A hat-tip to Chris Unitt for the news that NASA has teamed up with a videogames company, to bring what’s said to be a fascinating level of realism to EA Sports’ new snowboarding sim adventure SSX videogame (PS3 and XBox only – review).

All the mountain snowboarding courses in the game are built on top of public-domain topographic data from NASA. Who knew that data from the ‘Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer’ project would ever be used directly for entertainment purposes? But it now gives realism to the game’s slopes, and means the EA Sports developers of SSX don’t have to struggle to use…

“procedurally generated 3D noise fields to partially automate the process of creating convincing-looking mountains”

This enables the game to offer terrains not just in the Rockies and Alaska, but also more exotic climes such as Patagonia in South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Siberia. It’s a fascinating example of the use of public data sets, and also of ‘unintended spinoffs’ from high technology — even if the venerable Edge magazine review of the game writes that…

“The real-world locations seem to have stunted some of the brand’s trademark [landscape] extravagances, too, with SSX now inhabiting an awkward space between realist and comic-book aesthetics”.

Snowboarding itself turns out to be a $500m-a-year industry, sitting within a larger “snow-sports” industry with revenues of $3.3 billion in 2010. High-tech boards sell for as much as $700 (£500) with shipping, presumably to an affluent “holiday spend” market among the ski set and extreme sports devotees. And it’s apparently a niche that only opened up in the late 1980s. Which just shows how a solid niche industry can build from nothing in as little as thirty years, based on little more than laminating fibreglass to wood, and adding a few colourful decals to the results…

I’d never really considered the industry before (skateboarding is more the thing in Stoke-on-Trent, where the city has the biggest skate-park in Europe). But it seems a prime example of integrating graphic design in the product itself, rather than the retail box and media ads, to add to the sexiness of the product.

Even in America (re: willingness to travel huge distances in cars, lots of vast snowy mountain ranges) I guess it makes sense to also expand the sport into the “virtual” arena. Doing so serves as a form of advertising and education for the real thing, aimed at young lads who may have yet to buy their first real snowboard or consider the sort of holiday where they could use their board. Such games also spread a demand for commercial goods such as extreme-sports films and the lucrative clothing lines. Even to those like the British — who I imagine are generally confined to a quick health-and-safety strewn slide down their local Council’s artificial ski-slope, rather than the lush slalom of adventures depicted in SSX.

Even within this market’s real-world niches there are apparently sub-niches. While the likes of Burton Snowboards is the biggest snowboarding company on the planet, others can carve out markets based on environmental-sustainability concerns — such as Lib Tech with its bamboo-core boards. Or K2 Snowboards, offering skis and boards designed for kids. It’s a design-based business, differentiating the product both on board graphics and also an unexpected level of innovation in the actual shape and functionality of the boards. Sales of associated clothing are also apparently huge, and I’d wonder if that’s not actually where the core of the profits are, similar to the case of couture fashion and perfume brands.

The industry is also deep into some very tight marketing moves, at least according to Business Insider

“The business of snowboarding is as innovative as the maneuvers the riders pull in the air. Advertising, marketing schemes, media production, and competitive events evolve every year.”

I do wonder if they’re missing trick on the partner marketing of “virtual boards”, in videogames, though? The SSX games reviews have no mention of the latest designs and specs from the likes of Lib Tech / Burton etc being available inside the SSX game, in virtual form.