The commercial entertainment sector has been an interested observer of the use of “gamification” (the creating of a game element in mundane activities) such as it applies to fitness and the exercise sector. The industry has also looked with some interest in the growth of Exergaming – exercise hardware that has embraced a game-play element, stretching to borrowing directly from tech from the global immersive entertainment sector. With the popularity of VR in commercial entertainment, it was obvious that this would also add to the mix.
The difficulties in creating a VR exercise experience have been best illustrated by attempts like Black Box VR, who launched what they entitled “The World’s First Full-Fitness, Virtual Reality Gym Experience” – creating an exercise enclosure that combines a strength training cable machine, linked to a VR gaming experience that tracks the users hands for an accurate workout experience. The concept going on to win a CES Innovation Award when presented to the media in 2018, gaining much coverage. The company has gone on to double down on their concept with plans to open a 4,100 sq. ft. fitness studio with 14 of these units, located in San Francisco, launching in early 2019.
The reality of seeing a virtual reality head-mounted display (HMD) deployed in a fitness environment has raised some concern, considering the physical and hygiene abuse that a piece of equipment would receive placed near the exercising individuals face. The issues of damage and sweat aside, the VR experience has yet to prove that it can offer long-term drawing power, fitness, and health attributes. Black Box VR reports that they have been running a beta gym for the last year with over 30 beta testers coming in at least 3 times a week for their workouts and haven’t had any problems with damage to the HTC Vive Pro head-mounted display they are using.
Though immersing the user within a virtual entertainment environment takes conventional training to a new level of engagement.
This level of exercise engagement illustrated with the news that another operation that unveiled a VR exercising system at CES, was famous boxing champion Floyd Mayweather – with ‘Mayweather Boxing + Fitness Virtual Reality program’. His Mayweather Boxing Fitness Studio’s flagship store in Los Angeles will offer the VR boxing title promising over a 12-week program, users promised they will see increased fitness and skill levels. VR sparring and boxing has gained some interest, with developers such as Survios, in partnership with MGM, releasing ‘Creed: Rise to Glory’ – a VR boxing experience based on the popular Creed film. A game that will be available for fitness and training, Survios running their own VR arcade facility.
The core fitness and leisure industry are extremely circumspect with regards deploying new hardware in their venues, and though a number of attempts have been made to have them by in on VR – actual successful deployment is scarce. Even direct approaches such as the ‘VR Gym Tour’ by Japanese based Gerolsteiner – combining an exercise machine and a VR experience, saw a difficult birthing. US company VirZoom in 2017 found it equally as difficult to capture attention from consumer VR enthusiasts or pivoting to the commercial exercise and entertainment market, with their VR exercise bike. Other “training” hardware has been co-opted into VR Exergaming experiences, such as the concept behind the ‘SpaceWalkerVR’ utilizing a specially developed treadmill and VR; or the full-on VR exercise experience that was the short-lived ‘VReeMotion’ platform.
Many of the current consumer VR systems require a considerable workout – and we have seen with the pivoting towards commercial entertainment some developers consider the fitness capabilities of their platform. One such as Virtuix, with their successful Omni virtual navigation device, allowing the user to run and walk within the virtual environment – the company has recently packaged their platform in a small-footprint standalone attraction called ‘Omniverse’ – with physical competition on their omnidirectional treadmill in VR. A system that will be at home in all kinds of leisure entertainment venues.
Unique motion systems have been married to a VR fitness approach – most notably with the original ICAROS system launched in 2015, that married a body movement controlled prone motion system with VR game content. The system sold both as a VR arcade experience, but also as a commercial and consumer fitness experience. The deployment of unique motion systems, such as skiing simulators married to VR headsets, have been seen from a number of manufacturers in the West and Asia, though a successful deployment of this approach as an exercise platform has yet to be achieved.
In looking at VR applications, we also must consider the usage of VR and AR solutions, with innovative experiences, to offer a new narrative to fitness. Developer VRee has recently launched their ‘Exodus Burned’ – a highly physical VR exercise experience using new free-roaming VR hardware based on the HTC Focus headset and trackers. The ability for the competing players to move within their environment freely with the game tracked to the scale of the landscape offers a free-roaming and highly physical platform.
With advancements in smartphone-based AR wearable headsets, we have also seen highly physical virtual-sports that border on a full workout. One of the first true commercial AR game systems was from Japanese developer meleap – with their ‘HADO’ system, players compete in an augmented dodgeball-like game with eSports elements. An augmented competitive sports environment has also been developed by Canadian company Battleverse, creating a compelling augmented reality arcade. The physicality of these games lending themselves to utilization as a sport, and from there into a fitness experience.
In looking at the crossover towards AR, we also need to be aware of next-gen development in the XR scene, with projection mapping, removing the need to have the user wear a headset, but have the virtual environment projected all around them, and that they can fully interact with. The most compelling of these new developments is the ‘Augmented Climbing Wall’ (from Finish developer Valo Motion), a projector superimposing a virtual game onto the surface of the climbing structure, climbers taking part in a game with them interacting with the projected images. The company has also used Green Screen technology to create an interactive trampoline experience with their ‘ValoJump’. The guests’ body is superimposed into the game experience as they bounce on the trampoline, creating a highly physical experience embracing “gamification” in what is an obvious immersive Exergaming environment.
The use of projected environments to achieve the immersion, rather than a VR headset is gaining moment, as with the other trampoline Exergame system, from IdeasX, and their ‘VR Trampoline’ – this experience with projected walls and a trampoline enclosure, has the players movements tracked, so they try and interact with the game narrative with their bodies. These game platforms have yet to make the transition to the fitness studio and gym, but with greater interest in Exergaming style activities, we seem to be at the cusp of a new dawn in fitness.
And this brings us to the main point – we have migrated from the technology of wearable immersive VR and AR headsets and traversed into the realms of XR with unencumbered projection mapping – but fundamentally when dealing with immersive entertainment, it is not always about the technology, but the quality of the experience, and importantly in the Exergaming sector, the ability for that content to achieve the designed results by the user.