The Future Health Kick: Workouts At The Virtual Reality Gym

9 mins

The future of fitness isn’t in a gym – it’s in a virtual reality headset and can tackle type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity, discovers Nick Harding 

I’ve seen the future of fitness. It wasn’t in a high-tech gym. It was in the basement of an open-space office in central London. No one wore Lycra and there wasn’t a personal trainer, Instagram nutrition blogger or Youtube exercise vlogger in sight.

I was taken to a curtained-off area.  At the front there was a table with a computer on it. There was also a virtual reality headset, because in the future you will not go to the gym, the gym will come to you. Except it will not be a gym. It will be the CGI simulacrum of a futurist city in which you’ll fight rogue robots, panting with exertion and adrenaline; or a medieval battlefield through which you’ll rage, swinging flails and maces, emerging at the end dripping with sweat and virtual gore, many calories lighter.

Of course, if you’re a fan of Zumba and Pilates classes in the local community centre, this may not sound like your thing. If, however, you do not like gyms, don’t care much for jogging or cycling, or are a screen-addicted child, this could well save you from type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and other obesity-related unpleasantries.

At the front there was a table with a computer on it. There was also a virtual reality headset, because in the future you will not go to the gym, the gym will come to you

The future of fitness is virtual reality, and while the technology and applications are still embryonic, the revolution is coming and when it does a generation of teen gamers will rise unsteadily from their gaming chairs and start flapping around in their bedrooms with hitherto unrealised vim. Once the inevitable orthopaedic injuries and broken furnishings have been repaired, everyone will be healthier.

For the uninitiated, virtual reality is the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment that can be accessed using a headset with screens inside the visor and earphones at the side. The user is immersed and can interact with the environment using equipment such as hand controllers or gloves fitted with sensors. The idea has been around for decades, but an early Nineties boom in VR gaming was cut short by cumbersome equipment, snail-paced processing speeds and primitive graphics.

The concept of gamifying fitness is also nothing new. Nintendo’s Wii Fit was launched in 2007 and sold 22.67 million copies worldwide by 2012. Modern-day fitness trackers such as the Fitbit and apps such as MyFitnessPal work on the same gamification principle.

virtual reality

Fitness apps work on the same principle as VR. Image: Shutterstock

Virtual Reality, however, turns the idea on its head and starts with the game or ‘experience’, as its called. Because VR happens in a three-dimensional space, the user’s whole body gets involved, so the fitness element is almost incidental. In the most advanced VR systems, sensors map body movements in the real world and project them onto the virtual environment. Consequently, while bone-idle Wii users quickly worked out that they could play Wii tennis while sitting on the couch; controller in one hand, biscuit in the other, VR does not allow that luxury. You have to move to get involved. And more importantly, the experience is so engaging, you want to get involved.

While bone-idle Wii users quickly worked out that they could play Wii tennis while sitting on the couch; controller in one hand, biscuit in the other, VR does not allow that luxury. You have to move to get involved. And more importantly, the experience is so engaging, you want to get involved

The potential is huge. VR has already scored one high-profile fitness success. One California-based writer and gamer, Job Stauffer, claims to have lost 50lb in five months playing Virtual Reality Sound Boxing, which requires players to punch objects that fly towards them in time with the beat of the music.

virtual reality

In the most advanced VR systems, sensors map body movements in the real world and project them onto the virtual environment. Image: Shutterstock

Back in the concrete basement, I test the fitness potential of VR by playing Sports Challenge on the Samsung Gear VR, and Fruit Ninja and Robo Recall on the Oculus Rift. I use a heart monitor and Fitbit to measure heart rate, effort level and calorie burn. I’m a regular gym user with a fairly high level of fitness, so to add resistance, I use a 10kg weighted vest and 1kg weights on each wrist.

