Interview: VR Fit’s Tim Donahey Discusses Passion For Exercise And Future Of VR

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: Before starting VR Fit in September of 2016, what was your first virtual reality experience?

Tim: Like many people, my first VR experience was demoing an Oculus Rift at a Best Buy as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I did the typical passive demo that they offer with a short visit to different environments, including the one with a dinosaur approaching you and unleashing a mighty roar. Then I got to play about 5 minutes of The Climb. I enjoyed the Oculus Rift demo so much that I immediately went home and ordered an HTC Vive.

VRFI: What inspired you to start VR Fit?

Tim: VR Fit was a natural evolution from my own VR fitness experience. Without going into too much detail, I was a person who had been in collegiate-level athletic condition before a family crisis threw my life completely off track.

Over a period of about ten months, I became increasingly overweight and sedentary to an unhealthy degree and had almost zero motivation to get back into a routine that would reverse my decline. I think like many people, I just didn’t want to deal with the discomfort and discipline that a fitness regime required of me to experience a fitness transformation.

Quite by accident, I discovered that room scale VR gaming provided the same benefits of traditional fitness training while avoiding the painstaking effort. It took the “work” out of working out, so to speak. What I set out to do with VR was to apply some of the same structures inherent to more traditional fitness regimes to what I dubbed the “VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge” and put the efficacy of VR fitness to the test.

Credit to: VR FIt

VRFI: Tell us more about the “VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge”.

Tim: It was a resounding success. After 50 days I had accomplished both my weight loss and fitness conditioning goals while having fun doing it. Simply put, VR Fit is my attempt to replicate my personal experience with VR fitness for the general public.

VRFI: There are so many HMDs available to the public and to businesses. What VR display or set up do you use with clients?

Tim: When it comes to setting up a room scale experience in a commercial athletic setting, the HTC Vive is easily the most accommodating. Multiple Vive HMDs can operate running off a single pair of lighthouses with few limitations. The HTC Vive setup also leaves a much smaller footprint on the space since the lighthouses don’t need to connect back to the PC. This means when the VR Fit Zones aren’t active, everything can be easily tucked away, allowing the same space to be utilized as a multi-purpose area for spinning bikes, yoga mats, kettlebells or whichever other fitness activities are commonly deployed in a fitness studio.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: Having adults use VR rigs to improve or shake up their fitness routine is a great idea.

Tim: I’ve used VR to great success both as a stand-alone experience to individuals or integrated into the routines of other established classes and training programs. Personal trainers offer it as a “treat” to their clients as a warm-up or cool-down from their sessions.

Boxing instructors have used The Thrill of the Fight to simulate the experience of an actual boxing match that’s absent of bruised knuckles or black eyes – and without the need for an actual boxing ring. It’s even been incorporated into traditional cardio and strength circuit classes to keep the workouts dynamic and novel while still maintaining the intense cardiovascular pace they’re accustomed to getting.

VRFI: Is there an age limit to VR? Do you also help families, teens, and children get fit as well?

Tim: I do impose an age restriction of 14 years and up for a couple reasons. The main reason is that I have some reservations about introducing VR to younger audiences because I don’t think we know with absolute certainty what the impact could be on their still-developing brains and ocular motor and visual perceptual systems.

The other reason is that the impulse control of younger individuals isn’t quite as developed as in older individuals and the younger ones tend to go “wandering off” in VR, sometimes taking the whole VR setup in tow.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: Do you have any VR Fit success stories you’d like to share with us?

Tim: Everyday I go home feeling like I’ve had another success story. I see a lot of people slogging away on treadmills, recumbent bikes, elliptical trainers, and stair masters either with a glazed-over expression or a grimace on their faces. I introduce as many of these people as I can to VR and suddenly they’re smiling and even laughing, getting the same workout they would have gotten on a machine but having fun doing it. Making exercise fun is why I started VR Fit in the first place.

I do offer a “VR Fitness Transformation Program” as well where I would work closely with an individual to adopt a dedicated VR fitness program complete with tailored goal setting and weight tracking, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to put it into practice. However, this is something I am very passionate about implementing.

VRFI: What is VRobics?

Tim: VRobics + Conditioning is designed as a mixed-reality fitness circuit class that uses both real-world resistance exercises and equipment alternated with cardiovascular-oriented VR.  For example, doing 90 seconds of kettlebell swings followed by 5 minutes of BOXVR speed punching.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: How do you use VR with your clients?

Tim: I wanted to offer a range of clients something they could have both ways — by giving seasoned gym goers some of what they were accustomed to while dipping a toe into VR and giving VR fitness enthusiasts an introduction to traditional fitness modalities, but in my opinion doing it this way dilutes either experience.

For the VR enthusiast, what makes VR so effective as a fitness vehicle is the VR itself. Pulling somebody out after 5 minutes and then jump on the rowing machine felt like the equivalent of biking outdoors for a mile only to transition to a recumbent bike and cycling in place. For the seasoned gym goers, they were generally already satisfied with the offered circuit classes and didn’t necessarily need it to be more “fun.”

Logistically, setting up a class for 8 people with 2 VR Fit Zones and 6 other real-world exercise stations is difficult to execute and keep transitioning smoothly within the time allotment for a single coach.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that the VR experience should be distilled, not diluted. For people who want a fun workout, VR offers enough variety by itself, and for the people who enjoy traditional resistance circuit classes, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

For people who enjoy both, they can still do both, just not all at the same time. It’s a good concept, but one that requires tighter integration. If they could do resistance training while still being immersed in a virtual reality game, something like this would bridge that gap. Now somebody just needs to build out the technology.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: What are your most popular/least popular VR fitness experiences or games?

