2017/03/30

I Worked Out In Virtual Reality For A Month And This Is What Happened

Biking in VR with the HTC Vive
Zara Stone
Biking in VR with the HTC Vive
Every year I promise myself I’ll work out more, eat better and cross some items off my bucket list. This time around I was equipped with VirZOOM, a virtual reality connected exercise bike to help make my fitness goals come true.
I tend to get easily bored with workouts and the prospect of gamifying my fitness seemed appealing. Could shooting down tanks and flying a Pegasus prevail where any combination of pilates/trampoline dodgeball/pole-dancing and circus arts had failed?
To make my virtual reality test feel accurate, I decided that this was the only form of exercise I’d do for one week, and after that, I could incorporate it into my regular mix of gym and ClassPass. I wanted to see how much I enjoyed it, how effective it was and if the gaming part was addictive enough to keep me wanting more.
VirZOOM biking
Zara Stone
VirZOOM biking
The basics:
VirZOOM retails for $399 and is available at Amazon, Target, and other stores. It’s not the only virtual reality fitness gadget, for example, the Icaros offers a full body flying experience, but that’s around $8000, and the awesome Virtuix Omni Treadmill is only available for businesses.

To play, you need a compatible headset and the bike is compatible with all the big players — that’s Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive Headsets. Like any VR experience, you'll need a powerful computer/PlayStation to run this, which means an investment of around $1000 - $1500. If that’s a little steep, people who are curious can try this at some of the VR Arcades springing up around America. An added bonus is that the company recently launched competitive workouts at some venues (the full list is here) in partnership with HTC, AMD, and FitBit. Here, you battle other players to win prizes — which in many cases, is a home kit of your own. Boom.
The VirZOOM handlebars
Zara Stone
The VirZOOM handlebars
The VirZOOM setup:
The bike arrived in a large cardboard box, that contains bike parts, an instruction booklet, and a mini wrench. It took me around thirty minutes to put this together, snapping on the saddle, screwing in the pedals and adjusting the handlebars. It would help to have another person around when you do this, as I could have cut down my time if I hadn't had to balance everything on my own. Once assembled the bike feels sturdy and looks pretty slick, with a shiny black finish. It weighs in at 39 pounds and they say it can handle up to 260 pounds.

What’s really nice about this is that one of the center pins (the frame locking pin) can be removed so I can fold the bike up, which means I can stow it in a closet when not in use. Annoyingly there’s nowhere to store this important piece when the bike is folded — and you really don't want to lose it! — so I attached a purse to the front handlebar, to keep it all contained. Tension can be adjusted through a knob at the front of the bike, similar to Spin bikes and both handlebars double as joysticks with control buttons on top and triggers where your fingers grip.

To connect the bike to your computer and virtual reality setup, there’s a Bluetooth dongle which acts as a controller in terms of calibration. Two AA batteries power the Bluetooth signal on the bike, and flicking the switch under the handlebars turns on the signal — a green light should flash in response. The bike includes a number of free games, accessed through VirZOOM's arcade; as I have a HTC Vive I accessed this through Steam. And that’s it for setup —- occasionally I have to wait while something updates, but it’s wire free (apart from the one attached to my headset) which is really nice.
VirZOOM front
Zara Stone
VirZOOM front
Day One:
Today I put on my workout gear, strapped on my HTC Vive headset and got ready to rock. Sitting on the bike I calibrate myself by tilting left and right, mimicking the in-game shadow. Then I have to hop off my bike and reboot the computer as Steam crashed — typical. But that’s not VirZOOM’s fault. One really awesome thing about this setup is that I don’t have to do Room Scale setup — something that’s really annoying when I normally play in VR. Because I haven't permanently installed my base stations (I’m in a rented apartment) I need to map my play area every time. Here, I can just hop on and go!
I use my bodyweight to shift through the menu options, tilting left and right to scroll and then pulling the trigger and pedaling to select. Be careful to get this right or the menu starts spinning incredibly fast, which can make you feel pretty sick. I’ve tried VirZOOM before, but only short demos at conferences, and it’s exciting to have a real spin with it — and in appropriate gear. First, I cued up the Pegasus game, which had me pedaling across treetops in search of apples and jewels, both for points and to give my flying beast energy to stay aloft. If I ran out of juice (apples) I’d sink to the ground, so I pedaled hard to collect as much as I could. I love how this looked — the wings at my side and the gorgeous canyon below me, but the game itself was annoyingly repetitive and I had to crouch forward to dive and kept missing apples and crash into the ground.
Helicopter game
Virzoom.com
Helicopter game
Next, I tried the Chopper River Run Helicopter game, where I was manning a missile-loaded helicopter which was flying through dangerous waters. I had to destroy the missile towers before I received too many hits and had to keep replenishing my fuel by cycling through fuel tanks. I pulled the trigger to aim and targeted my enemies by using a laser pointer that was roughly in the middle of my forehead. This was incredibly addictive and I lost track of time as I circled, hovered, dived, died, died again and repeat.

