There’s something to be said about exercise. Very few people actually enjoy it, but we bear the torment so we can reap the benefits. It’s no wonder then, that our workouts come complete with TVs, soundtracks, nightclub lights, and celebrity instructors — anything to distract us from the inevitable muscle burn.
But this smoke-and-mirror technique is nothing new. In 1994, for instance, the Life Cycle exercise bike had a mounted TV and Nintendo console so you could watch TV or play Super Nintendo games while you pedaled away the pounds. And with that, “exertainment” was born.
Next, we tried to “gamercize”, giving rise to Wii Fit, Xbox Kinect Sports, and a host of other gaming-cum-exercise products that flooded the market. Fitness gamification has continued to evolve since then, but the idea of tricking ourselves into exercising remains.
Today, we’re still struggling to make working out more enjoyable, and we’re willing to try almost anything to make it so. But while scientists are still busy trying to perfect that exercise pill, virtual and augmented reality have been quietly transforming the exercise experience by playing with our minds.
The world you’re working out in may not be real, but as long as the results are, it might just be the distraction we’ve all been looking for.
First, it’s important to note that even though both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are boomin’ in the fitness world, they’re not synonymous. VR uses special electronic equipment to create a computer-generated simulation of your fantasy gym or fitness world. AR, on the other hand, makes the world your gym by superimposing a computer-generated image on a user’s view using something like a phone or tablet. Simply put: AR is like Pokémon GO and VR is the one with the fancy goggles.
Although there are big things happening in both the AR and VR fitness industry, it’s virtual reality that has turned exertainment/gamercise up to 11. VR has created the capacity to immerse users in a virtual world so fully that they forget they’re working out at all — and the industry currently has a lot going for it, namely: a shit-ton of money, some decent reviews, and the potential to get some not-so-active people moving.
In 2017, there was a record-high $3 billion invested in the VR market, which Digi-Capital says is spread over 28 VR and AR categories. A slight caveat to this is the fact that most of the money came from only four deals, so it might not be as impressive as the headlines made it out to be.
That being said, by 2021, the VR market is expected to reach $215 billion. So, just from a financial standpoint, the future of VR looks promising.
What exactly does a world of VR fitness look like, though? Most of the workouts that are available right now involve strapping on a headset and being transported into a simulated world where you have to accomplish some kind of task. For example, with VirZOOM, a VR stationary bike, you can fly (read: pedal) a mythical Pegasus over a grassy canyon to collect apples or become a helicopter blasting off missles. Other games have the player roam through virtual war zones, when in reality, you’re on a treadmill. Want to get physical? You can box with Floyd Mayweather. The virtual sky is the limit!
Even in this early stage of development, VR fitness products are already getting some rave reviews.
“As far as exercise goes, particularly for reluctant people like me, VR has indeed created a whole new world,” wrote journalist Anna Maxted after trying a variety of home VR and immersive gym workouts.
Another journalist reviewing VirZOOM for Forbes wrote: “This was incredibly addictive and I lost track of time as I circled, hovered, dived, died, died again and repeat.”
But probably the most exciting thing about VR workouts is the potential to bring gaming and fitness to noobs. Considering around 45% of adults are not sufficiently active enough to achieve health benefits, it’s clear we could use a little more movement.
“VR fitness will attract new target groups – especially young people- by allowing them to enjoy mind-blowing experiences while competing with other users worldwide in multi-player like scenarios,” said Michael Schmidt, co-CEO and co-founder of ICAROS, in an interview.
And while gaming has traditionally been male-dominated, it won’t just be gamer guys getting in on the action. This EY VR Fitness study in 2016 showed that women are more interested in VR for fitness or health than entertainment.
Furthermore, it’s not a complete bullshit workout. VR can give you a workout that’s just as intense as any boutique fitness class, plus, according to VirZOOM, people work out more often and for longer when there’s VR incorporated into the workout.
If you need proof, there are some shocking accounts of people getting in shape using various VR games. One dude lost 50 pounds pedaling away on a VirZOOM bike and another guy lost 60 pounds playing Soundboxing.
And science is backing up gaming as legitimate means of shedding pounds. For example, one meta-analysis found that game-based health interventions helped obese children lower their BMI. Another study found that VR exercise might also be more effective than regular home exercise programs.
All signs—the market, science, consumer experience—point to a bright future when it comes to VR in fitness.
But before we go over-hyping VR exercise, there are some pretty real hurdles VR is going to have to surmount before it takes over mainstream, IRL workouts.
Probably one of the most obvious challenges with VR is the price point. Sure, there are cheap options like the cardboard VR viewers, but that’s not going to cut it when you’re trying to work out. You need to be hands-free and your sweat will wilt that cardboard like an Amazon package left in the rain.
So, with that in mind, the most basic headset models (with strap) are $75 to $125, and that price doesn’t include the latest smartphone that’s compatible with the headset or any controllers you might need. Also, according to reviews, using your cell phone to experience VR is “clunky”.
Therefore, to get even a decent VR system, you’re looking at spending over $500. The popular Oculus Rift is $529, which includes the headset and controllers. But, again, that cost doesn’t include games or any other gear you might need for your workout.
On the higher-end, you have machines like ICAROS, which run close to $10,000 (not including shipping or tax). Even for early adopters, that’s a tough pill to swallow.
Price point aside, there’s still the problem of motivation. What happens when you beat the game or get bored of it?
One gym that bought the ICAROS system told Bloomberg that after the initial excitement of VR workouts, people quickly got bored when there wasn’t a new game to play. You could also point to Pokémon GO, which was lauded for getting people outside and moving. It lost a third of its users just a month after its launch.
“The problem with extrinsic motivation is that you only do it until the reward has been taken away,” explained Remco Polman, head of exercise and nutritional studies at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, in an interview with Bloomberg.
Not only does VR have to find a way to keep people motivated and interested but exercise also has a huge social motivational component to it, and when it comes to VR, many have criticized it for being anti-social.
While companies have tried to incorporate a social component to VR with leaderboards and multi-player games, it’s hard to say if this virtual community will be as effective at getting people to work out as a real community does.
And then there are smaller problems to consider like hygiene—sweating into a VR headset is kinda gross—and motion sickness.
So, before we see VR machines in every gym, there are a lot of logistics that need to be worked out.
All that being said, it’s important to remember that VR is just getting started. The technology is still in the development stage, which means prices will eventually come down, the technology is going to improve, and the virtual worlds/games will increase exponentially while the complexity and engagement will only get better. Just look at how far video games have come since Pong!
VR definitely has the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to fitness and it’s already starting to trickle into mainstream fitness. For example, Black Box VR is set to open the first virtual reality boutique gym in San Francisco this fall.
Just bear in mind that before we’re all working out in virtual gyms, there are going to be years of failed attempts, guaranteed. Once they finally get it right, the only thing we need to worry about is what happens when even VR can’t distract us from the agony of our workout?
As one reviewer pointed out, it doesn’t matter how elaborate the game is, “you’re still on a bike”.