The Exercise Even Lazy Girls Can Get Behind

Photo: Courtesy VirZOOM.
I was buzzing when I climbed off my winged unicorn. I’d spent the previous 20 minutes soaring through clouds, Pegasus’ wings beating to keep me aloft. I couldn’t stop grinning — who cared about melted foundation and a skinny jeans wedgie when I’d literally been on top of the world? As a longtime She-Ra fangirl, riding a modern-day Swift Wind was a dream come true.

But seeing as winged unicorns don't exist in the real world, you'd be right to realize there was a catch: I’d been flying in virtual reality. I was riding the web-connected VirZoom fitness bike, with a high-end VR headset strapped to my face. How strongly I pedaled directly correlated to how far and fast I "flew," so when I slacked off, I drifted dangerously close to the ground. While I’m sure I looked incredibly dorky pedaling into the air, the physical and visual stimulation kept any embarrassment at bay. Controls are built into the bike’s handlebars, so the ride felt seamless — I barely noticed that I’d built up a sweat.

Linking fitness equipment with virtual reality is a logical move. It’s an immersive alternative to the TV screens that fill every gym, and builds on the DDR and Wii Fit craze of the early 2000s, which essentially tricked people into exercise through entertainment. “There’s an element of escapism,” Spencer Honeyman, VirZoom’s director of business development, says. He says the experience is an extension of people who use iPads to work out, but instead of using music or video to distract you, there’s a 360-degree world to explore.

What makes the VirZoom experience particularly effective is how responsive it is — when you shift left or right, the bike tilts with your weight, your display avatar mirroring your movements. When you move your head, the movement is reflected in your visual experience.
At 39 pounds, the bike — which costs $399.95 — is easy to move around, but feels sturdy. “We promote interval training, using your body as the locomotion device,” Honeyman says. He says that 20 to 45 minutes is the average playtime.

That’s enough time to speed around a track or use a tank to shoot down enemies (or friends, if you’re in multiplayer mode). VirZoom is packaged with five games, all with a distinct arcade feel — simple shooters and Wild West settings. The developers have added a bunch of endearing quirks; in the Go Fast car game, your racing competitors are puppies — and a slobbering Labrador is your wing mirror reflection. The handlebars have built-in heart rate sensors, which can sync calorie and energy data to your computer via Bluetooth. The bike can also be used as an emulator for regular VR games (though I’m not sure I’d want to pedal my way through Half-Life 2).
Predictably, a bunch of researchers have come to the conclusion that exercising in virtual reality is great for you — they claim it’s the ultimate distractor, enabling you to work out for longer. In at least one study, that was found true for obese children, but we’ve all seen this John Oliver sketch about scientific studies, so add a dash of skepticism.

However, there’s an ick factor to address (you knew this was coming, right?). When I took off my headset, perspiration pooled across the foam padding. Honeyman says they’ve had no complaints — he reckons the experience is so enjoyable that people don’t mind. I’d say it’s more that they don’t notice. Personally, I was so wrapped up in the different worlds that I didn’t think about germs bubbling against my skin. But if you’re sharing a headset, hygiene definitely matters if you don't want breakouts. Luckily, you can fix this issue by getting a VR Cover, basically a machine-washable pillowcase for your headset; it’s effective, but an extra thing to deal with on top of an already not-cheap headset.

On the flip side, the benefits of being fully immersed in a virtual world can supercharge your exercise routine, making you an active participant instead of a listless second screener. I’m guilty of doing the bare minimum on an elliptical and pretending it’s a workout. Here, however, the gamification pushes you to stretch yourself — winning can be a better motivator than willpower alone.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, VirZoom has been called the “SoulCycle for VR,” a moniker they take as a compliment (although SoulCycle’s founders might disagree). And while it may feel strange to imagine VR headsets becoming essential for the Lululemon crowd, we felt similarly about Fitbit’s plan to gamify step counts just a few years ago.

The VirZoom has an apartment-friendly size, but still clocks in at $399.95, on par with other home fitness equipment. With a headset and a computer capable for running it, though, that tab could run up to $1500. That’s a big investment for people whose Wii Fit is likely gathering dust at their parents house (guilty). Luckily, Honeyman says a gym version of VirZoom will be ready in 2017.

Right now, cost — and perception — are VirZoom's biggest hurdles. But once we can get over that, the sky’s the limit (on our virtual unicorns, at least).

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