VR Fitness Insider Podcast – Episode 7: Octonic VR

Welcome to the latest episode of the VR Fitness Insider Podcast! Today, we're thrilled to have Ilya Polokhin, David Wen, and Nahiyan Ahmad from Octonic VR joining us. Their innovative VR experiences, which are designed to be used in conjunction with fitness hardware such as treadmills, are revolutionizing the sports and fitness industry. These creators are true pioneers of VR fitness and we're excited to have them on the show to share their insights with you all.

Welcome to the latest episode of the VR Fitness Insider Podcast! Today, we’re thrilled to have Ilya Polokhin, David Wen, and Nahiyan Ahmad from Octonic VR joining us. Their innovative VR experiences, which are designed to be used in conjunction with fitness hardware such as treadmills, are revolutionizing the sports and fitness industry. These creators are true pioneers of VR fitness and we’re excited to have them on the show to share their insights with you all.

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Episode 7 – Octonic VR

Preston Lewis: [00:00:00] Welcome to the VR Fitness Insiders podcast, for the creators who are building the future of the VR and AR sports and fitness industries that will revolutionize the way the world will play sports, work out and get fit with your hosts. Preston Lewis and Ryan DeLuca, the founders of Black Box vr, who are building the world’s first full fitness VR gym and bring decades of experience from creating some of the largest fitness technology companies in the world.

They’re bringing together the best and brightest minds to help you and your company succeed in the VR fitness revolution.

Welcome to the VR Fitness Insider Podcast. Today we have three guests on the show, first time ever, from Octonic VR. We’re lucky to chat with Ilya, who’s the CEO and co-founder of Octonic VR. As well as Nahiyan, who’s the Chief of Business for Octonic VR. And David, Chief Engineer and co-founder. Thank you guys for being here.

Ilya Polokhin: Thank you. Thanks for inviting us. Thank you.

David Wen: Yep. Thank you for having us.

Preston Lewis: So why don’t we kick it off and hear a little bit about your guys’ [00:01:00] backgrounds, and how you first got into VR.

Ilya Polokhin: Sure, I’ll start. So, like many of us, probably, from childhood I was excited about virtual reality, reading books and stuff.

I remember, like, passing the store during my teens and seeing a VR headset I really wanted to buy. The problem was that it was seven thousand dollars and it was, like, probably half my weight. But fast forward to 2014-2015 I tried DK1, I think it was Live for Speed back then in the game, popular on some Sim Racers. And I was just like, “oh my god.”

Frames were like thirty five probably, but it was amazing. That’s how I started with VR, and since then, I was into racing games and flag games. So almost immediately, I saw the potential and need for a wheel and a chair. And when I got the wheel and the chair, then I wanted the chair to actually vibrate. I got some [00:02:00] transducers on four corners, was pretty amazing. And then I’m like, “ah, not enough with virtual reality.” And so that’s how I got to motion simulators. Started building some basic motion simulators, became quite a big hobby. And in 2016 we actually opened the business. In downtown Manhattan we built the company of our lab, where basically racers, pilots would come in and train. Many of them actually trained, not for fun. People would go to Laguna Seca, train on their car they’re gonna drive in a month from now. Then they would go to Laguna, and obviously, they’re saving money and also they’re doing much better with their friends. So fast forward then, Octonic, and we’ll talk more about Octonic a bit later, but that’s pretty much my introduction.

Ryan DeLuca: Some people are like, “oh, I want to get into VR and I might get, like, a comfortable chair or something.” Like, you built your own racing rig. How awesome is that?

David Wen: I’m David and the first thing that got me into [00:03:00] VR was this show called Sword Art Online. That’s where I pretty much learned about VR from. And then, tried VR for the first time out of Neo, actually, when I used the omnidirectional treadmill. Since then I’ve just been getting more involved in the VR area, VR, AR, and like interactive experiences and stuff like that.

Preston Lewis: Yeah, so Nahiyan, let’s hear your background.

Nahiyan Ahmad: I first tried VR in the nineties at, uh, one of my good friend’s Bar Mitzvah celebrations. And back then it was basically like a motorcycle helmet, where you just strap yourself in and you put yourself into this really, really large piece of equipment. But still I was floored with the potential with what I experienced that day. But unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of that, it was still another era of VR, and I didn’t really experience it until the more modern era in the mid 2000’s. I met the founders of my previous VR company, called Jump Into the Lights, which was a VR center here in New York City. [00:04:00] And had an amazing experience with the modern form of VR. I kept in touch with the team over there. I gave ’em kind of pro bono consulting advice, because at the time I was a consultant, and eventually they gave me an offer to join the team over there. And that kind of got me started in my professional career in VR and I’ve been doing it ever since, since 2017.

