I once owned one of the greatest exercise machines ever made. It was a game controller called the Kilowatt Pro for the PS2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC.
This was back in 2002. I was new to college, the original Xbox had just released, and I was attending my second E3. Unfortunately, university had not been kind to my waistline. Even at my handsomest I could never claim much physical beauty, but since starting school I had fallen victim to the infamous “freshman 15” – the 15 lbs of extra weight new students tend to gain when they discover that, yes, as an adult you actually can survive entirely on donuts and frozen burritos, if you care to try.
I was acutely aware of this when I discovered the Kilowatt Pro being demoed by a small company in one of the more rustic corners of the E3 convention.
The Kilowatt Pro was an exercise controller. You stood on a metal platform and pushed and pulled on the controller to simulate the thumbstick on the gamepad. Pushing forward really hard was like pushing the analog stick on the controller forward with your thumb.
I was enthralled. This could be my ticket to being the super-sexy nerd I knew I had been born to be. I immediately pre-ordered one and convinced the developers to send me an early unit so I could review it.
And it was amazing.
I loved it. I lost weight. I got stronger. My eyesight improved (not really), and my imaginary girlfriend became prettier. I felt like I was Clark Kent taking off my glasses for the first time. Finally, I realized, video games would be my salvation from slothdom and singlehood, not the cause of them. As a gamer, I would be more fit, chiseled, and Arnold-like than I had ever been. I even practiced his accent. It was going to be great.
Then the company that made Kilowatt went out of business, my unit broke, and I reverted to… well, what I am today. Not terrible, but I certainly don’t look like Conan the Barbarian.
Virtual Reality and Exercise
Fast forward about fourteen years, and along comes virtual reality fitness. Growing anecdotal evidence is emerging that virtual reality can be one of the best pieces of exercise equipment you can own, not so much because it offers intense physical exercise in its current form, but because you can play room-scale VR for extended times without the motivational drain of boredom. However, as good as a few games like Thrill of the Fight are at driving the heart rate up, most VR games are fairly moderate workouts.
This is because good VR design principles are at odds with good VR exercise principles. From a playability standpoint, you want to make a game that is comfortable for people to play for extended periods of time. You don’t want to make them sick. You don’t want to make them sweat. And you don’t want to tire them out to the point of being uncomfortable in the first 15 to 20 minutes.
Most of those best practices go out the window when it comes to VR fitness. In that case, you’re sort of a failure if you don’t make players both sticky and tired at some point.
As a result there are a limited number of games at the moment that are both fun to play and a decent workout. Even games like Audioshield, which are inherently physical experiences, have to be modified with tools like Audioshield Mod to get your heart rate high enough to qualify as traditional exercise.
While more games will eventually come out that help fill that hole, there will almost certainly be room on the market for dedicated high-intensity VR exercise equipment.
One of the first – if not the first – such consumer available systems is the VirZoom exercise bike. The hardware for VirZoom looks much like a typical small-profile exercise bike, but syncs with your computer to control a VR experience while you ride. Much like I first discovered the Kilowatt Pro fourteen years ago at E3, I first tried the VirZoom bike at a VR conference in California. With the addition of their 30-day money back guarantee, I bought one of the units the next day, and enthusiastically dove in when it arrived shortly after.
As I’ve done with nearly all of my VR experiences for the past few months, I measured my heart rate while playing VirZoom. The basic concept is easy to understand – peddling and leaning on the exercise bike translate into controls in the game. How exactly it translates depends on which game you’re playing, but in all cases you can expect VirZoom to offer a workout equal to other exercise bikes.
Where it differs is in how you perceive that exertion. The VirZoom is designed to interface with a computer, and just launched the ability to connect to the PSVR as well. As you would expect, VirZoom offers a bike riding game, complete with motivational milestones and the ability to compete against other players. But in addition to the expected use of being able to ride a bike through a virtual environment, VirZoom’s creators have invested equal time into surprising the user with new experiences. You can also drive a tank, fly a helicopter, paddle a kayak, drive a racecar, lasso bandits while riding a horse, and fly on a pegasus. VirZoom’s creators are quick to emphasize that they are first and foremost building a platform that enables many types of experiences; the initial software package will improve over time.
