Eric Janszen, the CEO and co-founder of VR fitness company VirZOOM, tells us about the recent release of their third-generation hardware, the VZfit Sensor Kit.
VirZOOM is now offering the third generation of its products in the form of the VZfit Sensor Kit, consisting of a sensor and a button that you can put on virtually any bike and play a gamut of VR games with. “It’s not about gamifying bikes,” Janszen told me after I inquired about the existential purpose of VR games that take place on a stationary bike. “It’s about creating an infinite range of different kinds of activities that involve six degrees of motion through huge virtual worlds.”
How does the setup process work? It’s simple. You attach the sensor (the device with the big letters ‘VZ’) to the crank, and in a matter of seconds, it talks to your Oculus headset over Bluetooth. Once you pair the button array to your headset as a ‘gamepad’, you’re good to go. But be careful not to lose your sensor, Janszen warns. “It’s how you license the content to yourself. Wherever you have the sensor, you have access to the content, as well as your whole history—your scores, your friends, all of it.”
What’s peculiar about the VZfit Sensor Kit is how Janszen believes that VirZOOM’s IP is the most inherent solution to motion sickness in larger, free-form VR games. “At a very high level, [VZfit is] a new form of activity that takes place in VR,” Janszen explained to me. “If you want to move to big virtual worlds in VR with six degrees of freedom (6DOF), at [a high] speed, without making people sick, you need a very special kind of controller.”
Extremely slow movement, Janszen states, is the reason that certain apps are able to let players have smooth locomotion in relatively large spaces without causing motion sickness. “The Google Earth first-party app is a great app, but it’s moving you slowly to keep you from getting sick,” Janszen told me. “What we wanted to do was allow you to move yourself through large virtual worlds under your own power. And it just turns out that the ideal controller for doing that has a seat, pedals and handlebars. If a stationary bike didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.”
Janszen, along with Rob Kay and Eric Malafeew (both of whom are responsible for pioneering Guitar Hero and Rock Band), came up with VirZOOM as a team. As it just so happens, Malafeew already had a background with flight simulators and robotics that would later help him architect the gameplay environments in VZfit Play.
“I’m a bike rider, and I’ve maintained this idea of ‘Wouldn’t it be great to ride outdoors while indoors in VR?’ for about 30 years. So I’ve been waiting for the VR tech to catch up,” Janszen continued. “What we learned though, is because it’s VR, you can do pretty much anything. And since these are world-class AAA developers, they thought ‘Well, let’s come up with some really fanciful crazy things that you either can’t do in the real world, or that’d get you killed in the real world.’ But the idea is that we want to engage you so deeply in these activities that you don’t realize that the side effect of the motion in your pedaling and your leaning is exercise.”
To accommodate their new style of play, the VirZOOM team has created a sizeable range of activities. “There’s one where you’re flying a pegasus through a canyon, for example. Or paddling a kayak in a placid lake in Thailand.”
Janszen went on to tell me about research that was conducted to quantify the effects of VirZOOM on test subjects. The testers would put subjects on a VirZOOM in one trial, and then they’d put those same testers on a regular bike in a different trial. Interestingly enough, according to his report, the test subjects believed they were working out more on the regular bike, but were actually working out much more on the VirZOOM without realizing it.
“Probably one of the biggest barriers to adoption is that people look at a [stationary] bike, and most consumers, I’d say about 90% of them, do not have positive associations. Most consumers don’t think ‘Oh look that’s a stationary bike! That’s gonna be a lot of fun.’,” Janszen told me. “There’ve been videos you can pedal through. You can watch television. There have been all kinds of add-ons that have been tried over the years. We’re kind of the opposite of that where we’re not a distraction; we are the thing that you do. You’re engaging in a multiplayer tank battle with somebody, an hour goes by and you’ve gotten a workout. So we’re not trying to distract you; you’re just busy, and the side effect of that is you’re burning calories and you’re burning weight.”
“VZfit Play was created in Unity and we have a very long list of games that we have in mind that we are making,” Janszen continued. “We also have an SDK, with third-party entities developing content for the platform. The SDK embodies the IP that we’ve developed, that lets you move people around without making them sick. Third parties can also create content using our SDK; as a subscriber, you have access to all of that content as well.”
But VZfit Play isn’t the only app that will have added content in future updates. “In the future [of VZfit Explorer], we’ll have some kinds of multiplayer and other fun games where we just drop you in a place and you have 10 minutes to figure out where you are. There will be treasure hunts and just about any kind of thing you can think of that you can do while moving around on a bike in virtual reality.”
At the end of the day, Janszen and his team at VirZOOM in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are just excited to see their product continue to grow as more people funnel into VR. “We’re grateful that Oculus has delivered this very inexpensive, very high-quality VR headset that’s ideal for what we’re doing,” Janszen expressed to me as our call came to a close.
Right now, the kit runs exclusively with Oculus Go headsets, but Janszen is determined to bring the company’s two content apps VZfit Play and VZfit Explorer to the Oculus Quest as well. You can purchase one from the VirZOOM website for $99.95, but in order to run the apps, there’s a mandatory monthly fee of $14.95 on top of the original hardware purchase. Additionally, if you have a FitBit account, you can connect your FitBit to the VZfit Sensor Kit system. (Instead of steps, however, your progress is tracked in ‘spins’.)
Does the VZfit Sensor Kit seem like something that’d get you using a stationary bike whether in-home or at a gym? Let us know in the comments.