A sun-kissed mountain peak beckons me to keep pedalling forward. I glance to both sides, taking in views of serene waters mingling with grassy fields. What are those white dots in the distance? Ahh, sheep!
But I’ve had enough of Westfjords, Iceland, today, so I opt for a change of scenery – and settings. Within a few seconds, I’m tooling along a leafy section on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, whizzing past red-brick terraced houses and every car in sight.
At least, that’s what it feels like.
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Actually, I’m perched on a stationary bike in a Gym Source store in midtown Manhattan. The only view here is of other exercise equipment, unless, like me, you’re testing out VirZOOM’s $100 VZfit, which includes a controller to attach to the handlebars and a sensor that goes on the bike crank. Pair that with an Oculus virtual reality headset (either the $200 Go or the $400 Quest model), and a bike that’s not going anywhere can take you around the world.
“There’s an infinite variety of places to go,” says VirZOOM chief executive Eric Janszen, who explains that the 360-degree landscapes in the VZfit Explorer program are created by stitching together images from Google Street View. That explains why the word “Google” often floats in the clouds, and the landscape tends to bend and ripple. Those are only minor annoyances, and I’m soon lost in my ride, looking at what’s ahead.
And what appears to be on the horizon for indoor fitness is “travelling” somewhere thousands of miles away from your rec room or health club.
Gazing at stunning vistas while sweating in a cramped windowless space has always been possible, first with a poster stuck to the wall, and later with a VHS tape or DVD. The view keeps improving. At Gym Source, an employee named Chris shows off how nearly every treadmill in the store offers the chance to “run” through different landscapes by watching a video on the console. He prefers beach scenes, which remind him of his favourite real-life runs. “It’s just the ocean and the waves,” he says.
Depending on the model of machine, you can get a lot more than that. For instance, NordicTrack’s X32i, with its 32-inch interactive touchscreen, features a package that includes the ability to jog along Google Maps-powered courses, as well as take on “global workouts” featuring trainers pushing you in distant locales, such as Patagonia, Argentina, or the Spanish Steps in Rome. Headed up a hill? The incline automatically adjusts to match.
Transporting yourself with fitness equipment is a selling point of Peloton, whose much-mocked holiday commercial featured a woman receiving a Peloton bike as a Christmas present – or maybe as a punishment. What the ad didn’t emphasise is that the same product that allows you to attend a 6am cycling class every day also offers “scenic outdoor” options, with virtual rides through places such as Paris, US national parks and New Zealand.
You’ll have more company for your “outdoor” workout with Zwift, an app that works with either a bike or a treadmill. It throws users together on its virtual courses, which include routes in New York, London, Innsbruck and… Watopia – an imaginary island with an active volcano, sloths and hairpin turns. (Bicycling magazine declared it “the best place to ride this winter”.)
Not into running or riding? The promise of this kind of indoor “outdoor” exercise keeps finding new platforms. Former US national team rowing coach Bruce Smith is founder and chief executive of Hydrow, which is billed as “the world’s first live virtual reality rower”. What that means is that as you slide back and forth, pulling with all your might, you stare at a screen showing top-notch rowers doing the same thing – at that very moment or in a prerecorded session – on the water.
The video usually comes from one of the company’s two home bases: Boston or Miami Beach. To Smith, both have their charms. “Our office is two blocks from the Charles River, and I know every tree,” he says. “Miami has an unbelievable colour palette – radically blue Art Deco buildings, pink bridges, aquamarine skyscrapers, the occasional dolphin or stingray.”
If you get bored, Hydrow has you covered with “journeys” to other spots, including the Thames in London and Walden Pond in Massachusetts, which is a Smith favourite. “It’s incredibly bucolic,” he says. “There are some swimmers who bob in the background. You’re really immersed in nature.”
The pretty visuals and atmospheric sounds provide a performance boost, says Smith, who notes that seeing other rowers helps you move at the same rhythm, and having a leader board adds a gamifying twist. He envisions more ways of leveraging technology to bring exercisers to hard-to-reach spots through rowing or other kinds of equipment. “Imagine if you could experience a climbing wall like a mountain top,” he says. It’s why he’s closely monitoring developments in both augmented reality and virtual reality.