Preston Lewis: Well, so before Octomic you guys created, I’m not sure I’m saying this right, but Hubneo VR Lab. Is that how you say it?

Ilya Polokhin: That’s correct.

Preston Lewis: And that was located in Manhattan for people to go and experience. Tell us about that, and what you learned from seeing people immerse themselves in these next level VR experiences.

Ilya Polokhin: I’ll start, you guys feel free to pitch in. The idea of Hubneo VR Lab was to bring the most expensive, most advanced equipment in VR motion simulation to people, make it available. Our rigs were like tens of thousands of dollars, [00:05:00] just a few people could actually afford them. Not to mention, all the hassle coming from VR back in the days. It’s obviously PC experience as well, so there is much more transaction costs involved in maintaining those systems. So, that’s what we did. We basically provided experiencing the best of the best in virtual reality technology. Not an introduction to virtual reality, but more like advanced experience, more like what will be virtual reality in the years to come. So that was the mission of this place, and we’ve been quite successful in it. Right? So lots of kids came through and lots of also professional drivers and pilots as well. One thing we learned, from pretty much the get-go, and I think David, you may remember this moment. Back then we already had wireless and we had BackPacks, VR One BackPacks. And one customer got so excited about one game character, that basically, he charged [00:06:00] after it. And there was only ten by ten feet room available for actually running. So it was right going into the wall.

Ryan DeLuca: VR to ER.

Ilya Polokhin: Customer was fine, actually happy, even. So everything’s fine. The headset had a few scratches, VR one as well. But what we learn from cases like that is, obviously, locomotion is a big problem in virtual reality. And pretty much that’s how we, probably a year or two while we were running the lab, David and I started tinkering on the idea of treadmills. Omnidirectional treadmills, and fast forward to fitness treadmills. But that’s something we can talk later.

Preston Lewis: And just real quick on that, what simulation devices did you have? So you had driving devices, omni treadmills.

Ilya Polokhin: We had flight simulators as well. We had wireless, nobody will be impressed by it now, but back then wireless room scale was a big deal. And by the way we’ve used Virtuix omnidirectional treadmills.

Ryan DeLuca: It’s interesting what you were saying about training. That professional drivers [00:07:00] would use it for training. And that’s something that’s so interesting about VR is that the repetitions you can do, you don’t have to actually go out to the track. And obviously the more you can transfer VR activity to real world, which obviously we’re using an emotion simulator and the actual steering wheel and flight controls can help with that. Did people say like, yes, that made a difference for them? They would go and practice at Hubneo and they’d go out to the track and be noticeably better?

Ilya Polokhin: This, and also I think a big deal, and David can speak for that, is a psychological aspect. David, I’m alluding to our driving school. Maybe you can share a little bit of your experience running sessions for student drivers.

David Wen: We did have this driving school program where the drivers were able to go through like a course. They would teach them how to do a U-turn and parallel park and stuff like that. Which I assumed helped people. I mean, we don’t really hear back from them if it actually helped them or not, but we have repeat customers. So I think if they come back, they think they’re getting better [00:08:00] and then they’ll probably do better on the driving actual test.

Ilya Polokhin: Yeah. And I think the psychological aspect was there, like really present. People would sit in the motion simulator, right? And they would be trembling, seeing the road from a cockpit in virtual reality, because how they were afraid of real driving. So that’s what I think was even probably more helpful than even their driving skills improvement. With the racers, however, that was specifically, like, when you are trying to shave off a few seconds on the lab, that was definitely, like, significant skill improvement.

Preston Lewis: That’s interesting, the fear aspect. I guess, because we talk a lot about the training aspect. We’ve had some people on the show, Ryan Engel from Golf+, and he talked about them trying to make it as one-for-one if possible with certain peripherals and things like that, with the weight of the club and haptics. But didn’t even think about the fear aspect of that. You know, we talk a lot about the football simulations. And just the fact that, you’re getting all the reps in, but that’s [00:09:00] also gotta be the power of exposure therapy. And one thing to note is in the military they’re using VR a lot to help with things like, PTSD and really rewire those bad memories, and those fears and those phobias to help people recover. So that’s interesting. I never thought about the fear aspect in sports. I always thought of it as the exposure therapy with like the arachnophobia or the PTSD, but it’s true for sports and racing as well. It’s interesting.