1. Sports Challenge on the Samsung Gear VR

First up; the VR Gear and Sports Challenge. The hardware consists of a headset and a single motion-sensing hand controller which operates the virtual hands that appear when you put on the visor. You can grab, punch, shoot and swipe. The visual environment is provided by a Samsung Galaxy phone, which clicks into the headset. The VR experience plays on the phone screen and through lenses in the headset, which are positioned to create a 360°, 3D field of vision. As you move your head, the screen tracks your movement, so you can look around as you would in the real world. The graphics are not high definition, but the effect of being in a virtual environment is compelling. Sports Challenge consists of several games. I choose one which involves catching American footballs lobbed from all directions. Every so often a bomb is thrown, which can be swatted away by pressing a button on the hand controller that turns the virtual hands into a virtual frying pan. It is easy to play, involves a whole range of body movement and is entertaining. For safety reasons, I am advised to keep my feet planted on the ground, but I find myself stepping to the sides to catch wide throws. After a couple of games my heart rate is elevated slightly from a resting 56bpm to around 65. It rises to the early seventies when I add weights and records my effort level at 52 per cent. It is fun, but not particularly challenging for someone who does regular high intensity training.

2. Fruit Ninja on the Oculus Rift 

Next, I put on the Oculus Rift headset. The difference between the two pieces of kit is pronounced. The graphics are far superior, and the two controllers allow a much richer, more intuitive range of interaction. After a brief virtual reality tutorial from a floating robot, I begin to play Fruit Ninja and have my fitness epiphany.

The game started life as an addictive smartphone app in which players swipe the screen to chop floating fruit. In VR Fruit Ninja the player is positioned in a martial arts dojo holding a Samurai sword in each hand. Fruit flies in all directions while you try to slice it. The better you get, the more fruit emerges until, at certain points, it becomes a torrent and you find yourself totally engrossed, bent at angles, squatting to the sides, arms swishing furiously in the air like a demented air-drummer. With the weights I soon strain and sweat. My heart rate elevates into the nineties and my effort level peaks to 72 per cent (which for me is classed as a fat burning activity level, rather than cardio vascular). It is stupidly fun and incredibly addictive. I only play a few short games, but I can see how a half hour session would have the potential to leave someone exhausted.

It is stupidly fun and incredibly addictive. I only play a few short games, but I can see how a half hour session would have the potential to leave someone exhausted

3. Robo Recall on the Oculus Rift 

Finally, I am immersed in Robo Recall, a game set in a richly-designed futurist cityscape where the robot security forces have gone rogue and it is the player’s job to shoot them, punch them, wrestle them or tear them limb from limb. The graphics are excellent, and the game again demands plenty of physical movements. Players duck and dive, twist and turn. The more you move, the better the experience. There is a storyline which compels you to stay within the experience and the element of threat also helps raise adrenaline levels and heart rate. I play for around half an hour and in parts the physicality of the game is demanding, but not as fast and furious as Fruit Ninja. I can however, see how the addictive game-play would hook people in and while none of the games I played are specifically developed to help people get fitter, after 107 minutes of stop-start activity, I burned 401 calories and measured an average heart rate of 76 bpm.

The day after my VR experiment I went to my normal gym and mentioned the experience to a fitness trainer friend there, who sighed and lamented that many in the fitness industry are worried about being replaced by VR. There are already signs. Swiss company Holodia builds VR worlds for gyms that players can enjoy at the same time as using cycling or rowing machines.

Sadly, as with all disruptive technology, there will inevitably be some human bloodletting. But VR has a way to go yet. There are limitations. The best graphics are provided by sets connected to a PC, so you have to remain in the same spot. There are also safety considerations. If you start moving around in virtual space, it’s easy to bump into real world objects and it is neither safe or advisable to use VR headsets outside. But these are problems which will be overcome.

Most likely, VR will become an addictive gateway activity to get people exercising and to coax young people out of sloth; a Wii Fit on steroids. People who enjoy gyms and physical pursuits will still exercise in the real world, but on a treadmill the graphics are not as good, and sadly, when you trudge away on a cross trainer there are no robots to rip apart.

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