For the longest time, video games have been a relatively stationary experience. You vegetate on a couch, controller in hand, and work your way through level after level. There have been some diversions - things like Dance Dance Revolution, Xbox Kinect and Nintendo Wii - but for the most part video games haven't been seen as a form of exercise.
That's not the case with virtual reality. High-end headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have room sensors that can track your head movement and arm movement via touch controllers. You're moving side-to-side, dodging objects and flailing your arms about. The Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise, established earlier this year, wants to prove that VR games can provide a work out equivalent to more traditional forms of exercise.
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The Institute is an independent organization which has partnered up with San Francisco State University to test and rate games, giving them an equivalency rating that lets you know how many calories you can expect to burn while playing - as well as what kind of exercise it's equivalent to. For example, it found that playing AudioShield in VR could net you 8 to 10 calories per minute, which is the equivalent of rowing.
This will be a piece of cake, I thought. I'll flail my arms about a bit, move side-to-side like a penguin during mating season and be good to go.
The Institute's lab is in a nondescript building near the heart of San Francisco State's campus. It's bright, and the dichotomy of VR and health equipment hits you immediately. In one corner there are a bunch of stationary bikes; in the other, a Virtuix Omni VR treadmill. In between them, almost as if it was a meeting of pacification between the two, is a high-end computer hooked up to a HTC Vive and a device that can track and analyze the oxygen in your breath.
I stood in the middle of the room and put on the Vive, ready to go through a small gauntlet of high-intensity VR games to see how sweaty I could get. This was going to piece of cake, I thought. I'll flail my arms about a bit, move side-to-side like a penguin during mating season and be good to go. I was so wrong.
The first game was Knockout League. It only took a couple of minutes for me to realize that wearing jeans and a hoody was a terrible idea. As I dodged, ducked, dipped and punched, my breath shortened and sweat accumulated. The next game was AudioShield, in which I decided to tone it down a bit and took on a slower song. Like AudioShield, Knockout League is also the equivalent to rowing. The final game was Gorn, in which I flailed my arms about and violently murdered digital gladiators. This one was much less intense, but its equivalent is an elliptical, netting about 4 to 6 calories per minute.
Then it was time for Aaron Stanton, director of the Institute, to show me how it was really done. Skill level factors into how much exercise you can gleam from a VR game. The more skilled you are, the faster you can go. He promptly turned on AudioShield, shot up the difficulty, and moved. You know how in arcades the expert Dance Dance Revolution players garner crowds? This was like that, but for VR. Once he was done schooling me, he pointed out how out of breath he was, saying that it used to be easier for him back when he played more regularly.
"If AudioShield is actually exercise - and it feels like exercise to me - then this Vive is by far the best exercise equipment I've ever owned," Stanton said. "I have bought ellipticals before, I have bought a treadmill and I have bought a rowing machine, and I promise you I have not spent 100 hours on any of them. I'm not sure what the actual hours would be, but if I have spent a cumulative 10 hours on them I'd be impressed."
All your ratings are belong to us
At the heart of the Institute's ratings is the metabolic equivalent score (metscore for short). It's a way of measuring the required energy level of an activity based on a multiple over your metabolic resting rate. It turns out that the government and various research organizations have figured out the metscore for practically everything.
For example, the metscore for golf, dancing, playing with your dog and gardening are all in the same 4 to 4.9 range. Weightlifting, moving furniture and a brisk uphill walk are in the same 6 to 6.9 range. The institute figures out the metscores by monitoring heart rate via a chest strap and the breath of someone playing a game.
Unfortunately, metscores also don't mean much to regular people, Stanton admits. If you tell a regular person that Robo Recall, for example, has a metscore of three they're going to stare at you like you're speaking Klingon.
That's why the team also converts the metscore into kilogram calories, which Stanton says is the best metric for most people. So when you look at the Institute's scores, you get a calorie range per minute, and you get what kind of traditional exercise it's equivalent to.
Every gym will have some element of augmented or virtual reality in it
However, there are a couple problems the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise encounters when putting together its ratings. "Games are not consistent, there are certain parts of a game that are very active and certain parts that are not," Stanton says. So what the Institute does is identify the part of the game that represents typical energy burn while playing, and then they capture the immediate space before and after that.
The other problem is equipment. VR systems are still tethered, so full range of motion isn't extremely comfortable yet. On top of that, the machine to track breathing only has a 6-foot cord, which limits mobility. And then the mask pushes the headset up, which can alter point of view and limit immersion.
All of this, plus the skill factor in games, means that the Institute might actually be underselling the calorie burning abilities of a game. Something it readily admits: "We are not predicting the max possible."
The future of exercise?
"I look forward to the day when the VR industry - or AR industry - becomes the single largest community of exercisers in the world and not a single one of those people think of themselves as exercisers or an exercise community," says Stanton.
AudioShield launched back in April 2016, and according to SteamSpy it's racked up a total of 628,000 hours of gameplay from users. The Institute, using its methodology, believes that that translates to over 268 million sit-ups, 318,000 hours of aerobics and avoiding 611,100 hamburgers based on calorie burn.
VR - and AR - almost tricks you into exercising. You're not there to move around, you're there for an experience. The moving around is almost an unintended byproduct of your experience, as can be proven by the many hundreds of thousands of miles Pokémon Go players have walked to catch those adorable creatures.
"I believe with a great deal of certainty that in five years that every gym will have some element of augmented or virtual reality in it," says Stanton. "Equipment will have something that connects. I don't know what the form will look like, but it solves too big a problem that exercises face, which is that it's not very interesting to a lot of people."