Ryan DeLuca: And driving too. It’s, like, practicing parallel parking and traffic. You’re just never gonna do it. You’ll be like, “I’m not doing that, I’m never gonna get that skill down.” But thank you for helping to improve people’s driving skills, the world needs more of that.

Preston Lewis: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

Nahiyan Ahmad: Especially true in New York.

Preston Lewis: Yeah.

Ryan DeLuca: That’s right. There must be a horn on there, right? They just hit the horn over and over again.

Maybe we’ll jump over to your pivot to VR Fitness. So, after Hubneo you learned a lot there, very successful, put a lot of people through there. And then you said, “all right, you know what, we want to move into VR Fitness.” You mentioned that you were already thinking about treadmills. Obviously it’s a natural extension from that to the fitness aspect of treadmills, not just the [00:10:00] gaming aspect. But what made you decide to do that, and how’d that come about?

Ilya Polokhin: Being gamers and being VR enthusiasts, we wanted to build omnidirectional treadmill. That was our idea. And we are talking about a fully automated machine, with the moving elements. I’m not talking about static treadmills based of sliding motion, for instance, and stuff. And that’s what our goal was all along. And as we were building small prototypes of this potential omnidirectional treadmills, we were also building a software. David was involved in, actually, figuring out how we can synchronize the movement of the runner with the movement of the machine. And at some point of time, during the hardware design process, we came to a full realization. And obviously we also have some friends and examples. And, uh, one conclusion we came to independently was that we cannot build omnidirectional treadmill with the technology [00:11:00] existing at the moment where it’ll be cheap enough, small enough, easy to use enough. Right?

So, military applications, totally. B2B applications, quite possible. But something you can put in your home, you need to have a really big home and probably a team of engineers helping you out. So that was our conclusion. And by that time David already brought the pretty robust motion engine for our imaginary treadmill, and we looked around and we’re like, “hmm, so we are a hardware company and we have built this software, so what can we do with it if we can’t build the hardware for it?” And we’re like, “oh my god, there is a hundred and fifty million hardware units around the world, which can be used with our software.” And that’s how the fitness came on the agenda. It was pretty natural to think about unidirectional treadmills. So our motion engine is actually over queue for unidirectional [00:12:00] treadmills, but that was fine. And basically, used all this experience with the idea of making their headset to communicate with the fitness treadmills.

Ryan DeLuca: Makes a lot of sense. Yeah, it’s such a good point with omnidirectional treadmills being more difficult and obviously less experiences to fully work with that. And that’s a good point, a hundred and fifty million treadmills are sitting out there waiting for an upgrade.


Ryan DeLuca: Uh, well tell us more about what Octonic VR is exactly. So what’s the gameplay like? How does it work together with those treadmills and from a product standpoint, like, describe it.

Nahiyan Ahmad: What we built here is a software that connects mobile headsets like the Quest 2 and Quest Pro with fitness treadmills. We’re compatible with ninety nine percent of fitness treadmills on the market from a non-connected standpoint. For forty brands we actually connect through Bluetooth, meaning the headset establishes a connection through our software with the Bluetooth connection on the treadmill itself. What this does is it allows people [00:13:00] to control treadmills within virtual reality without actually having to press the physical controls on the treadmill itself. So, there’s a control pad in virtual reality that people can use without even having to take off their headset.

For one treadmill brand, Noble Pro, we offer a fully immersive connected version. And what that means is there is a realistic replica of the treadmill model itself within virtual reality that is perfectly aligned and synchronized with what they see in virtual reality. So when people touch their treadmill in virtual reality, they’re actually physically touching the treadmill itself in the real world. They can also see a moving treadmill belt, as well, as they run. The software allows us to convert a Noble Pro treadmill into a fully immersive virtual reality treadmill. That’s kind of the product at a very, very high level. David can kind of take over and discuss some more technical aspects of it.

David Wen: It’s kind of hard to get into the technical aspects. We [00:14:00] have the simple stuff down, like with the Bluetooth connection and everything, and there’s some challenges aligning to treadmills and stuff, but you can find out in the app and see how they work. We didn’t mention that for the non-connected treadmills where there’s no actual physical treadmill model in the game, we are using the passthrough. We’re letting the users create like a box around them that will show the real world, which you’ll have to align with your treadmill, so that you can see your handles and everything. We do also have this self-safety feature, which it reads your position relative to the treadmill, the center of the treadmill belt. And if you get too far from the center in any direction, our app will warn you. Um, so yeah.