This is exercise, they believe, that enhances your gaming experience. It’s complementary. Why play a game about biking with a joystick when you can bathe yourself in the immersion of actually peddling your bike through exotic locations around the world? And why exercise on a regular bike in your living room when you can do the same thing through a virtual Paris, with friends around the world?
While the first generation of software for the VirZoom doesn’t yet offer the ability to bike through exotic locations like New York, Rome, or the beaches of Greece – its makers clearly have those goals in mind for the future. At the moment, the biking game is still early in its lifecycle, and lets you bike through a fairly basic wilderness with other computer and real players. Let me talk about the hardware first, and the software second – the software being the place of both greatest potential and greatest pitfalls for VirZoom.
The VirZoom feels sturdy enough to me for its size, and the footprint is small enough to easily fit in the corner of virtually any apartment. It folds conveniently for storage, and weighs less than 40 lbs. The handle bars include a heart rate monitor, and the software can be integrated with Strava and Fitbit, which is pretty cool. To me, the hardware is the most fundamental part of this experience, simply because it can’t be updated after purchase. The software package can improve with subsequent software releases, but the hardware has to be able to support all the future things that are yet to come, as is.
The VirZoom connects to your computer via a USB dongle. The range seemed adequate, but a little weak – it consistently had difficulty connecting to the computer if I had the bike more than about 10 feet from my desktop. It’s a little ironic, actually, that the wireless bike was a greater limit to range than my Vive or Rift’s tethered cord. That aside, the bike was easy to set up and connected consistently when just a little bit closer. As early adopters of VR, anyone with an HMD will be familiar with making your space work for the optimal experience, so this shouldn’t scare you off.
After the bike is connected, the software translates your pedaling into motion in the games. You don’t actually turn the handlebars to steer; instead, you lean left or right to control your side-to-side movement. The handles of the controller have both buttons and triggers, similar to a typical game pad, complete with two small analog sticks.
It’s worth noting that while VirZoom is being marketed primarily as a VR controller, it actually also comes with a plugin that allows you to control regular games as well. I wasn’t able to try this feature myself in time for this write-up, but I would think that it would be a lot of fun to hook the controller to an SNES or retro-emulator. If pedaling is required to move your character forward, I could see it being a blast to play top-down games like Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Unfortunately, this generation of VirZoom doesn’t include what I think could be one of the coolest and most important hardware features of VR exercise bikes of the future. It can’t automatically adjust the pedaling resistance based on conditions in the game. Instead, resistance is adjusted by turning a dial manually at any time while playing.
What this means is that going up a virtual hill feels the same from a resistance standpoint as going downhill. This quickly broke immersion for me, because I have been trained in real life on how I expect a bike-shaped device to behave, whether I’m riding a bike in the game or driving a tank. I expect it to be harder pedaling up a hill than down. There is an in-game mechanism the developers try to use to make this less obvious, by making you pedal faster on inclines in order to maintain your speed going up hills – but it doesn’t feel the same to me. The solution was helpful, but never managed to replicate the feeling like I was actually riding a bike through a real world.
This is coupled with an interesting design decision in the biking game to not have realistic coasting, or 1-to-1 pedaling. Even on downward slopes you slow to a stop if you stop pedaling, as if you have your brakes on. And changing the resistance, which I’d expect to feel like the equivalent of changing your gears on a bike in the game, doesn’t appear to have the impact on the gameplay that I’d expect. For example, I couldn’t see any evidence that pedaling harder on the higher resistance made me able to achieve a higher top speed than doing the same thing on a lower “gear” of resistance. I consistently felt like I should be able to reach a higher top speed in the games with the same level of effort as a real bike, and I never really got that sense.