That includes VirZOOM, which happens to be headquartered nearby. Maybe it’s not such a coincidence that both of these companies are in the Boston area, a place where the weather often isn’t conducive to outdoor exercise. Janszen loves his road bike, but “when it’s freezing cold and rainy, I’m stuck on one of these things”, he says, pointing to a stationary bike. The monotony of that experience pushed him to seek out an alternative.
In addition to VZfit Explorer, the program that lets you ride wherever you want, there’s also VZfit Play, which drops you into games in imaginary settings. “Riding through the world is interesting, but engaging with challenges keeps it interesting,” Janszen says. Players on bikes can feel like they’re driving a tank into a war zone or riding on a flying Pegasus soaring above a canyon.
Janszen says VR technology has leapt forward since five years ago, when VirZOOM built its first prototypes. The company’s earliest adopters had to wear a tethered headset and buy a bunch of bulky, pricey equipment. This newest version can fit into your gym bag.
VirZOOM superfan Arunas Urbonas, 53, a physician who lives in Valdosta, Georgia, has pedalled through this evolution. Before he shelled out on the VirZOOM system three years ago, he thought he was too busy to exercise. But he was soon riding at least an hour a day. “First thing when I get home, I want to get on my bike,” he says. He’s hooked on the competition element, especially with that tank-driving game. “You’re looking for ammunition, and you feel like you’re on the battlefield.”
His routine is a mix of the games and VZfit Explorer, which he has used to pedal around all sorts of places, starting with his hometown in Lithuania. “I almost cried seeing these streets from my childhood. I rode through every street,” he says. He moved on to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where his wife grew up. On a recent real-life visit, she couldn’t remember how to find a certain place. “I told her, ‘It’s two blocks this way.’ I know it really well now,” he says.
Seeking out familiar spots is common, according to Janszen. “People like to go where they have a sentimental attachment,” he says.
Is there an ideal VR environment to get the best possible workout? Research in the field is just beginning – partly because, as Janszen notes, until a few years ago, no one really thought people would be interested in VR fitness.
That changed about three years ago with the creation of the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise, which works with the San Francisco State University’s kinesiology department to create exercise ratings for games. Sure, your heart rate can go up when you’re playing something exciting, but that can be due to your fight-or-flight response, explains department chair Marialice Kern. To see whether a game is really forcing you to move enough to be called a workout requires checking oxygen consumption, which is what the institute does.
In every game, the feeling of being transported is key. “You’re somewhere else, whether it’s a boxing ring or flying around in a hot-air balloon,” says Kern, who notes that the subjects who rate the games rarely feel as though they’ve worked as hard as the data would imply. She thinks there’s a lot more that could be done with VR to encourage activity. Recently, Kern spoke to a group of seniors, who were eager to try on headsets. “Maybe they could walk through the streets of Rome sightseeing and feel actually in the place instead of just sitting and watching something,” she says.
Other scientists are turning their attention to how to harness the power of this emerging technology. A 2019 study conducted by University of Georgia doctoral student Carly Wender found that virtual reality reduced pain caused by high-intensity cycling.
Participants, divided into two groups, donned VR headsets while pushing themselves through 30-second maximum-effort sprints. One group’s headsets showed moving landscapes as if they were riding along a city street. The second group stared at a still picture and were told to imagine riding through the city.
The first group reported feeling less pain, says Wender, who is now looking at the reason. “Everyone says it’s distracting, and you’re not thinking about the pain as much. But distracting isn’t a great reason – a lot of things are distracting,” she says.
And it’s unclear how to optimise VR fitness given the differences in personal preferences, she adds. Wender has watched various people put on a headset and have radically different instincts. “Some people will stay on the path, while other people ride off it to see what happens,” she says.
For her next project, she’s having subjects cycle through two different VR environments – one simple and one more complex – to see how much that affects their performance. She thinks that data could be useful for companies building VR fitness products.
One thing she hopes these entrepreneurs keep in mind for the future is that perspiration is not virtual, which is why the headsets in her experiments haven’t always smelt so good. “They get sweaty and gross,” she says. So virtual reality fitness may be able to take you anywhere, but it’s not going the distance until that issue gets sorted out.
© The Washington Post