VR fitness looks amazing but there's still one big problem

Trying to break the great gym boredom problem comes with a few hurdles
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For those of you who don't have your eyes glued to tech news, last week was Computex. That's the technology show which takes place in Taipei, Taiwan every year and is usually dominated by new graphics cards, processors (including a Qualcomm one for wearables) and the PCs that those next gen chips and components will be nestling inside.

This year, VR made its presence felt, which is perhaps no real surprise now that the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are a little easier to get hold of. Watching the show from afar, there were two demos that really stood out for me. The first was Cooler Master's VR parachuting experience and the other was Holodia's VR rowing machine rig.

With a HTC Vive hooked up to a PC and the user perched up on a Concept 2 rowing machine, Holodia's rig was able to transport you to far more exotic locations to work out in.

For years, companies have tried their best to break the monotony of sitting on a stationary bike or treadmill as you stare at yourself in the mirror, or desperately try to avoid making eye contact with neighbouring calorie haters. We have seen countless simulators and virtual trainers, but with VR it really feels that this is the solution to bring us out of that exercise slump.

VR fitness looks amazing but there's still one big problem

Making room for the Icaros flying simulator

My first experience of bridging VR and exercise was with the Virtuix Omni VR treadmill a couple of years ago. It was a setup in which I stood on a small circular treadmill, holding a plastic gun and transported into an FPS battlefield. Everything about it felt awkward, unnatural and personally didn't feel right.

Setups like the one from Holodia, or the VirZoom VR exercise bike controller or the frankly ridiculous looking Icaros flying simulator (pictured above) makes a little more sense. They feel like the natural progression from simulators that struggle to capture the idea of taking you from your mundane location and putting you into another one.

But there's some pretty big problems here. Wander onto Holodia's website for its nearly £10,000 VR rig and you'd think they'd magically managed to solve one of VR's biggest problems; the cables. Holodia's solution is to raise the cables up above, which I'm sure will work for those who have the capability to and space to assemble it that way. But, together with the price, that's a very small customer base.

Then there's that headset. Selfie tennis on the Vive is the closest I've felt yet to the workout I used to get playing Wii Tennis. And it doesn't take very long for things to start getting hot and sticky under the headset, just waving my arms about to 'serve'. The idea of wearing something that bulky while you're powering through a workout doesn't sound all that appealing to me. We might need to get to LG 360 VR levels of design and form factor, before I really feel comfortable about it.

Also, where do you put it? Pricey setups like Holodia will be reserved for those with enough disposable income to upgrade their 'dumb' gym equipment. The future for the rest of will surely lie in gyms. I visited a Virgin Active gym recently where they have dedicated rooms for altitude training. I can envisage a similar solution for VR.

I appreciate this is still early days for VR and companies are exploring what is possible with the hardware. The idea of being able to test run a route across the other side of the world without leaving my home or gym definitely appeals. It just might be a while before I try out a system that doesn't make me want to rip off the headsets and harnesses before I've even started.

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Michael Sawh


Michael Sawh has been covering the wearable tech industry since the very first Fitbit landed back in 2011. Previously the resident wearable tech expert at Trusted Reviews, he also marshaled the features section of T3.com.

He also regularly contributed to T3 magazine when they needed someone to talk about fitness trackers, running watches, headphones, tablets, and phones.

Michael writes for GQ, Wired, Coach Mag, Metro, MSN, BBC Focus, Stuff, TechRadar and has made several appearances on the BBC Travel Show to talk all things tech. 

Michael is a lover of all things sports and fitness-tech related, clocking up over 15 marathons and has put in serious hours in the pool all in the name of testing every fitness wearable going. Expect to see him with a minimum of two wearables at any given time.

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