I think the balancing of these systems will have to evolve, and I’m sure they will as the VirZoom team gets more feedback from users. The advantage of a VR team that is highly responsive to the community is that they’ve been quick to make changes and release updates based on feedback, and I fully expect that to continue.
My guess is that some of these decisions were made to encourage players to keep exercising in order to play, but it highlights for me something that I absolutely don’t want in my VR exercise. I don’t want to be reminded that I’m exercising, nor do I personally want to be visibly “pushed” to get a better workout. I want to be experiencing something that keeps my mind focused on other things, and get exercise as a side-effect of the game, just like when I play an actual sport. I’m not riding the bike for exercise, exactly – I’m playing VR, and just happen to have chosen a controller that both requires exercise, and enhances the immersion of the biking experience by making it more realistic.
When I ride a real bike, I like being able to coast down one side of the hill after I’ve climbed the other. I like the rest, and it gives me a moment to look around, take in the scenery, and enjoy the experience of being out someplace new. At the moment, I don’t get an equivalent experience from VirZoom. The bones are here; they just need to fill them out over time.
Unfortunately the ability to adjust resistance as a reaction to in-game events is a hardware limitation that won’t be fixed with this round. According to VirZoom, that functionality would have made it hard to keep the cost of the unit down to its consumer-friendly price. I look forward to when these sorts of functions do appear in future generations, though, as it’s one more obvious and cool step towards greater immersion.
Software and game design is what will make VirZoom sink or swim. If you love the software, you will use VirZoom a lot. If you don’t, it will quickly become another place to hang your clothes after your showers, next to your elliptical, treadmill, bowflex, or whatever your personal choice of purchased-and-never-used exercise equipment happens to be.
On one hand, software is their strength and primary selling point. Why else buy VR exercise equipment if not for the fact that the software has the potential to radically change your perceptions of what you are doing and where you are doing it. Unlike almost all other home exercise equipment, the experience can be updated to provide players with an endless supply of interesting, healthy environments and exercises to explore. The developers behind VirZoom are very responsive and eager to improve, and they released several enhancements throughout the course of my review. VirZoom has set out to make exercise more interesting, and it’s clear that they are in a position to pull that off.
In fact, one of the selling points of the hardware is that VirZoom will be releasing additional levels, games, and enhancements for free as time goes on. This is not just talk – from the point that I first tried the VirZoom to the point I’m writing this, VirZoom has introduced two additional games that were not originally there. All the experiences have multiplayer and social support, including head-to-head matches, ghost multiplayer competitions, and leaderboards for ranking yourself against others.
There is a tremendous amount of potential in the work VirZoom is doing, and they have the foundations in place to build something very powerful.
At the same time, software is also the potentially the system’s initial greatest weakness. Almost everyone knows how to ride a bike, and so there’s a lot of preconceptions about how things are supposed to move and feel. Even when playing an experience that is not biking, like driving the tank or race car, the nature of the device sets the base expectation of how things will go. No matter what you do in the game, pedaling the bike is how you power it, and so the uncanny valley of VR is a risk. If the in-game mechanics don’t work to expectation, it’s really clear very quickly.
Worse, when they don’t work as expected, it can lead not just to the breaking of immersion, but to actual motion sickness. I had some issue with this in my early testing, and quickly found that it was better for me to avoid some games (discussed below). Thankfully, VirZoom is very aware of this potential barrier for their users, and their games offer a variety of experiences for users all along the “sensitivity” spectrum for VR sickness. This continues to be an issue for me in a way that I have not had difficulties with in other VR experiences on the Vive. That said, as with all the software changes, I think this can be addressed by a number of careful design decisions in future software improvements.