Ryan DeLuca: Seems like such a smart idea using passthrough. It’s funny, like when we all got into VR, right? Like it’s VR we don’t wanna see anything. And we’re slowly finding that, “wait a minute, passthrough has a lot of potential to help with a lot of use cases.” And this is a very interesting one where you can’t control it directly inside VR, so just let them have that passthrough and it helps ’em to kind of see where they’re at.

And [00:15:00] yeah. It’s amazing, too, that you’re able to connect to so many different treadmills; it’s great that they offer that to allow you to change it with external software and things like that. Makes it much easier for the people that don’t have the treadmills that work directly.

Tell me a little bit about the gameplay. I’ve got the treadmill, I’m all set up. I got my passthrough set up, got my workout outfit on. I’m ready to go. What do I see?

Ilya Polokhin: We’ve been talking about motion engine, software we’ve built, but we also build virtual worlds. Because we are pioneers with the motion engine, there are specific rules required for the virtual worlds that they need to comply with in order to make your experience both safe and comfortable. Just to give you one idea, for instance, let’s talk about turns in virtual reality, right?

You’re on an omnidirectional treadmill, unidirectional treadmill, which means you can’t really physically turn. So we use a trick where we have a special algorithm, which allows us to understand how much in the virtual world we can [00:16:00] curve the road, curve your path to create the perception of you turning in virtual reality and in the physical world, without you perceiving the fact that you’re actually not turning on the physical treadmill, right?

The idea here is to find this middle ground, and obviously it also informs our design choices in terms of the virtual worlds we build, right? So we can’t really have 57th Street and 10th Avenue crossing within ninety degrees turn right in front of the runner. But we can do some other tricks, which allow people to actually explore in the games.

So at this point we have multiple worlds and we are actually committed to release one world every month. And in fact, we did launch just two days ago our new game. And the worlds for us are broken down generally into two types. First is just recreational worlds for fitness enthusiasts who may not be [00:17:00] so much gamers, and they just wanna enjoy the beautiful environments. Being somewhere, let’s say in snowy Michigan go to Bora Bora beach and things like that. So that’s the idea there. And obviously another aspect is social, which we can talk later about, that’s for all of us here an important focus.

Another type of world is gaming worlds. We are still leaning heavily on gamers among our customers, and it’s obvious we are on Quest 2, and the audience is big on games. So as a result we’re trying to offer our customers the best of two worlds. Like the fitness world and also gaming worlds with shooters, capture the flag games, like around the world I mentioned before. That’s pretty much what people see inside of the headset. And obviously we’re trying to push the level of realism as far as we can with the limited capacity of XR processors at the moment. But we’re looking forward into the future, especially with [00:18:00] XR2 Gen 2 by Qualcomm.

Ryan DeLuca: We see the same thing at Black Box VR. Like, some people come in and they’re less gamer, they’re more fitness focused. They’re thinking about doing the reps and the sets in this other world, and adding that game element kinda on top. Whereas other people that wanna play the game, they think less about the fitness side of things. And so it’s really interesting that you’ve seen that mix of people. I guess on that note, what percent of like game time do you see people in the recreational worlds versus the more gamey worlds? Like, it sounds like you’re alluding to more gamers today.

Ilya Polokhin: I can say that actually our games are more popular than our recreational worlds.

I don’t know what’s the function there, and why it is. I can throw in a couple of guesses. And it was a surprise to us, maybe it’s not surprise for you guys, you’ve been in the industry for quite a long time. We were surprised with how many people actually came to the platform without gaming experience.

So there is definitely new people with VR headsets who intentionally bought the headset to do fitness. Which is pretty amazing. [00:19:00] That was a surprise to us. Second, we were surprised with the age of people. One of our favorite customers is seventy six years old. He’s enjoying it, right? Again, we’ve been thinking gaming worlds will be the only popular worlds, but no, people are actually using recreational worlds. They’re very popular. And I guess this social multiplayer aspect also adds to this experience, because you can now run with your buddy, talk to the person and things like that. The gaming element becomes kind of secondary for some.

Ryan DeLuca: It’s interesting that there’s people that bought the headset for fitness or looking for these things. I think we’ve all been surprised by that. Like the success of like Supernatural and FitXR, like how big those have become. I think the whole world kind of was a little surprised, and it’s for sure less people that are like hardcore gamers, which is cool, but they’re gamifying with VR. What other type of interesting feedback do you get from people and, like, what are they saying are the benefits of using this versus just like a normal treadmill or other workout?

Nahiyan Ahmad: Yeah, I’d say it aligns along our goals of [00:20:00] ultimately making the treadmill experience fun for people. And I think that’s been a key part of the feedback that we’ve been getting, is this idea of elevating the exercise experience, the fitness experience while you’re running. Because we all know that being on a treadmill is good exercise.

