VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and Gear VR are great for gaming and immersive 360-degree videos. But what about exercise? Though the idea isn't without its flaws, virtual reality could one day add an exciting new dimension to stationary workout machines. Gizmag chatted with a researcher in the field (and went for a mind-bending VR spin of our own) to investigate.
Our evolutionary ancestors didn't have running shoes, they didn't use heart rate monitors and they certainly didn't pay for gym memberships. For them, exercise was something that happened while trying to catch dinner (or avoid becoming someone else's dinner). But for most of us today, exercise is something we choose to do: to stay healthy, look good or work off those extra holiday portions.
Though most would consider this to be progress, one downside to our safer modern lifestyle is that our workouts can sometimes be a little ... boring.
But what if modern technology could inject some excitement back into exercise? What if we could trick our brains into rekindling our ancestors' thrill of the chase as we (virtually) run for our lives – all while safely pedaling on a stationary bike? VR could be the answer.
To put this to the test, we strapped on an Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR and hopped on a stationary bike. Samsung's headset is ideal because it's completely wireless, using a Galaxy Note 4 for its brains. And Temple Run VR was the perfect game to test it with, as it has you running forward in a virtual environment, without any major changes of direction (i.e., your head faces forward most of the time).
We worked out for about half an hour while playing Temple Run VR, and this was far and away the most fun we've ever had while exercising. It's also the least conscious we've ever been of our physical activity during a workout.
While a typical workout at the gym can feel like a mindless chore, the time we spent in VR was something else entirely. The pedaling made us feel like we were really running through the virtual environment, and the dull grind of working out completely disappeared. There's no time to think about distance, heart rate or calories when you're running through the Himalayas, pursued by hungry yetis.
Daniel R. Mestre from the Mediterranean Virtual Reality Center in Marseille, France conducted a 2011 study on the relationship between virtual reality and exercise. Like us, his participants rode on stationary bikes, only they were looking at 2D displays (fixed in front of them, like small movie screens) showing a cycling simulator. This was before the rise of Oculus headsets, with "virtual reality" having a broader meaning than it does today, but many of the core principles were the same.
In his study, the cyclists who did use the VR simulation were less aware of their physical effort than the participants who didn't do any virtual riding (simply working out like they would at the gym). The VR group also enjoyed their workouts more. That perfectly echoes what we experienced with the Gear VR.
Though in Gizmag's little experiment there was no direct relationship between our physical pedaling and in-game running, the real breakthrough could be in future games that share information with the exercise equipment: where pedaling faster means moving faster in the virtual world, or running up virtual hills means increased resistance on the bike. That's what Mestre's study did, with the participants' pedaling speed increasing the avatar's speed, and vice versa.
"The main advantage of using VR feedback," Mestre tells Gizmag, "is distraction from a real and potentially painful exercise. In that aspect, you can say that VR is quite similar to watching TV during active exercise (like people do in fitness rooms). The main difference is that VR gives you contextualized information about the exercise you are doing, and is thus much more than distraction."
Another difference is the degree of immersion that modern head-mounted VR displays can provide. With virtual feedback in every direction, the ability to look above, below and behind you, and stereoscopic 3D, VR headsets provide an illusion of "being somewhere else" that the 2D displays in Mestre's study couldn't possibly provide. He suspects that something like the Oculus Rift would further increase the perception of isolation from the "real world" – less distraction, and more complete immersion.
Put all of these pieces together – synchronized feedback in the virtual environment, immersive headset, and stereoscopic 3D – and you could have a virtual workout that makes the Wii Fit, and other existing exercise software, look downright primitive.
On the other hand, you might also have a recipe for nausea. Existing Oculus games and videos can already lead to varying degrees of motion sickness and disorientation, even without adding exercise to the mix. Throw in intense physical activity, and for some people the potential for nausea could outweigh the benefits (though we didn't have any major problems with this in Temple Run). And motion sickness or not, we can only imagine the length of the health and safety warnings that would accompany an Oculus-powered exercise bike.
Speaking of Oculus VR, the company was unavailable for comment over the holiday break, but we'd be surprised if this marriage between VR and workout gear wasn't at least on its radar. Oculus development kits have been in the hands of software makers for two years, and the first consumer version could potentially arrive in 2015. If exercise machine makers are paying attention, their wheels could already be turning.
If you join the countless gym members who will be hitting treadmills and spin classes after the new year, and find the whole ordeal to be ... missing something, then know that a more immersive solution could be approaching on the horizon. While today's equipment lets you select your intensity or prescribed workout, that could one day turn into choosing the speed of the beasts that you're chasing, or how rocky the terrain is where you're running.
Perhaps that game element (and detachment from the tired gym routine) is just what we need to live more active lifestyles. Well, at least for those of us with strong stomachs.