can get any real interactive feedback. "So what, if they still get their score?" you might ask. What it means in dance performance terms is that you cannot adjust your timing accurately if you are missing the target arrow because the hit on the screen is not necessarily generated by you.
Also, due to the lack of interactivity it may not be possible for these systems to support other games where there is a requirement for each player to be able react and respond independently and see themselves on the screen, unlike a truly interactive system with your own section of screen such as Blufit. It's a bit like the difference between the Apple iPhone with its apps and all those other mobile phones without them. Or launching a competitor to the Nintendo Wii that can only play one dance game and nothing else - why buy it when you could buy the Wii with the massive range of software other than dance that is available for it!
If you don't want to purchase a truly interactive fitnessgaming system with dance and other fitnessgaming software and automatic performance recording and competitions on a web site, you could consider the following.
iDance or Machine Dance is from Positive Gaming. Originally Positive Gaming used In the Groove software to develop the first commercial multiplayer system for wireless mats. In the Groove followed the DDR format and took away some of the more fun elements and expanded the really difficult levels (see Amazon reviews). As noted above, the In the Groove authors (Roxor) were successfully sued by Konami, and under the terms of the settlement Positive Gaming's licence agreement expired in October 2008. They subsequently developed iDance, which also uses the same four arrow design style as Konami's DDR games, and also the foot "mines" developed in ITG and subsequently incorporated by Konami into DDR Hottest Party for the Nintendo Wii. There is no data recording facility at present, distributors have set up a competition system that requires input of manually recorded level, scores etc. The prefix "i" in the name iDance implies that the system is interactive and/or internet enabled, but the irony is that it is neither truly interactive, nor internet enabled.
The contact area on other mats is a full square (or circle in Cybercoaches case), on the iDance mats they are hexagonal as the corners are missing. This is not significant to relatively inexperienced dancers, but one expert dance we spoke to after testing Cobalt Flux said that they noticed a difference.
Game 2 Move is another system also using the four arrow Konami type of format but with very basic graphics.
One of the other partially interactive systems, Xerdance from Xergames, is fully licensed for the commercial multiplayer market ultimately from Andamiro, the PIU authors. PIU uses the five arrow system, which is much less popular than the 4 arrow due to limited exposure in the arcade market and little availability for consumer consoles. Pressure is likely to increase on the PIU system with the release of Konami's 8 arrow option. With more users and more systems using the four arrow format, there are many more opportunities for competitions than with PIU. One plus factor for Xerdance is the recently introduced performance recording website. This however requires users to carry around a data card for upload unlike Cobalt Flux's Blufit which has an automatic internet link, and only if Blufit is not web enabled for whatever reason does a similar semi-automatic update get used.
At this point we will declare our interest and our knowledge. Of course you are on our website, so you know we are fitnessgaming. At fitnessgaming we have extensive knowledge of the dance mat market having been involved since the launch of the first wireless multiplayer systems. This experience has led us to locate the best systems available: with an unrivalled breadth and depth of product offering Cobalt Flux is undoubtedly the industry's premier dance mat provider.
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Market Links Section
Education is probably the biggest market for dance mat systems. But education covers a range of levels, nursery, primary, secondary, further, SEN, and a range of issues that can be addressed by dance mats: Healthy schools, Extended Services, and School Sports Partnerships Sports Programmes. So to see a range of school dance mats systems that meet these requirements, follow this link to dance mats for schools.
Local authorities have also realised the benefits of dance mats in their leisure centres with multiplayer systems. But there are a number of opportunities for other dance mat systems in Extended Youth Services, Care Homes etc discussed if you follow this link to dance mats for dance mats for Local Authorities.
For health clubs, until now there has not been a dance mat products that really suited their health environment. With the introduction of performance monitoring software and different software there is now a range of dance mats for Health Clubs.
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Home Dance Mats
These systems run on PCs as well as game consoles. So we will cover the mats first of all, and then the different software.
There are three types of dance mat for home use: foam, foam with a rigid insert, and metal. We will talk about those next, first though the connections required to link your mat to your console or PC.
Cheaper mats are generally supplied with software, in which case the mat will plug into the console the software has been designed for. More expensive mats tend not to come with software and are designed to work with the different consoles such as Xbox, PS2/3 and Wii through different connectors so you need to check that the mat you buy will connect into your console. You can get adaptors that you can use so that mats can be used on different consoles, for example a PS2 to USB adaptor so you can connect to a PC, or PS2 to GameCube adaptor, which enables you to plug it into a Nintendo Wii.
Foam mats are good to use to find out if you like the dance mat experience, but have a number of shortcomings.