It helps keep us in shape, but it is relatively hard to motivate people to do it. Even with modern accouterments like TV screens and music. We came in with the idea of helping them lower the bar to get started in the first place. It’s helping people stay motivated and stay engaged with their exercise routine on treadmills.

People enjoy the idea, for example, of running through environments that differs from whatever their home or gym may look like. Usually at gym’s it’s a lot of mirrors and a large line of treadmills, side by side, by side. But with our platform, they can run through an intergalactic arena. They can run through an environment that we call Sky Islands, which basically allows them to run through a [00:21:00] floating island in another planet, essentially. People are really enjoying the concept of having a routine on their treadmills that allows them to escape the world and enhance their visual environments. There are studies of other platforms that have shown that the idea of time while you’re in VR actually compresses.

Meaning, if you spend thirty minutes in VR, you actually feel like you’ve actually spent a little less than that, for example. It also lowers the bar for people in terms of exertion. The level of exertion they feel that they’ve put into an exercise is actually less than what they’re able to accomplish. So I think these are the kinds of things and key takeaways that we’re currently taking in our product as we move forward here.

Preston Lewis: I just gotta piggyback on that. I mean, you’re basically speaking our language here for sure. Cause that’s one of the things our first hypothesis with starting Black Box VR was, that these immersive technologies could actually make fitness addictive. Uh, and that’s actually in our mission statement, right? And what we’re seeing and what the industry is [00:22:00] seeing is that exact thing that you just mentioned, is that you have these immersive environments and these gamified elements that are compressing time, dilating time making a thirty minute workout feel like ten.

And not only during the workout, but also as you guys were mentioning, kind of that feedback loop of wanting to come back given the right game elements and the right motivational factors, right? And so that’s something we’ve seen. One of the things we’ve seen that’s not just anecdotal, but actually we did a UCLA study with Black Box and it did show that the people participating in the study, they were testing basically the perceived exertion versus the actual exertion. And the actual exertion were the same benefits as uphill vigorous mountain biking, which is obviously like one of the hardest things to do, and it was perceived as jogging. Right? And so right there exactly, kind of the same flavor of what you’re saying, that’s a brain hack that’s allowing people to finally stick to their workouts. So, couldn’t agree more.

And I wanna throw a joke in [00:23:00] there. I was like, dude, as he was talking about Sky Island? It makes me think of Mario Kart and the first thing I thought was, like, as you further gamify it can you throw bananas down?

What happens to the treadmill when you throw a virtual banana down and someone steps on it? That’s the VR to ER right there.

Ilya Polokhin: The other thing people quite often suggest us is to get, like in the forest world, for instance, get more animals, get some bears and stuff. We’re like, “yeah, and what’s going to happen next at you while you’re running at seven miles per hour?”

Preston Lewis: Exactly. There you go. Perceived exertion. Lose a lot of weight that way, for sure.

So, um, yeah you guys talked about launching one world every month. I think, if we heard right. How do you deal with that type of a timeline and maybe talk about some of the challenges of building a game and a system like Octonic VR, like what have you learned along the way? Any tips to share with our listeners?

David Wen: I think the main challenge with building anything in VR actually is the performance [00:24:00] aspect.

Ilya Polokhin: Especially for mobile platform.

David Wen: Yeah, for the Quest. I mean, even for desktop, you still need to optimize more than you would. Normally need to optimize on a regular game. So there are a lot of tricks that we need to do to get our scenes to run at like 72 FPS. We have really big worlds that run pretty well on our platform. And a lot of optimization goes into building our environments.

Ryan DeLuca: I was gonna say, like, it’s so true. Like if you, in a regular game, if I’m on a mobile game or a studio game on Xbox, if the frame rate goes down for a little while, I’m gonna rage quick because how did that guy get me?

But like with this, it’s gonna mess up my view of the world and how fast I’m going. It can really create that disorientation. So yeah, it seems like for something like this…

Ilya Polokhin: Ryan, the faster you go, right? The more frame loss you’re gonna actually detect. At least your brain, and it’s actually becoming pretty dangerous if your frames are dropping at this high speeds. So yeah, that’s what we are trying to build. And making sure that, on the one hand you want to achieve photo [00:25:00] realism, and on the other hand you need to be focused on performance of the system, because it’s also your comfort and safety.

