Is VR about to reinvent how we work out?

Or is augmented reality enough tech for our future exercise sessions?
Is VR about to reinvent fitness?

It's too early to tell whether VR headsets will revolutionise the way we work and play as much as big brands and tech commentators would have us believe. But, for the time being at least, it appears to be shaking up all kinds of other industries, from gaming to porn.

One space VR was tipped to totally transform a year or so ago was fitness, with a number of larger brands and startups vying to bring apps and accessories to market that promised to shake up the way we work out for good. But fast-forward to 2017 and it seems like fitness is lagging behind.

Of course it doesn't take a particularly vivid imagination or insider knowledge of the hardware involved to guess why that might be. After all, unwieldy, tethered devices are the last thing you want strapped to your sweaty forehead when you're working out, right?

We were keen to find out why virtual reality and fitness aren't a match made in cardio heaven quite yet and whether it's the more obvious hardware limitations that are holding it back or deeper issues around consumer behaviour that are to blame instead.

Exploring VR's huge potential

Is virtual reality about to reinvent fitness?

Just because we're not all hooking ourselves up to VR equipment that makes us feel like we're white water rafting in North America (rather than sweating on a rowing machine in a tiny room) doesn't mean there haven't been lots of interesting fitness VR ideas over the past few years.

Every day virtual reality tech advances, it opens up more opportunity for it to make its mark on a number of industries, including fitness. For example, high quality graphics will ensure a more realistic experience and position tracking means a lot of physical movement while within a virtual world won't feel too jarring.

For starters, a number of simple games designed to get you moving more already exist, like the HTC Vive'sSelfie Tennis. Then when it comes to bigger systems, last year we wrote about Cooler Master's VR parachuting experience and Holodia's VR rowing machine rig, as well as the bonkers-looking simulator from Icaros. All of these are available to buy with a hefty price tag and are being rolled out to a select few gyms right now.

But one that piqued our interest the most was the VirZoom, a platform that can be used with the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR headsets. You get an exercise bike and games, so you can do all kinds of things like pretend you're in a car or bike rather than working out.

VirZoom was also one of the partners that Fitbit announced at this year's CES. You can now log bike sessions as exercises in the Fitbit app including time, distance, calories burned and heart rate data. The collaboration sounds simple enough but this ensures your VR workouts count for something if you're a conscientious activity logger.

It seems the relatively smaller price tag, consumer-friendly pitch and simple virtual experiences is also behind the fact that VirZoom is one of the first VR fitness solutions to announce a partnership with Life Fitness, the global leader in commercial fitness equipment that kits out loads of gyms across the globe.

Much of the talk around creating virtual reality experiences for fitness is about virtually transporting gym-goers somewhere else in order to make their workouts more enjoyable -- playing on the assumption that we'd all prefer to be running up the side of a picturesque mountain rather than pounding a treadmill and staring at a blank wall at a gym.

One thing is for sure, though, which is that it's taking more time for these solutions to permeate an industry that's already making big bucks and keeping people interested.

Is VR ready for fitness?

Although VR headsets have come a long way in a short amount of time when it comes to design and usability, there are still a number of issues that make them less than ideal when it comes to fitness or in a standard gym setting. Simon Barratt, director at Barog Game Labs which specialises in VR and AR, told us: "The issue is mainly ergonomic in terms of a headset that doesn't cling to your (sweaty!) face."

"PS VR and a few other headsets now hover in front of your face which is better. However depending on how active an exercise you're doing you wouldn't want to accidentally hurt yourself with the headset," he says. "I think it's likely going to need a few years of the hardware size being minimised and also making sure the headset isn't adding additional heat like they can do now."

Is VR about to reinvent how we work out?

How will sweaty headsets in gyms be cleaned?

Paul Bowman, CEO of virtual fitness company Wexer, also commented that issues of motion sickness will need to be addressed if we're layering virtual movement on top of physical movement. Headsets will need to be able to withstand lots of use, go truly wireless and of course there's the hygiene point of view - how will sweaty headsets be constantly cleaned?

These are all questions that can (and will) be answered, but they begin to explain why it's harder, and more complicated, for VR to seamlessly fit into the current fitness ecosystem.

As is the case with all virtual reality applications, there are huge cost implications too. VR headsets are already a little too pricey for your average consumer, but systems like VirZoom don't just require a headset but an exercise bike too. Sure, this won't stop gyms from investing in VR systems, but it will be a huge barrier to entry for those who want to get fit at home. Spending over $500 on a VR fitness accessory is a luxury only a few of us could imagine anyway.

Beyond technical issues and cost, it could be that virtual reality just doesn't lend itself to fitness as well as it does to entertainment. For some people adding gaming mechanics into fitness experiences and a healthy dose of escapism could work wonders, keeping them coming back for more and redefining the nature of what it means to workout.

But in many ways it's too early to tell and we don't know yet whether that'll always be the case. For example, maybe a virtual fitness experience could stop people from focusing on their body, muscles and form as much as they should? Or maybe it's just that, unlike gaming, fitness isn't something that requires us to be fully immersed in a different environment for us to enjoy it after all?

The case for AR instead

Is virtual reality about to reinvent fitness?

There's also huge potential for using virtual reality, and augmented reality, to allow people to work out smarter. Simon Barratt, director at Barog Game Labs, explained: "I feel that AR is more interesting than VR for exercise, being able to see someone performing correct form in front of you while seeing the rest of your actual surroundings for safety."

And Barratt wasn't the only industry insider who pointed us towards the potentials of augmented reality rather than virtual reality. "What I do believe is going to be successful, is augmented reality," explained Paul Bowman from Wexer.

"Existing AR devices such as sports smartglasses create personalised experiences for consumers. Not only do they ensure consumers remain spatially aware, but they motivate and inspire people by providing real-time data in their current environments."

By using augmented reality tech rather than fully immersive virtual worlds, the thinking is that many of the issues that stop us from integrating current VR solutions into our workout routines, like big, sweaty headsets, wires and motion sickness, might not hold us back quite so much. We can add fun to the fitness experience rather than completely changing it.

Amandine Flachs, events & communication manager at London's new Realities Centre, believes brands will slowly start experimenting with fitness. "Some innovative gyms are also already exploring another kind of immersive fitness," she says. "For example, shared experience through projection walls could be the first step before it becomes common to do sport while fully in VR."


VR for good - not just for profit

Whether VR workouts take off or AR sports accessories hog all the attention, it's important to remember that the potential here shouldn't just be focused on ensuring that people rich enough to afford a gym membership can enjoy their workouts a little more.

Making fitness more fun, and even accessible, could have wide-reaching implications for those who struggle with movement, rehabilitation, people who have ongoing issues with their health and weight or who those can't visit a gym for various reasons.

Of course affordability, not-quite-there-yet hardware and all kinds of other issues are still huge barriers here. But it's important to look beyond the obvious, money-making applications if virtual and augmented reality are really going to change the world and not just line the pockets of already eye-wateringly wealthy corporations.


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