1. They can move around on a floor or buckle up
2. They are not as precise and responsive as metal mats.
3. Typically you have to use them with bare feet as they are slippery and relatively fragile on both surfaces.
4. The very cheap ones will not last as long under even a moderate usage.
5. The internal connections can easily become damaged by constantly folding the mat when it is put away.
The advantages are
1. They are light and can be folded up so can be easily handled and stored away.
2. They can be very cheap
Foam mats with a rigid insert overcome some of the problems of the simple foam mat with a more rigid foam insert that usually can be put installed for use and taken out for storage. They are less likely to buckle due to the insert.
Metal mats are highly accurate and rigid and are preferred by experienced dancers due to their similarity to arcade platforms. They are heavier and less easy to store, but often a serious dancer will have a permanent setup. They are the most expensive, but will last a very long time. Cobalt Flux's range of platforms for use in the home use the same simple robust design as the commercial ones, and with superb sensitivity are the choice for enthusiasts. And for the expert enthusiast the Cobalt Flux Black and Textured platform is the next best thing to a DDR arcade machine. Follow this link to the best range of metal platforms: Cobalt Flux platforms
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Software for PC systems
The most popular pc system is Stepmania, a free dance game that can be downloaded from the stepmania website. Three downloads are available, Windows, Mac and Linux. The current tested version is 3.9 with 4.0 available for testing. Songs are downloaded separately either from the same website or there are a number available from a variety of other sources listed on the site. Stepmania has a step editor built into it, so if you are interested in creating your own steps it is ideal. There is also a community section to the website. The site itself also has a review of dance mats and adaptors for use with a PC.
Software for Games Consoles
DDR, which until recently was called Dancing Stage in Europe, is the benchmark product. There have been a number of releases that have introduced different variations to the straightforward step. Recent releases have for example included the following as options:
1. Hand movement using Sony Eyetoy in Supernova2 for the PS2
2. Hand movement using the remote and nunchuck in Hottest Party on the Wii
3. Land foot mines and other hazards that you can send to other players on the Nintendo Wii
The next stage is the release of the 8 arrow version on Nintendo Wii and PS3.
The game format has expanded too, from the game or competition mode where you have to complete a number of challenges with success giving you more songs and other goodies. Free play mode enables you to choose your song without a challenge stopping you going further. Workout mode gives you a number of songs whose speed follows the aerobic curve, and records calories burnt, etc.
The progressive nature of game mode is a big help to beginners as the challenges are designed to help you improve, for example you have to complete a song at a certain difficulty level and get a minimum score, or a minimum combination, which is consecutive correct steps. By switching between that and free play mode you can see yourself improving, and getting addicted!
As discussed above there are other software authors. The ones that avoid the DDR arrow format are PIU, Dance UK and Dance Party, which has just been released, the former with the five arrow system. Dance UK and Dance Party (same software developer, writing for different publishers) have the arrows coming at you from a central point with the target arrows around the edge of the screen, just like the dance mat. The beginner level has four arrows, the medium and difficult levels have 8 arrows. This makes for a wider range and far more subtle and interesting dance moves. For example a four arrow jump (which you can do with each of your feet straddled across the four arrows, or if you are flexible, two feet and two hands on the four arrows), or dancing around the dance mat consecutively on each arrow in a circle. It is little wonder Konami have announced an eight arrow version. And the songs are full length original tracks, not the short cover versions with DDR.
So read as much detail as you can about the software to make sure it fits what you want. For example the hand movement and "gimmicks" on Hottest Party are fun, but can seriously reduce your score as they introduce two other variables that you have to cope with. Fortunately you can switch them off in the options menu, so in a session maybe start with just feet, then add the hands and gimmicks later in the session. Then when you have got as good as you can get on just feet, you still have the challenge of getting just as good with the gimmicks and hand movement turned on.
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The criteria used in fitnessgaming ratings:
On the fitness side, the criteria we require products to meet are:
Level of activity affects performance in the game
Adjustable activity levels so all the family/users with different levels of fitness can participate and gain a benefit.
The activity must have a positive impact on at least 2 of the key health and skill related components of fitness. The components being body-composition, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, muscular endurance, strength, agility, balance, coordination, power, reaction time, and speed.
Fitness performance can be monitored and improvement recorded
The activity provides progressive health and skill related fitness challenges
On the gaming side we require products to meet the following criteria:
The activity interacts directly with a console type game - so Family Ski Holiday uses the Wii balance board to affect what happens on the screen.
You can go online and compete with other players.
Your game performance can be monitored and recorded
The game is immersive - demands all of your attention, you don't have to keep breaking off
The game is progressive in difficulty, with rewards for progression.
Our rating system awards a red star for each of the fitness factors, and a blue star for each of the gaming features, to provide a summary rating that takes account of both sides of fitnessgaming and yet with real substance behind it. This provides a quick and easy reference for all purchasers when comparing different types of fitness gaming product.
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