Ryan DeLuca: Yeah, I guess on that, too, like what other challenges around integrating with the hardware device… it’s different than just putting on the headset, just playing a game where you’ve gotta set up the device. You gotta integrate it with your machine. You gotta make sure all that’s working. What type of challenges do you guys see around that type of integration?

Ilya Polokhin: Originally our major challenge was just figuring out the whole system, obviously. It’s a challenge. When we had the motion engine, it was obviously synchronization of the speed of the treadmill and of the virtual world. A big deal. And I’d say safety was probably one of the biggest topics we invested our time in. Probably, like, worked on it a year in the past. First question treadmill manufacturers ask is the question of safety, obviously. We kind of had to really over spend our time on building really proof [00:26:00] system for safety. David already mentioned some of the elements of it, right?

Ryan, you kind of mentioned in relation to the passthrough box. It’s important for them to feel that they can actually go back quickly, for instance. Right? And the way they can do it on their run with Octonic is just pressing on the virtual control panel, the button, passthrough mode. So they instantly find themselves in a familiar world, in their apartment or gym, right? And then as long as they feel fine, they can go back to virtual reality while still exercising. Right? So full passthrough is something that is very helpful.

Preston Lewis: One of the interesting things that you brought up was this aspect of the beginner, right? So the beginner, of course a beginner to VR, but also potentially beginners to just fitness in general, right?

Because as we know, the vast majority of people can’t stick to their workouts. And so, one question we have is, have you found ways specifically to [00:27:00] onboard people to the experience? Because it is one of the hardest things, as we know with VR, is helping people trust that VR can be this revolutionary tool for fitness. But have you guys found good ways to onboard people specifically for your system? Any specific innovations or maybe as simple as traditional game tutorials? Any insights there?

Ilya Polokhin: Yeah, I have one. And it again, goes back to passthrough mode. We found that many people are afraid of full immersion in virtual reality. And the introduction of passthrough view box, where you can define for yourself how much of the real world you are bringing into your virtual experience. And people have freedom, right? So they can outline just their treadmill, they can just have rails and the control box control panel, or they can actually outline the larger areas so that their room is also visible, right? I think for many is an important fact that they are actually staying [00:28:00] connected through these visuals to the real world. And then people can always make progress to a higher level when they feel comfortable, they let go off of this specific functionality. And I guess another thing we didn’t mention, which was a big discovery for us, is an introduction of the avatar system.

So basically when you run, actually, you have a mini version of you on your virtual control panel, right? And obviously you can also modify your avatar to change skins and stuff. But the beauty of the avatar is that it shows your position on a mini treadmill, right? So you don’t need to look down to figure out where you are on the belt. You run and with your corner of your eye, you just reference the avatar, and that’s gonna be sufficient for safe running, right? So sometimes when people ask, “hey guys, is it safe?” we’re actually saying “it’s safer than the real treadmill, because it has many more features preventing you [00:29:00] from going off of the treadmill compared to the real treadmill.”

Preston Lewis: That’s super interesting. Maybe that’s a note for the audience about testing. Right? Rapid iteration testing. I’m sure you guys didn’t get that maybe on your first try.

Ilya Polokhin: That was actually the feedback we’ve been getting. The avatar idea was a direct feedback from beta testers.

People were not comfortable and that’s how we arrived to avatar. I remember this moment when we actually came up with this idea just kind of piggybacking of our gaming experience in games. Obviously avatars are used for different reasons, right? But in our case it was a pretty important safety feature. By the way, patented.

Ryan DeLuca: You know, that’s a great idea for us, too. I think having like maybe like a webcam view for us would be interesting, because people have the same questions. Like, the proprioception they can basically tell what kind of form and what reps are doing. We have like videos in there showing them like what they’re supposed to be doing, but sometimes people aren’t sure. And so, like, just given that confirmation, it helps them to feel a lot better. So it’s a great idea.

Ilya Polokhin: By the way, we would be curious to [00:30:00] know about your vision on the future of the social experience. And let’s say, one-on-one trainer sessions specifically for your application. It seems like a big deal, right? And we are obviously seeing a lot of opportunities there, so would be curious to know more about that. But whenever you guys are ready.

Ryan DeLuca: I think maybe we can do an episode on that, Preston.

Preston Lewis: Um, yeah, so just kind of dovetailing into that. Might be a little bit of a crossover, but we talked a little bit about the challenges of building the game. Talked a little bit about, of course, listening to customers, the iteration. Really inventing new design patterns for safety as well as just for an overall better user experience. Are there specific things that you think that developers should know when developing a VR fitness experience?

