Interview: The Minds Behind Free Driver VR

This is one experience that is changing the game!

The Far Cry video game series has the reputation of featuring some of the most beautiful graphics in gaming. Game developer Crytek dropped its players in expansive, open world environments using their very own game engine: CryEngine. Imagine the possibilities if VR producers were able to utilize the engine for their own needs. Fortunately for the rest of us, that’s exactly what Tilmann Holm and Fabio Chiaramonte of GymCraft aim to do. Their upcoming VR fitness experience, Free Driver VR, moves the medium forward in leaps and bounds. They were kind enough to talk to us here about Free Driver VR and all the exciting news it brings.

Something New with Free Driver VR

Ukrainian boxer Wladimir Klitschko enjoying the demo at the John Reed Opening.

Picture your typical VR experience. You might imagine (or even have experienced) getting on your stationary bike, putting on your headset, and biking along a static, one-direction path throughout a virtual world. While this is a perception that many might scoff at, Holm and Chiaramonte want to level it up. Free Driver VR is not an on-rails shooter that is the same every time. Instead, the experience recalls the free-roaming landscapes of Crytek’s games. In fact, Crytek themselves is involved in Free Driver’s production.

“[Free Driver] is meant to be a gamification of fitness,” said Chiaramonte on their approach to VR fitness. “We wanted to do it properly. So, not something that was just an app you could download. But instead, a fully-realized online game.”

In the video above, you can see how their vision is more akin to something like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim instead of a simple mobile game. The maps that a player can explore and race through are 8 km by 8 km large. They are handcrafted by experienced designers, whose goal was to create an interesting world.

“We looked for people who had worked on with the cutting-edge video game engine before,” said Chiaramonte. “So, we started by hiring industrial experts. Former workers from Square Enix, EA, and people who had worked on Battlefield 3. They have worked on video games before.”

More than Fitness in Mind

Users will be riding through maps very much like this one.

The creation of Free Driver VR was driven by a need for users to have an immersive and dynamic experience. While some creators might increase resistance level of a stationary bike as part of a programmed track, GymCraft wants the challenge to be your own decision.

“In our huge environments, you are steering yourself.” Chiaramonte also explained how easy it is to pedal your bike changes depending on where you go on the map. When you are going uphill, it is more difficult to pedal, whereas going downhill is an easy ride. A player can also see a particular map in a new light depending on the game mode. For instance, there are lap races, one-way sprints, and even more exploratory treasure hunts.

Massively Multiplayer Riding

Behind the scenes at GymCraft.

To take Free Driver a step further, the Spain-based GymCraft is also developing a multiplayer cloud system that Chiaramonte compared to Steam. Its working title is Omnex, which will store user data and be the portal through which special events can be accessed. Players also have the option to save and upload their times for any given race, which other players can look up (and try to beat) on the leaderboards.

While the multiplayer function is asynchronous right now, it makes sense that players are only able to download the ghost of another player. Not every user of Free Driver VR will be at the gym or on their bike at the same time.

Holm and Chiaramonte want Free Driver VR to be more than just a game, but also a community. Holm joked that some day in the future, players could be able to bet on each other. I made a comparison to how Free Driver VR could become something like World of Warcraft, and they told me the idea might not be too far fetched.

“It can be something like a competition,” Holm continued, “and winners would be able to win prizes, too. You want to have the best time, but maybe another player just wants to explore the landscape. Yet another player might want to push other racers off the track. There’s potential for a lot of fun in many different ways.”

“It’s a mix of the social and the interactive,” Chiaramonte said. “Free Driver is really just at the beginning. We started with the races. We’ve created nice environments, we have nice graphics, and the experience runs smoothly on VR. But, we’ve got a huge document full of ideas.”

Big Map, Bigger Plans

Filling in the environment.

Holm and Chiaramonte hope that the first map is just going to be the first of many. While GymCraft was launched only two years ago, that huge document lays out the next several years.