Tim: BOX VR has been our most popular game. It’s a really straightforward game that anyone can get the hang of within a couple minutes, offers a great variety of movements, is super fun to play, and has a kick-ass soundtrack. This is the game I introduce to people who haven’t done VR before because in just 5 minutes of gameplay they get a great mini-workout and fully grasp the potential of what virtual reality fitness can achieve.

The least popular game would be Hot Squat. That is the only game I’ve ever had people stumble in. The main issue with the game is that it makes the player think they need to squat way lower than they actually need to progress, and on more than one occasion this has resulted in people squatting all the way to the floor and then rolling backward.

The other issue is that I see a lot of people use poor squat mechanics for hundreds of repetitions and that’s just not ideal. In fact, in one of my workout articles where I included “Hot Squat” into the routine, I also went into great detail about using proper form to ensure that it’s played responsibly. It’s also not terribly fun, although when done properly it does provide an incredible lower body workout.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: VR Fit offers one-on-one fitness coaching. Do you use weights, resistance, Vive Trackers, or any other VR or fitness accessories during training sessions?

Tim: I’d love to do all those things, but I generally keep it pretty simple with just bodyweight. When people are ready to take it to the “next level,” I’ll add a weighted vest to the equation which certainly does kick things up a notch. When there is better support for Vive trackers in the games I offer, that is definitely something I will add, provided it’s easy to implement for my clients.

The purpose of the one-on-one training is to customize the gameplay and structure the workout to be tailored to the goals of the client. For example, if they want a one-hour workout with a warmup and cooldown that will train their shoulders and legs, increase their agility and coordination, and burn the most calories, I make that happen.

Additionally, I will outfit them with a chest-strap heart rate monitor to get an accurate calorie burn measurement and track their progress. Best of all, I’ll personally coach them on proper form and technique to get the most effective workout possible. I also lead them through a ten-minute dynamic stretching protocol beforehand to get their connective tissue primed for an even better workout.

VRFI: Using VR can make the gear sweaty. How does VR Fit tackle sweaty headsets and controllers?

Tim: One nice thing about being in a gym setting is that people are already dressed to sweat. Wearing non-restrictive, breathable clothing helps a ton here. Everyone wears a bandana, which creates a barrier between the client’s head and the headset and helps to absorb sweat. The Deluxe Audio Strap paired with the Pleather DAS VR Cover makes wiping down everything with disinfectants a cinch. I also use Hyperkin controller covers, which I also wipe down. And wearing the wrist straps are a prerequisite so the controllers don’t go flying into the treadmills.

Video Credit to: VR Fit via YouTube

VRFI: Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone looking to start a business in VR? Either from a business, game development, or fitness perspective.

Tim: For people looking to start a VR Fitness business or integrate it into an athletic facility, there are some unique obstacles to overcome, mainly when it comes to misconceptions surrounding what VR fitness is and who it’s targeted for.

These misconceptions come from thinking that new users need to be gamers, that the workouts will be too easy or too difficult, or that it will make them motion sick. These are all valid concerns and the best way to overcome them is by getting people to try it, even for just a few minutes, and for the bystanders to see other people using it. Another obstacle that I think holds true for any gym is persuading people to change their existing routines.

I can speak from my own experience that when I go to the gym I have only an hour to do my workout and I’m extremely reluctant to deviate from my habits even minutely. The fact that VR is so far outside the mainstream of fitness makes this even more difficult to overcome. Again, giving short 5-minute demos is the best way to give them a sampling of the possibilities of VR without significantly disrupting their timeline.

The best population to target for VR fitness will be new members. These clients will be the most receptive to trying something different, since joining a new gym already entails accommodating a new fitness routine. Seeing adoption of this new fitness paradigm will be incremental, but fortunately, the recidivism rate will be high.

From a game development standpoint, the simpler the user interface the better. People who do VR Fit aren’t necessarily gamers, and in fact, it’s a common misconception that you need to be a gamer to enjoy VR Fit.

I tell clients that gaming often requires memorizing a sequence of button presses or navigating complex menus, but that VR Fit’s games all use real-world movements that are just as familiar as doing the real thing. In other words, the more intuitive the game is for somebody who has never played video games, the more effective it will be for the general public at large to grasp. I think this also holds true for any VR game or experience.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: If you could help developers create better VR fitness games what would you tell them?

Tim: There are VR fitness opportunities alike for games that feel like workouts and games that just feel like games, as long as the game encourages mobility conducted at a moderate to high pace, delivers a sense of achievement and progression, and most importantly, is fun. Within that framework, the possibilities are infinite.

VRFI: What technological advancements are you looking forward to for VR or are keeping an eye on?

Tim: Aside from the tech advancements that are already in the pipeline of lighter, better-ventilated headsets, wireless technology, and full body tracking, the feature I most look forward to seeing is integrating heart rate monitoring into the gameplay experience. Not only would it be valuable to see a heads-up display of your heart rate while gaming and get a calorie burn estimate, if the games could dynamically adjust the difficulty scaled to your actual exertion rate that would be a literal game changer for VR fitness.

Credit to: VR Fit

VRFI: What does VR Fit hope to achieve in 2018?

Tim: Thus far, VR Fit has a relatively small but passionate client base which I aspire to grow exponentially. My North Star for VR Fit was been both to see VR accepted as a traditional piece of exercise equipment right next to the treadmills and resistance machines, but perhaps even more so to transform individuals with no interest in fitness into athletes.

I love the idea of flipping the stereotypes of gamers as sedentary basement dwellers into gamers being some of the fittest specimens on the planet. To accomplish this I will need to continue to prove the viability of the product in a mainstream gym environment and then to expand into other facilities. That’s where my focus is.