David Wen: I can’t come up with anything like specific to VR fitness development. Just, you know, make sure to test everything yourself, and it’s pretty much the same with like development in [00:31:00] general, you know, to test and make sure everything’s working. I mean, you can test it, but you should also have other people test it, because you’re very used to what you’ve done, right? And what you think might work, may not apply to the general public and they might have no idea what’s going on.

Ryan DeLuca: Yeah. It’s funny, um, we all come from different backgrounds, whether it’s how familiar we are with VR or technology. But there’s also, with us, what we’re all doing is there’s a fitness component where some people are super fitness experts and know everything about running on treadmills, and form and everything they should be doing there.

Then there’s people that are brand new beginners, like Preston was talking about. So if you’re more of an expert on running, it’s hard to understand what it’s like for somebody that’s really just beginning, because you’re like, “what are you talking about? It’s simple.” But testing it with those type of people definitely can help a lot to understand where they’re coming from.

Nahiyan did you have any thoughts on that, on any other things you might think about, as a developer of VR fitness experiences specifically, like what they should be watching?

Nahiyan Ahmad: I would tie it into what we were just discussing previously. You know, the whole social aspect [00:32:00] of VR. I think is something that not enough developers have really taken an opportunity to build on. I think one of the biggest criticisms of VR in this modern era has been the isolating aspect of it. The fact that it separates people from other people, in addition to from the real world. But the infrastructure has become more supportive of social VR in the recent years.

And I think if we can build more experiences that connect people through, not just through exercise, but more broadly, in any aspect of XR in general, I think developers should take that opportunity to do that. And we’ve tried to do that on our end. We’ll continue to do that as we move forward.

Ryan DeLuca: Really good point. It’s easy to start with the single player idea of fitness, but then Gorilla Attack comes out. People are working out like crazy doing these crazy movements and stuff, but that’s probably the most exercise a lot of people are getting, so yeah, social. Good. Good point.

Preston Lewis: Awesome. Okay, so shifting gears a little bit, uh, just to shift to the future. You guys are already ahead of most people and you’re building the future. [00:33:00] But if you had some sort of magic wand or you could snap your fingers and have the hardware and software that you’d want in the mainstream, what would that look like? What would that hardware and software look like? That would help make VR sports and fitness mainstream?

Ilya Polokhin: I’d say two elements. For the hardware, I would say cheap enough headsets, which are light and have a small footprint. And I’m sure, guys, you are battling the same problems with your technology and business.

So on the software side, what we really need is a better avatar system. And actually it’s easy to say, a better avatar system, but what it actually entails is a much larger challenge. That’s pretty much your motion traction. For us, specifically for VR pioneers like all of us, if you do something like one-on-one trainer [00:34:00] session, ideally we would want to see a pupil and a trainer in the same virtual space. And the trainer needs to know what mistakes you are making, right?

So for instance, we’re super excited about feet tracking, which seems to be the way Meta is going. And even from the unofficial information we found in official sources, Apple is going the same way.

So, feet tracking would be amazing. And we hope that with the very little add-ons on the hardware side, just through the software, we will be able to arrive to better movement tracking, which will open huge opportunities for social VR fitness experiences.

Ryan DeLuca: Well said. I’m gonna take that clip. I’m gonna forward it to everybody we know at Meta and Apple and HTC. Like, we need this.

Nahiyan and David, do you have what type of things you think that would be helpful for us as we’re building these [00:35:00] experiences?

David Wen: I mean, definitely better graphical and computational power, right? We actually built some worlds for running using desktop graphics. And they look pretty crazy, like crazy realistic and everything, but we can’t bring them to the Quest due to performance limitations.

Ryan DeLuca: It’s one of those things we all know is just, is going to get better, but it’s, like, please hurry up.

Ilya Polokhin: And we’ve also seen like a shift among our customers. If before they were like complaining about UI/UX for instance, right now when all these questions and problems are solved, one of the biggest complaints we get “when are we gonna get photo realistic world?”

Preston Lewis: Yeah, of course.

Nahiyan Ahmad: I’d say just having experiences for people to try it out. Places, like Black Box, for example, where they didn’t try before they buy. I think that will help launch it into the mainstream. Just having an outlet for people to try it out, whether it’s at a gym at Black Box or [00:36:00] at a general location based VR center. I think any kind of exposure that people can have to this technology, that’ll introduce them to the potential of exercise in VR, will ultimately help it. Help adoption in the mainstream.

Ryan DeLuca: These are great answers. Every time I’m like, “yep, covered that one.” It’s like, you got an even better one. We keep adding on to it. That’s awesome. It’s so true, if there was just places for people to be able to go and try it out. That kind of is our goal of it with Black Box, is bring it to a retail location.

