With virtual reality’s big consumer launch mere months away, the field of “hot new peripherals” is expanding rapidly. Case in point: Last week I strapped on an Oculus Rift and rode a bicycle as a superpowered fan blew in my face. It looked pretty damn silly.
The VirZoom’s a stationary bike with rudimentary gamepad controls built into the handles and sensors that track how fast you’re pedaling. That information’s then relayed (via Bluetooth) to an accompanying app. This isn’t really anything new—these exercise/gaming hybrids have been touted as “The Solution to America’s Obesity Problem™” for nigh-on a decade now. Hell, it even showed up (albeit in more sinister form) in an episode of Black Mirror.
But VirZoom, as you might’ve guessed, is designed for virtual reality. You pedal, you move faster. You lean left, you move left. You lean right—well, I’m sure you get the idea. And because it’s virtual reality, you don’t just need to pedal boring ol’ bikes. One demo had me riding Pegasus around to collect apples. Another had me lassoing bandits in the Wild West.
I tried out three of VirZoom’s five games—the Pegasus and Wild West ones I just mentioned, plus another where I was a dog driving a go-kart. They’ve built a pretty intuitive system for getting into these games, with a combination of starting/stopping pedaling and clicking triggers on the handlebars to make selections. It works.
Games last five-to-seven minutes, and VirZoom tells me they’re built around interval training. I’m not much of an expert on the fitness side of things but it certainly gave me a workout over the course of my twenty or thirty minutes on the bike.
The problem is it’s just...not...very...interesting. Which, to be honest, has always been the point where the dream of gamifying exercise broke down. Zombies, Run is one of the few I know that’s successfully merged the two, and it’s 90 percent an audio experience.
Driving laps. Lassoing bandits. Collecting coins to keep Pegasus up in the air. These are Mario Party minigames, and not even particularly interesting ones. Certainly not enough to trick/motivate me into exercising.
It was a bit better when the VirZoom-er guiding my demo climbed on a second bike and we raced, as my innate draw towards competition pushed me to drive around the track faster than him. But still.
To be fair, there are two more games I didn’t see and VirZoom plans to let other developers create experiences for the platform. Maybe another developer will see the potential, with VirZoom ultimately relegated to a hardware supplier. But I’m not sure.
And when I say “I’m not sure,” it’s because I just don’t think VirZoom will catch on enough to get more developers on-board. This may come as a surprise, as I’m usually the “I’ll try anything for the sake of virtual reality,” guy. I’ve tried on haptic vests, haptic gloves, position-tracking bodysuits, rings (the jewelry kind) with embedded touch controls, neurosensors, and too many headsets to count. Hell, I tried running on the Virtuix Omni nearly three years ago.
The point is I’ve tried a lot of stuff—some of it great, some of it awful, most of it goofy.
A virtual reality bike seems like a decent idea: Get some exercise without dealing with the weather or (in San Francisco) getting hit by a car. Fantastic. And it’ll distract you a bit from the horrible exercise part of exercising.
I'm not sold, though. The problem is two-fold. First and foremost, I almost threw up the first time I went around a corner. As always, we encounter the same old discussions about virtual reality and simulator sickness—in this case, knowing how a regular ol’ bicycle works, I braced my body for centripetal force that never came. It’s a bit ironic because VirZoom pitched the bike to me as a way to counter-act problems with VR-induced nausea, but I fell prey to it from a different angle.
But there’s another, more fundamental problem with this concept: Heat.
The Oculus Rift gets uncomfortably warm even at the best of times. Think about your phone, and the way your phone heats up when you leave the screen on for a while. Then imagine holding that warm phone five inches from your face, in a box covered with foam. Just sitting in a chair watching a movie or playing Elite: Dangerous you’re liable to pull the Rift off your face and wipe sweat away.
Now imagine that, except you’re also exercising. It is hot. It is gross. I can’t imagine getting a serious workout while wearing a virtual reality headset. Or, at least, I can’t imagine doing it without wanting to burn the headset afterward. Beads of sweat trickling down past your eyes with no way to wipe them off. Soaking into the foam. The lenses slowly fogging up. One time long ago, my earbuds broke and I had to wear heavy faux-leather, over-ear headphones to the gym. Wearing the Rift while exercising is distressingly similar.
I don’t recommend it. Not with VR in its current form, at least. There are a million me-too VR peripherals out there right now, and I’m excited to see developers try all these things. I will literally strap on any stupid thing to see if it’s fun. I’ve done it for three years now and I’ll keep doing it for as long as VR stays relevant.
But biking? From now on I think I’ll take my chances in San Francisco traffic.