"I’ve seen the future of fitness. Come next January, you won’t need to worry about going to the gym the gym will come to you. Or rather, a CGI simulacrum of a futuristic city, in which you’ll fight rogue robots, panting with exertion and adrenaline, will come to you" - Nick Harding about VR in fitness.
Of course, if you’re a fan of Zumba and Pilates classes in the village hall, this may not sound like your cup of tea. If, however, you do not like gyms or classes, and don’t care much for jogging or cycling, it could well save you from type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and many other obesity-related unpleasantries.
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 in a digital environment they can interact with using hand controllers or gloves fitted with sensors.
The idea has been around for decades, and when Nintendo’s Wii Fit was launched in 2007, it sold 22.67 million copies worldwide by 2012. But while bone-idle Wii users quickly worked out that they could play tennis while sitting on the couch – controller in one hand, biscuit in the other – today, we are on the cusp of a new wave of VR innovation.
One of the most technologically advanced systems, the Oculus Rift, provides a sensory experience so engrossing you want to get involved; the fitness element is almost incidental. The company that makes it – Oculus – was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $2.3 billion. Users can explore stunning landscapes, climb virtual mountains, zoom in to anywhere on the planet using virtual Google Earth or sit aboard an Apollo space mission.
The potential is huge: one California-based writer and gamer, Job Stauffer, claims to have lost 50lb in five months on another VR system, HTC Vive, playing a game called Soundboxing in which players punch objects that fly towards them in time with the beat of the music.
In the basement of a minimalist open-plan office in London, I test two systems, using a heart monitor and Fitbit to measure heart rate, effort level and calorie burn. I’m a six-day-a-week intensive 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.
First up; the Samsung VR Gear. The kit 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 ‘experience’ plays on a Samsung Galaxy phone (not included), which clicks into the headset and connects to the lenses, 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.
I choose a Sports Challenge game, which involves catching American footballs lobbed from all directions. It’s easy to play and involves a whole range of body movement. After a couple of games my heart rate is elevated slightly from a resting 56bpm to around 65. It rises to the early 70s when I add weights and records my effort level at 52 percent. It’s fun, if not particularly challenging for someone who does regular high intensity training.
Next, I put on the Oculus Rift headset, which needs to be connected to a PC with a decent graphics card and processor. 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 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 virtual 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 like a demented air-drummer.
With the weights, I soon strain and sweat. My heart rate elevates into the 90s and my effort level peaks to 72 percent (which for me is classed as a fat burning activity level, rather than cardio vascular). It is stupidly fun and incredibly addictive. A half-hour session would leave me exhausted.
Finally, I am immersed in Robo Recall, a game set in a richly-designed futuristic 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. Duck and dive, twist and turn – the more you move, the better the experience. The storyline compels you to stay within the experience and the element of threat also helps raise adrenaline levels and heart rate.
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 it to a fitness trainer friend there, who sighed and lamented that many in the industry are worried about being replaced. 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.
And 200 gyms across the world now use the Icaros full-body, gyroscopically-controlled machine, which users steer through a virtual landscape using core strength. Sadly, as with all disruptive technology, there will inevitably be some human jobletting. But most gyms are overstaffed with preening trainers anyway. Perhaps the casualties can find work as Uber drivers.
VR has a way to go yet. There are limitations and 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 coax a certain section of the population 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, there are no rogue robots in sight.