Virtual reality's most dangerous experience has become a whole lot less dangerous, and a lot more interesting this morning.
What was an attachment to a standard bike to be pedaled in place while wearing a VR headset, has become a a collapsable exercise bike loaded with VR, health and gaming functions and, as of this morning, available for early access purchase at $199.95. That price doesn't include any of the supported VR headsets.
More interesting, though, is that the VirZoom will ship with five virtual reality games and a month's subscription to a optional service that adds online multiplayer functionality, data tracking over time, updates to the released games and a steady stream of new VirZoom-supported titles. VirZoom Plus will sell for $9.99 a month.
The early access VirZoom (only 300 will be available) will ship in the first half of 2016. After those 300 are sold out, the kit will sell for $249.95. Currently the device supports the Oculus, HTV Vive and PlayStation VR.
At E3 earlier this year, I had a chance to check out the original version of the VirZoom in a darkened upstairs room of the LA Convention Center using a PlayStation VR headset.
Headset on, straddling a standard road bike with its rear wheel attached to a trainer, I was suddenly riding a winged horse. The experience was exhilarating, but it also felt like I might topple from the bike at any moment. The developers repeatedly cautioned me (and other's who tried the rig) to not lean into turns — a natural movement when riding a bike.
In my mostly positive story, I called the experience "the E3 game most likely to result in open head wounds."
At a recent demo of the new system in a New York office, VirZoom co-founder Eric Janszen said he took that headline seriously in redesigning their system.
Gone was the need to convert your own bike into a VR accessory. In its place was a compact, collapsible, heavily modified exercise bike. A simple, X design ensures that the bike is essentially untippable. The forward facing handlebars each include thumbsticks, triggers and buttons. And inbetween those handlebars is the sensor that communicates all of your data to the virtual reality game you are playing.
This time around I felt much more comfortable on the bike. My initial weariness about suddenly tipping over while completely enveloped in a virtual reality slowly subsided as I peddled and sweated my way through three different short game demos.
First up was the same winged-horse game I tried at E3, months earlier.
The first thing I notice is that I can see the horse I'm sitting on and see its wings. This helps me adjust a bit. As I pedal the horse went from a slow walk, to a trot, to a steady canter and then finally broke into a gallop. The object of this game was to get the best time racing around the canyon track. The key to winning was picking up enough apples to enable your horse to fly, allowing you to short-cut across the canyon drop-offs instead of following the winding dirt track.
The bike underneath me felt much more sturdy, like it wasn't going anywhere, which helped calm my nerves a bit.
A second experience in this game had me powering my flight by pedaling, trying to stay aloft as long as possible by gather those flight-granting apples that pepper the world.
When the horseplay was over, I noticed I was sweating a bit and asked whether that might be an issue, since players will be wearing a headset.
"Early on sweat was a big concern," said Spencer Honeyman, director of business development at VirZoom said. "It's something we are very cognizant of. But we haven't had one complaint yet about it because people seem to be so aware of the gameplay."
The bike is designed to not just be a fun virtual reality experience, but to also provide a legitimate workout. A knob beneath the handlebars can adjust the tension of the bike's pedals, something that the game will sense and adjust for.
During my time with the bike, I was playing at level four of eight levels.
Next up, I played a much more game-like experience. This one had me riding a non-winged horse through a western town as I attempted to lasso and capture other people on horseback.
It took a few seconds to adjust to the gameplay elements, but once I did it felt like the sort of easy-to-play, fun-to-experience light game that made the Wii so popular when it first launched.
The least favorite of my experiences was my last one, a game that put me in the driver's seat of a race car. Controlling the turning and speed of the vehicle was pretty straight forward, but I struggled to get the car to behave the way I wanted it to. And the experience itself didn't feel nearly as magical as the horse flight and horse riding ones.
While the all of the experiences felt great, the graphics were still very underwhelming. I'm not sure that will be a deal breaker, though. As with those early Wii motion games, VirZoom's titles seem much more about the fun and experience then the graphics.
The idea of picking up a system designed from the ground-up to immerse me so fully into a game that I forget I'm exercising is vastly appealing. It's also most definitely the big draw for the VirZoom. With heart rate sensors planned for the handles and the ability to track calories burned and distance traveled, the company seems to be aiming for the sweet spot of exergaming; hoping to create something more like Dance Dance Revolution then those run programs you find on a treadmill.
But it remains unclear how useful the VirZoom will be outside of the stream of games the company plans to create and sell through a subscription.
When I ask Janszen about using the device to power a portion of another game, like say your ability to run in a shooter, he noted the number of challenges that something like that would face.
"All of these games have to be developed from the ground up," he said. "It took about nine months to get that nice feeling. We're still learning what kind of game mechanics work, what kind of play.
"Then we will be ready to show other people how to make these games. Then we will have an [software development kit]"
He said despite those inherent challenges and despite the fact that the VirZoom hasn't been released yet, they do get a lot of pitches for games.
"Like 'Do a ride through Paris,'" he said.
The problem with that seemingly great idea is that to execute it you can't simply capture a bike ride through Paris on a special camera and then slap it into the game.
"That would be an on the rail experience, which wouldn't feel good," he said. "You'd have to recreate Paris in Unity to make that work."
That's the first big issue a developer has to tackle: Making sure a person has the ability to move through the virtual world. The second is making sure the physics match up.
Janszen said he can see third-party games coming to the VirZoom down the line, but that they'd have to be designed from the ground up for virtual reality. Certain types of experiences, he added, are also a better fit, like flight.
"The immersive quality of virtual reality is really accentuated with flight," he said. "Somethings are magical, like flight."