The Gamification of the Climbing Gym

The Interactive Media Startup Rocky Motion


After receiving his diploma in Interactive Media, Jan Fiess founded a startup and developed innovative climbing holds. The creative technologist had the idea for a long time. At the Animationsinstitut, he got the necessary know-how to implement it successfully.

Jan Fiess, Alumnus Interactive Media

It all started when Jan Fiess and his buddy Felix Hundhausen were annoyed. The two bouldering and climbing fans came to their regular climbing gym one day to find that their favorite route had been changed—again. There has to be another solution, they thought.


A climbing wall usually has several route options that can be identified by different colors on the holds. The colors usually represent different levels of difficulty. The number of routes is limited by the space available for the holds. Therefore, climbing gym owners regularly change the position of the holds on the walls to provide variety in the range of routes.


Felix and Jan now had the following idea: If climbing holds were not only monochromatic, but could instead glow in different colors, the wall would have more routes due to different light variations. Using the light programming, it would also be possible to adapt climbing routes according to the climbers' needs without having to rebuild the wall for this purpose. "The idea sounded simple at first," Jan tells us today, "you could just use LEDs for the colors!"

What if Climbing Walls Were Interactive?

But the two of them thought one step further: what if the holds not only lit up, but were also interactive. "For that, we thought, the climbing holds would have to be touch-sensitive," Jan explains further. "So, besides the light showing where I am and where I need to go next, there would also be a need for additional feedback."

The hold could thus be used as an interface, allowing games to be played on the climbing wall, for example. "It should work like a mouse or keyboard, which are the interface on a computer to be able to interact in a videogame," he explains, "here it would be the touch-sensitive holds. To be able to reach those, you just have to climb."


Felix and Jan decided to follow up on their idea. "We started crafting and tinkering." At the time, Jan was studying Audiovisual Media at the Hochschule der Medien (HdM) in Stuttgart and had specialized in the field of interactive media in space. Felix studied mechatronics and brought the technical know-how needed for the electronics of the handles.


Their tinkering eventually made it into an HdM-student-project by Jan in 2014. It consisted of an interactive climbing wall that functions as a videogame. The game he developed for it is called PSYCHOPATH. The players have the task of freeing a neural network from diseased brain regions by climbing.


By then, Jan and his team had created a prototype of the interactive holds. However, the technical interaction happened via a large display that acted as a climbing wall. "The technology was still pretty unpolished," Jan admits, "user tests showed us the limits of our software and especially hardware at the time, which left us with huge challenges."


Once he received his bachelor's degree from HdM, he wanted to push on with the climbing wall. However, to do so, he felt he had to acquire even more know-how. In his opinion, it was necessary to expand his coding skills, for example. In addition, his plan was to delve even further into interactive media installations.


"I wanted to expand my toolbox, which I needed for the further development of the climbing holds." While looking for options, he came across the Interactive Media study course at the Animationsinstitut of the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. This seemed perfect for him to move forward both technically and artistically.

Invention Matures at the Animationsinstitut

In fact, the decision paid off: "I didn't turn the interactive climbing wall into a study project there, but I was able to experiment with techniques and concepts in other projects that had their benefits," Jan says looking back. For example, he says, his diploma project SIX HATS already featured the toolkit that eventually became relevant for today's climbing holds.


His diploma installation was a playful, interactive media installation consisting of a touch-display-stage and six luminous helmets for the users. Through speakers, the stage floor, and the helmets, the players receive audiovisual instructions to which they have to actsometimes together, sometimes against each other. In terms of content, SIX HATS is both a game and a social experiment.


"The Animationsinstitut is a huge playground where you can do a bit of whatever you want," Jan assesses his time studying in Ludwigsburg, "in the process you not only get ahead in terms of content, but also on a personal, empathetic level." Due to the large number of projects he was involved in during his studies, he got to know "many inspiring, motivated and talented people."

Among them was Patrick Kuhn Botelho. He studied Music Design in Trossingen and did his internship at the Animationsinstitut in the field of Interactive Media. At the institute, he worked on the music and sound design for several projects. After graduating from Trossingen, he later studied Film Music at the Filmakademie.

Today, Patrick is Jan's most important partner regarding the climbing handles. "We were in the same project room, that's how we met," Patrick recalls. When Jan had his diploma, he told him on the lawn of the Filmakademie campus about the idea of the climbing wall, which he now wanted to realize by founding a company. Jan asked Patrick if he likes to work on the audio development of the project. He agreed immediately.