As important, VirZoom will also need to make sure that interesting and engaging games exist for the system, either by making them, or finding others to make them. This is where VirZoom’s early efforts show some blemishes. At the time of this writing, there are seven experiences that come with the unit:
- Cycle le Tour
- Chopper (attack helicopter, not a motorcycle)
It’s clear from the first launch of their Steam app that diversity of environment has been their primary focus. The biking game, Cycle le Tour, was added after the others because the team wanted to demonstrate variety before focusing on the obvious use case. I’m not sure I think that was a good move, as before anything else I really wanted the biking experience to be top notch. I’d love to see them really polish the bike game, add a variety of locations that I can explore, and make that their flagship title; right now, none of the games really feel as if they’re showing off the hardware to its full potential.
Of the seven, Chopper and Kayak are my clear favorites, for similar reasons. Both Chopper and Kayak don’t rely on the resistance of going up and down hills in the gameplay. The attack helicopter in Chopper flies up and down, but not with a mechanic that you would expect resistance to play a factor. And the Kayaking is on flat water, so it’s not an issue. I found Kayaking through the pond and collecting gems in the water to be very relaxing. I occasionally ran into other players kayaking around the same pond, but never interacted with them – the multiplayer does exist, and will become more powerful as more people buy the VirZoom and begin playing. I’m not personally motivated by competition, but I’m a minority in that. For those of you who are, those multiplayer modes absolutely do exist.
Chopper is the most entertaining for me personally as a game. Its gamification is the best executed for my personal tastes. You look at anti-air turrets and can shoot missiles at them using the trigger finger. It is as close as I came to forgetting that I was deliberately trying to torture my body into better shape. The first time Pegasus takes off while you’re riding his back is great – and the experience that sold me on the unit when I was demoing it at the conference – but it doesn’t have enough of a gaming mechanic to keep me engaged for long.
In fact, my biggest concern in terms of software design is that the game mechanics are not quite “fun” yet – they feel more like activities with a different primary goal. In the same way that early edutainment games often felt as if the gameplay was second to the lessons being taught, the initial experiences for VirZoom feel like they put too much emphasis on being an exercise machine over a gaming machine – and I personally prefer it the other way around. I have no idea if I am an outlier in this regard. I’m clearly a gamer that’s interested in exercise, and not an athlete interested in games, if that makes sense.
VirZoom’s success will depend somewhat on making sure they understand and speak to that difference in consumer expectations. My personal belief is that most people that own VR hardware at this point will be more like me than not, but I have no way to know, really.
Until that happens, though, I expect I’ll have the same problem with VirZoom that I do with my other less powerful, more traditional exercise equipment – holding my attention. In contrast, I regularly use my Vive for exercise in other ways. I use games like Thrill of the Fight, and at the moment I play these longer – and subsequently get better and more regular exercise – than I do from the VirZoom software at the moment. At the same time, though, I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to “trick” my favorite games into giving me a more intense workout, so I definitely look forward to VirZoom’s evolution into filling that gap.
As VirZoom narrows their focus to polish the game mechanics of a few, key flagship titles, I’m hopeful the system will begin to shine. Once its gameplay becomes more… well, game-like… it will easily be able to provide a more intense workout than most general VR games can.
An Additional Caveat About Motion Sickness:
The first time I played a number of games on VirZoom, they were in pre-release or early release status. I was as much a beta tester as I was an actual early customer, and I immediately had issues with feeling ill. The car racing game specifically was very challenging for me, and I’ve found that VR sickness like that tends to stick with you for half the day afterward. For context, I generally have an average susceptibility to VR sickness. I don’t like games like Onward because of its motion mechanic, but most other games don’t give me any issues.
After a lot of user testing, VirZoom has aggressively improved their games to minimize the risk of this. I still have troubles with the car racing game, and I avoid playing it. The kayak, chopper, and horse riding games are generally fine for me, and I have a little bit of difficulty with the tank game. I’d highly recommend you have a sense of how sensitive you are to VR illness when considering the VirZoom. Luckily, this will soon be very easy to do, as VirZoom now has a 30-day money back guarantee, which should take 99% of the risk out of giving it a shot. Nothing beats some hands on experience when trying to decide how best to burn your calories.