It’s a simple game, but being able to improve my score each flight — and see myself rank higher on the leaderboard made this engaging enough to keep repeating. It also helped that I was ranking pretty highly (for me) in part, because the game currently has a few users, meaning I could actually hit the top 20 a couple of times... #humblebrag. Soon sweat was pouring down my face... which was actually pretty disgusting as my head was encased in this giant plastic thing and I kept envisaging weird acne grooves forming where my skin touched the headset. When I removed the headset, the inside foam was soaked through, which grossed me out enough to put it down. I think I’m going to invest in some VR Covers, designed for exactly this problem. I’d been working out for over an hour but it felt like no time at all.
Winterstan Tank Game
Virzoom.com
Winterstan Tank Game
Day Two
Today I decided to experiment more with my gaming workout, trying out a bunch of different levels and modes and getting the hang of the power-up menu. I set up a proper user profile with the lofty goal of burning 1500 calories a session — aiming high, right? I like the in-game sound effects, but the music was a little repetitive, so I thought it was cool that I could sync this with a Pandora (or, in my case, just play loud music in the background). VirZOOM’s also added compatibility with Fitbit and Strava — an all round win for those addicted to fitness trackers who want proof they’ve achieved their daily goals.

There are a couple of ways to play/workout on the VirZOOM. There’s Quickplay which takes you straight into a game, Hotseat, where you challenge friends and hop on and off the bike to battle and Timed workout, where you can set your desired session time and fill it with your favorite games. Timed and Quickplay were my friends here — I wanted an efficient workout, and though playing against people seemed cool, that wasn't the point here. I’m a casual gamer, more a fan of Tekken style beat-em-ups than DOTA like strategy and I wanted simple and straightforward.

I tried the Cowboy Jailbreak game, which involves cycling/galloping away and leaning forwards and releasing the trigger to lasso wild horses and the bandits atop them. This was western themed (no surprise), and I liked how everything from the dusty streets to the yee-haws kept in character. The horse chases appeared in waves, so there were interludes were I could sit back and take it a little easy — and then peddle furiously to catch up again. That’s the basis of interval training, but it didn't feel like it here.
Next, I tried out the race car game, loving the fact that my reflection in the wing mirror was that of an adorable puppy — and all the other drivers were dogs, like, real animated driving dogs. This was a more atypical type of game, as you raced around the track to beat them, and passed checkpoints etc. There’s also a more realistic biking game, but I prefer the games where my steed was anything but a bicycle — riding a tank or helicopter kept me more immersed in the fantasy world.
Pegasus Game
Virzoom.com
Pegasus Game
Day Four
Yesterday I had a headache, so I took the day off. I think I might have been spending too long inside the headset and not drinking enough water and I’m loaded up with Gatorade today. There’s no way to attach a bottle to the bike which is a shame. I find that I’m already starting to play some games more than others, the helicopter and the cowboy game are clear winners for me. I briefly tried a kayaking game but found it too slow-paced, so kinda zoned out. I’m getting a better understanding of the menus and can switch around more easily, and liked how they have “moderate” and “intense” options for some of the games, meaning there’s a lot more to unlock.

Day Six
In helicopter mode, I’ve got the hang of targeting and shooting my missiles, but I find that I’m actually pedaling less, choosing to hang back and focus rather than speed up and pedal past. As long as there’s enough fuel this strategy works, but I know I’m not working out as hard as I’d like. The credit menu does give me an indication of calories burned but I think they’re way off.
VirZOOM bike
Zara Stone
VirZOOM bike
One Week Verdict:
I’ve worked out five days this week, which is definitely more than I usually spend at the gym. On the downside, I wouldn't say all my workouts have been that intense, and there’s a lot of messing around between games where I navigate the menu. Improving in my gameplay doesn't necessarily means improving physically, as learning targeting tricks can mean less force is used..but still, it’s keeping me hooked. I think this type of fitness isn't enough on its own, as it’s purely cardiovascular benefits and you want to include some weight training as part of a workout program. Additionally, the headset is really disgusting when you sweat, and that’s something that can’t really be fixed which is a shame.

One Month Verdict:
I’ve spent the last month consciously trying to use the VirZOOM as much as possible, using it in place of my normal cardio sessions while keeping up my pilates reformer classes on the side. Overall, I feel I’ve noticed more muscle definition in my legs and my endurance for biking has improved overall. The experience is still entertaining, though the choice of games is starting to feel more limited and I’d welcome some new additions to their library (they do say they’ll add some this year).
The VirZOOM bike
Zara Stone
The VirZOOM bike
Overall Thoughts:
Any home fitness equipment runs the risk of turning into a clothes hanger, but for the most part, the VirZOOM avoided this fate, if only because VR setup is still so fiddly that everything gets put away properly. The design of the bike is simple and straightforward but I would like to see a couple of additions such as a water bottle holder added, and considering the amount of sweat that builds up I think bundling this with a VR Cover would be a nice touch. It’s an expensive peripheral, but on par with many exercise bikes and some friends have used the bike just as a bike, working out, headset-free, to the newest Expanse episode. One concern was about motion sickness but this wasn't an issue for me. The software and hardware seem to finally be advanced enough that I can play for a couple of hours without feeling nauseous (earlier generations of the Oculus headset used to give me migraines).

I want to note that VirZOOM is more than just a connected bike, as it also works as an emulator for many PC games. This isn't something I tested out here, but I can imagine it might be interesting/puzzling to cycle your way through EVE Valkyrie.
Overall, I think this bike is a great addition to the VR fitness gaming world, and am excited to see what updates the developers will release next. It won’t turn you into Lance Armstrong, but it will definitely stop you being a couch potato.. at least for a while.
Zara Stone reports on the intersection of technology and culture. You can find more of her work at www.zarastone.net. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.
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