Imagine walking around a world class gym with a fitness instructor. He/she leads you to different areas to help you with press ups, sit ups, squats, jogging and more, giving you detailed instructions on how to best perform each exercise. After half an hour or so, you’ve had an exhausting workout and you’re proud of the work you’ve done. Then you pull off the head-mounted display (HMD) and throw up.
Getting virtual reality (VR) right, even when sitting down, is hard. Even removing the need to include a convincing form of locomotion input, there are issues with hand-tracking, motion sickness and more that need to be addressed before the tech can truly be crowned consumer-ready. Adding in movement presents another layer of problems which, admittedly, Valve is looking to solve in the near future. There’s still so much to solve to make VR a completely comfortable experience even on the most basic level. With that in mind, it feels like the industry is a few years out from offering compelling fitness products.
Over the past few years technology has changed the way humans exercise for the better. We no longer run without music, and it’s more than likely that our MP3 players track our distance, speed and more, if not the wristband we strap on before we go. ‘Fitness Gaming’ has emerged to appeal to a certain crowd, utilising motion controllers or cameras such as Kinect in order to guide players through a workout. With VR looking to impact videogames, education, music and more in the years to come, you might think it also represents a leap forward for the fitness industry. Maybe not.
Just the thought of getting hot and sweaty with a current HMD strapped to your face makes the stomach churn. Lenses inside VR HMDs can turn misty even when the user isn’t out of breath, but with their body temperature raised and beads of sweat running down it wouldn’t take long for the screen to be concealed by a dingy layer of fog. Do you really want to find yourself gasping for breath while a weighty lump of plastic tries to convince you that you’re actually in the studio? Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe dreams of a day that VR HMDs resemble sunglasses over ski goggles. Perhaps then VR fitness will be a viable means of working out when the technology is closer to this form.
There’s also a question of what exactly VR can really add to the fitness experience that can’t be done better elsewhere. The sensation of feeling like you’re in a gym might be amazing, but is it necessary to enhance a fitness routine? Do we really need stats tracked in VR and to feel like a personal trainer is standing next to us? It certainly feels like other technologies such as augmented reality (AR) present more intuitive opportunities than could be achieved with the Oculus Rift.
All that said, there are some experiences that seem better suited to VR fitness than others. Biking, for example, may get the user out of breath, but at least they only need to sit down in one place throughout, and VR will be able to take users on picturesque journeys in foreign countries as opposed to simply riding around the same course over and over again. The team at Widerun, for example, are taking simulator sickness seriously with their VR biking tech, currently in Kickstarter, and this could well prove to be one of the first good VR fitness experiences as a result.
VR fitness presents some unique opportunities for keeping in shape, but limitations of current technology mean that disadvantages far outweigh those opportunities. As the hardware advances it will undoubtedly become more and more viable but, until then, it’s hard to see any VR fitness software as little more than a sickness inducer.