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How virtual reality may make a better exercise bike

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Will pretending to be a race car make you pedal harder, longer?

The padding on both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift can get pretty gross when you sweat.

Virzoom is going to offer a solution to this problem; the company just isn't sure what it is yet. Maybe you can buy a waterproof lining on their website, or disposable covers for when you work out. But the company knows it's an issue. Virzoom wants to make you sweat, and they think virtual reality will help get you there.

Why a bike in VR?

The Virzoom platform is based on an existing exercise bike design that's already sold at volume, especially overseas, but they worked with the manufacturer to make it more hospitable for this particular software and your movement in virtual reality.

The legs have been extended so you can lean to the left and right without toppling over. The speed sensors are about "eight times more granular" than the standard sensors, according to Virzoom's Spencer Honeyman. The handlebars have controllers for the games, and can send a low-energy bluetooth signal to PC, PS4 or Android devices.

The product is also self-contained; you can fold it up and put it in the corner when you're done with your workout. The whole platform weighs under forty pounds, and the hardware will sell for $399.99.

But again, why work out in VR?

"In the fitness industry you have people trying to distract themselves from the tedious cardio experience," Honeyman said. They may watch television or listen to music, but in general any distraction that keeps someone from staring at the clock becomes a selling point for fitness equipment.

"You can use VR to motivate a user," he continued. "It's not about just 'Oh, I'm doing this and I forget about it,' which does happen in VR, because you believe you're in a different avatar or creature, your full field of vision is covered, so you believe you're someplace else. So we can harness the user's emotional response to virtual reality to motivate them to move. That's the fundamental principle."

I've been using a rough, alpha version of the Virzoom bike at home for a while now, and the company has been sending weekly software updates for those of us testing the hardware. Biking in virtual reality is a strange experience, but it also makes sense. You don't have to physically move around a room on a bike, but you do feel as though you're creating forward momentum. I found myself so focused on the goal of the game and keeping the play moving that I wasn't focused on my aching legs.

There is another, more subtle aspect of working out this way in VR. Going to the gym can be relaxing because you're leaving behind both your office and your home. You're going to a third location, and it's easier to leave your troubles behind when you do so. Biking on the Virzoom allows me to feel as though I'm leaving an environment that's causing me stress to work out in a world where my deadlines don't exist — all without physically leaving the house.

"Your forget you're pedaling and it's just a means to move in the virtual world," Honeyman explained. "One thing we try to convey is that this is a locomotion solution."

The games involve skill; there is actually a limit to how fast you can pedal your car in the racing game. You win by learning how to steer and take the corners best while pedaling. It's not just a test of your cardio abilities, it's about continuous motion. You'll earn coins and be able to upgrade your avatars and characters in the game.

"There's the immediate motivation that makes VR special: If I don't pedal, I'm not going to reach that bandit," Honeyman said. There are also online leaderboards and competitions so you can track your progress against your friends or the rest of the community.

virzoom hardware

There are also multiplayer games where you're driving a tank against other players or racing against each other in the race cars, complete with voice chat. You can track your progress either competitively, measured against other people, or just against your own best times and in-game performance.

The product will ship with five "avatar worlds" with minigames and challenges, which will be updated and will continue to evolve, with more games on the way. That ongoing content strategy is a large part of the business, in fact.

The Virzoom is being sold as a platform just as much as a piece of exercise equipment. Customers who purchase before the end of June will be given a lifetime membership for free but, and this is a rather large but, anyone getting on board after that date will either need to pay $200 for a lifetime membership or pay $10 a month to use the platform.

"We know that we need to give you a continuous stream of new content to keep you motivated and keep you wanting to use it," Virzoom CEO Eric Janszen told Polygon.

"Unlike your average fitness equipment company that’s interested in having you buy a bike and doesn’t care if you use it, our model is designed to figure out how to deliver continuous content, new stuff, not just ours, but third party and other kinds of content to keep you moving," he continued. "Because that’s the point of the product."

virzoom game

And novelty is admittedly a powerful motivator. I've been pedaling my way through the games, which include a world where you're controlling a helicopter with your body and looking where you'd like to aim your missiles. The tank game allows you to play against other people online. Another one puts you on a flying horse.

Controlling the games with your gaze and by leaning your body to the left and right feels great, as does maintaining motion by pedaling. You feel locked into the world while you're working out. During my sessions I would often find myself sweating without looking at the clock to see when the session would be over.

"We're motivating you to pedal, and we're motivating you to move," Honeyman said. "Different games will do that in different ways."

We'll have a more detailed look at the shipping hardware in June, but based on our early tests, this is an effective way to get people motivated to work out in a way that doesn't feel like drudgery. Adding a subscription fee to the top of the $399.99 asking price, however, could limit the Virzoom's appeal.

Also, it has to be said ... you do look silly riding an exercise bike wearing a VR helmet.