“We aren’t trying to recreate the real world,” said Chiaramonte. “So for instance we have plans to have a map of Mars in the future. You’re on an alien surface, and we want to get really crazy with lighting or low gravity. We also want to have more versatile places, suited for different users. Someone who wants a hardcore workout might pick a map that’s entirely uphill.”

Thanks to inventions like the omni-directional treadmill, GymCraft is also looking into a Free Runner variant. Chiaramonte mentioned how they could use the same technology to create a game where a user is just another Viking rowing the longboat with their fellow band. Personally, I hope they move that game to the top of their to-do list.

Developing Omnex is also on the agenda. Holm and Chiaramonte want users to have detailed profiles, to invite other players onto their friends lists, and to join groups and communities. There will be a leveling system, and players will be able to customize their avatars. The team believes it will add another layer of motivation. And, it would all be on the cloud.

The Steam comparison sounds like it will be very apt in the future. Game designers take note, especially those with experience in CryEngine.

“Right now, we are concentrating on the platform,” said Holm. “We’re not overly concentrating on creating content, but we welcome third party developers to come work with us. We offer the SDK to anyone who is interested.”

Free Driving Around the World

While GymCraft started in Germany, they’re looking across the sea.

While users are free to sign up for the beta on GymCraft’s website, the team also offers a commercial option. It looks like an arcade cabinet, and the only thing missing is the slot I am supposed to put my coins in. GymCraft’s SUPERPLAY platform has been on exhibition in Shanghai, South Korea, and at CeBIT. It’s won innovation prizes and gained international investors. It’s on track to be tested in about 240 fitness centers throughout Europe.

Their first usergroup for implementing the technology was with the company Kettler and their bikes. But coming up next in the pipeline are other big fitness machine companies like Precor, Dyaco, Nautilus, and Life Fitness. One of the team’s bigger goals is to go looking overseas in the American market, and connect with American investors.

The company’s wide reach is inspired by their goal of creating a new standard for fitness and how people exercise. GymCraft’s promotions have taken them across the globe and it’s given the team an informed perspective on the workout habits across continents.

“It’s funny how in Germany and really, a lot of Europe, and you see that maybe 30% of the people are on bicycles.” Chiaramonte reflected on fitness around the world after we talked about the obesity problem. “The rest are jogging and weightlifting. And then the majority of people in Japan are on the bicycle. It’s because a lot of people smoke in Japan, and they really like the virtual solutions that are being offered. Meanwhile, we had someone from Venezuela tell us that he enjoyed biking after work, but he had to do it virtually. In real life, he’d get shot for riding around at night.”

Fitness Driver VR and its Players

A jolly good time at Pitch London.

“We’re sure that VR is going to be the next big thing,” Holm said, reflecting back on the company’s launch. “At the end of the day, we wanted to combine sports and VR. The fitness industry has some aspects that are old-fashioned. And you don’t want to fall behind. We thought we would try finding new clients in VR.”

Those new clients are a definite possibility. GymCraft has received 200 surveys filled out by its testers at its many exhibitions, and what they have to say about Free Driver VR is what you wouldn’t expect to hear about exercise from a lot of people.

“It felt so real, they said,” recalled Holm. “They said there was no boredom. The players talked about the amazing quality of the graphics. Or they say they forgot about the time. They’d bike six kilometers in ten minutes, and we’d tell them that. Then they’d say, oh, I thought I was just on for a minute.”

Fitness Driver VR and the Future

We’ve come a long way from the Nintendo Virtual Boy. Holm and Chiaramonte both saw the release of PSVR as a sign of good things to come. There it was, a medium that was supposed to be as niche as tabletop RPGs, and now it’s on the mass market. In fact, GymCraft wants to port Free Driver VR to the PS4 when it’s ready.

“Five years ago, a lot of people saw VR as something that was really strange,” said Chiaramonte. “We told them it would be the next big thing, but no one would believe that, you know? And now, computing is at a nice enough level that you can actually do something that’s good enough to come into homes. It’s not just games, either. It’s using its media impact for something positive.”