There’s nothing like Thanksgiving and Christmas to make people start thinking about diets and getting at least a bit trimmer for the new year. But most people don’t make it past the thinking stage. Boston startup video game company VirZoom hopes to change that, and they’re using virtual reality to entice gamers to pedal off the excess weight with a new VirZoom stationary exercise bike.
Eric Malafeew, who spent 15 years at Harmonix as a chief architect making games like Dance Central, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, is living proof that exercising in VR works. In creating the $400 exercise bike and developing a suite of seven VR arcade games, he lost 15 pounds in the first few months, and has kept 10 pounds off to date by playing for 15 to 30 minutes a day. The bike even inspired the 40-something co-founder and CTO of VirZoom to quit smoking — although that’s not something the studio is claiming will result from exercising in VR.
“When I left Harmonix to launch VirZoom it was with a belief that gaming can be good for people,” Malafeew told DigitalTrends. “I was the target audience and main developer. My goal was to compel myself to not watch TV for 30 minutes and instead pedal at a high resistance on the bike for 30 minutes. I play every day, either before I go to work or after I come home. I have a family, but they let me be for that period of time.”
The VirZoom comes with built-in heart rate sensors, and has integrated speed and direction sensors. The faster a player pedals, the faster he or she moves in the virtual world. And the modified Chinese stationary bike has a manual resistance dial for those who want to increase the calories they burn.
It’s also worth noting the bike weighs 39 pounds, and folds in half for storage. It takes about 15 minutes to build the bike with a wrench and screwdriver, and it connects seamlessly to numerous VR platforms through a dongle. Given the plug-and-play nature of PlayStation VR, I enjoyed playing that version the best. It doesn’t hurt that the PSVR has the most comfortable headset out there, which comes in handy when trying an intense workout.
Back in the day VR gaming
Malafeew and his team has developed a suite of arcade games in VirZoom Arcade for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive. The VirZoom bike connects to any of these platforms, and every bike ships with a free software development kit (SDK) so game makers can add to the library of games available. In addition, gamers are encouraged to use the bike’s 10 buttons and triggers on the handlebar to map existing VR games for play.
The community of owners has already mapped out controls for existing VR games like Radial G, Project Cars, EVE Valkyrie, Omega Agent, and Time Machine VR. VirZoom is focused on expanding its own VirZoom Arcade offerings, and allowing gamers to decide which titles to map for VirZoom.
I focused on the available arcade games to try the bike out. All games run at 60Hz, with reprojection to 120Hz. Malafeew said a new PS4 Pro version will aim for 90Hz, which would match the Rift and Vive versions.
Malafeew said his team wasn’t focused on photorealism for any of these games, and that was by design. The goal was to create experiences that were immersive enough to grab your attention, but also work in a way that doesn’t cause motion sickness. As you can see from the screenshots, the end results are games that aren’t going to win any awards, but have an engaging arcade feel that anyone can appreciate.
The magic is in taking simple mini-game concepts, like racing a car around a track, and turning them into immersive experiences that encourage you to keep pedaling. Those pedals, by the way, are whisper silent, which means you won’t bother others around you. Not that you’ll hear anything, thanks to the use of headphones to add more immersion to the VR experiences.
One of the most seamless gaming experiences, and a good one to start with, is Cycle. Pedaling on a real bike to make a virtual bike go faster in the middle of a crowded race is a great way to get into the action. Designed with an arcade mentality, the goal is to pass as many riders as possible and get to the next gate within a fixed amount of time to continue the game.
While this game is single player at the moment, an update in January will add multiplayer to the mix, which will give the game an entirely new dimension. Even now, gamers can challenge friends’ scores and then race against their ghost.
Another, more creative experience is Tank, which allows up to 12 players to partake in the action. It’s the closest thing VirZoom has to an esport. The game challenges players with a limited amount of ammo (20 shells) and health. Three hits and you’re dead — but the game keeps going with the ability to respawn. It’s like Battlezone, except the tank is powered by your legs.
On the other side of the spectrum is the single-player game Pegasus, which puts you on the back of the mythical flying horse. As is the case with VR experiences like The Walk, vertigo can become an issue when flying high above the ground. Getting motion sickness can be an issue when falling from the sky – the result of not pedaling fast enough.
When esports become real sports
Malafeew said gamers should view the $400 bike as a long-term investment. The company is looking at the bike as an entry into a VR exercise platform, one that will expand beyond the initial bike and expand to more high-tech exercise equipment at health clubs in 2017.
Spencer Honeyman, director of business development at VirZoom, said an event at CES 2017 will shed light on the company’s expansion plans, which also includes VR esports involving Cycle and health clubs.
“There’s a lot of potential there, and esports could be the main reason people buy into VirZoom,” Malafeew said. “Being able to play and compete with other people opens up infinite gameplay. And beating other people who are good is more satisfying than adding another 10,000 on your score.”