Many Learnings after the Founding

"After I graduated in 2020, I went head over heels into self-employment," says Jan. In addition to Patrick, Felix, who in the meantime received a master's degree in electrical engineering and is now pursuing a PhD in Karlsruhe, still helped him with the further development of the handles. Further, his team included IT developer Marius Heil, with whom Jan had already collaborated on the PSYCHOPATH-installation at the HdM.


They named the startup Rocky Motion and aimed to bring the interactive climbing wall to market. "To do that, of course, we first needed money," Jan and Patrick recall.

"The Animationsinstitut is a huge playground where you can do a bit of whatever you want; in the process you not only get ahead in terms of content, but also on a personal, empathetic level."

Jan Fiess, Creative Technologist & Interactive Media Alumnus

"Among other things, that led us to apply for fundings," Patrick says. In a program run by the German Federal Ministry of Economics, Rocky Motion actually prevailed despite numerous competitors. The deal in the end was that the ministry would provide 55 percent of the capital they needed; they had to provide 45 percent themselves. Hundreds of thousands of euros were at stake.


"Then we bumbled around for three quarters of a year trying to find investors," composer Patrick continues. However, the banks always found the project too risky. "We wrote quite a few financial and business plans and then threw them away again," he recalls. "At some point, we realized that the scale was getting too big for us to continue."


"We invested a lot of money in development ourselves and then realized that we were just writing business plans and not working in our actual areas at all," Jan points out, "we didn't want to fall asleep in terms of content!" Therefore, Rocky Motion dropped the opportunity of the Federal Ministry in 2021 and preferred to continue the company on a smaller scale.


"We had been in contact with Art Rock, an Austrian manufacturer of climbing walls and holds, for some time," Patrick explains. "We get along very well with the management there. They eventually brought us on board as a partner." In Austria, they then worked with Art Rock to further develop the hardware. The plan is to have the interactive climbing hold ready for the market in winter 2022.

The Hardware Is There, Now It's All about the Application

According to Jan, the good thing is that they no longer have to devote 100 percent of their time to the company, including the sleepless nights because of the financial situation. Patrick is composing film music again, and he also has a job at the Musikhochschule Trossingen. Jan recently took a part-time job as a creative technologist for media installations alongside Rocky Motion. He now develops media installations, primarily for event and advertising agencies. "Now I'm back doing exactly what I learned," Jan says. "I do a lot with sensors, actuators, and with light: interactive media systems."


However, the two of them still try to put as much time as possible into the climbing holds. "Now that we'll soon have the production-ready prototype, the real creative development of the application is just getting started," Patrick points out. They are currently working on various gameplays and audio storytelling.


For the further direction of the climbing hold application, Rocky Motion benefited from being awarded in the government's Kultur- und Kreativpilot*innen 2021 funding program. "This program includes intensive mentoring and coaching from business professionals," Patrick explains, "now, we pretty much know how we want to move ahead with the idea."

They are now focusing more on an event approach with an emphasis on team building. Here, they have, in particular, serial audio games in mind in which teams can only accomplish certain tasks together.


"We're excited about what’s next," says Patrick, "best case is, the thing takes off this year, worst case is, we've had a good go and gotten to know each other better." Jan is confident that the climbing holds and their playful applications will be well received. But he isn’t too dogged: "I was also able to take that with me from my time at the Animationinstitut. There, it was always emphasized that the project shouldn't always be the only thing that counts, but that it's also about spending a good time together as a team." In the end, he says, this approach also benefits the product.

Anna Brinkschulte, senior lecturer of the Interactive Media study specialization at the Animationsinstitut, emphasizes that Rocky Motion's climbing handle idea reflects the innovative power of the so-called gamification approach. This is a central component of the Interactive Media study area: "The course follows the guiding principle 'Games & Beyond,'" she explains. "The focus is on the social as well as playful interaction of users with media possibilities."


One might wonder what climbing actually has to do with animation and game design. "But in Interactive Media, students look at how media can influence and affect things we encounter in everyday life." From that perspective, for example, everything potentially becomes a game. Rocky Motion's climbing holds develop an analog sport into a playful, interactive experience. They are a good example of how everyday experiences can become innovations when combined with media, Anna says.  


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