Obviously it’s way more expensive, more difficult to do that than it is just software. But then people will be able to have at-home experiences, and if more gyms and more places just introduce people to the concept, that’s gonna make it so people will use those and the ones at home.

Ilya Polokhin: Yeah. And to your point, Ryan, and to Nahiyan’s point, if we specifically talk about gyms, right? Right now, for instance, Quest Pro, which is arguably a better headset for fitness, let’s say. Right? It’s still eleven hundred bucks, even after discount, right? Still a lot. But if you put this headset in a gym, [00:37:00] then it can be used by twenty members. Right? So the price becomes negligible.

I’m sure you’ve been going this route for quite number of years now, right? And we are also very excited about, specifically, gym application as a next step in increasing market awareness, pretty much.

Ryan DeLuca: Yeah. Just imagining somebody, like, there’s a row of treadmills like you guys talked about, and all these people bored, with bored looks on their faces, and then there’s one headset in the middle of somebody that is having a good time smiling. And that’s gonna get people to, like, “what is that thing?” It might be weird at first, but not for long, and they’re gonna wanna try it.

Preston Lewis: Well, that’s why it’s so cool, too, that you guys have taken the approach that you have with not necessarily going out and building these bespoke treadmills, but doing it to where it works with how many, did you say? Millions of different people?

Ilya Polokhin: One hundred and fifteen, around the globe. Yep.

Preston Lewis: One hundred and fifteen million?

Ilya Polokhin: Around fifty million in the states.

Preston Lewis: Wow, so one hundred and fifteen million. So that’s the cool thing about what you [00:38:00] guys are doing. And it’s been a huge benefit, of course, with what Meta has done, but it’s really, as you mentioned Nahiyan, it’s getting the genie out of the bottle, right? With VR Fitness. And so the fact that you guys found a way to get your software to a massive scale across all these devices is only going to help the entire industry. So, definitely appreciate that.

Ryan DeLuca: And also treadmills are probably not being used, except for hangers for their clothes.

Preston Lewis: Exactly.

Ryan DeLuca: Can pull ’em back out.

Preston Lewis: Yeah.

Ryan DeLuca: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, we’d love to talk a little bit more about the future of VR to kind of wrap things up, but what’s next for Octonic? Where do you guys hope to go and what can, uh, customers expect?

Ilya Polokhin: I’ve already mentioned in terms of commercial rollout, definitely being on the Meta store for us is a big deal. There are, as you guys know, new headsets, standalone headsets, coming out to the market, which we are very excited about as well. That’s gonna help with the mass adoption, [00:39:00] hopefully. And we’re all here waiting for this mass adoption. Help a lot with the social aspect of virtual reality. Right now we don’t have enough people, potentially, on the platforms to create this virality effect among all the users. All the people who are prone to do fitness, not just among gamers, right? So that’s why gyms, for instance, is a big step for us. We’re looking forward to further develop our relationships with the treadmill manufacturers. Obviously these are, like, the core players in the game. And so far we’ve been getting very good feedback and help from these guys on the beta testing stages and on the design stages as well, right? Just like you can’t really do it without beta testers, you can’t do it without hardware manufacturers, so that’s another big thing for us.

And in terms of developing new worlds, we will be striving to get to the point of photorealism, obviously. And there are some cool things going on [00:40:00] in terms of how we can basically make the interaction between the person and the VR machine more natural. So at this point, for instance, as David mentioned, you control the fitness treadmill from virtual reality, which is pretty amazing. You use your hands, hand gestures for instance, right? You don’t need controllers now. But what if you can control the treadmill just with the movement, your natural movement? You make a step and it knows that you’ve made a step, right?

And the treadmill is moving. So that’s kind of the frontier of the technology that we are tackling right now. There is a long way ahead of us, but we are looking for this natural communication between the runner and the piece of exercise equipment.

Preston Lewis: One thing I was gonna mention is, I’m sure you guys are familiar with Zwift, that biking company.

Ilya Polokhin: Absolutely. Very amazing.

Preston Lewis: So yeah, just thinking about the potential with you guys, um, because you’ve done this modular rollout where [00:41:00] you don’t have necessarily a proprietary hardware, it does seem like there’s a huge potential to really flex on that community aspect that you were bringing up.

So quick question on that. How do you prioritize the features that you build? Because you did mention earlier that you have the beginners that are coming onto the platform or coming into your experience and they are resonating a little bit more with the more gamified experiences versus the more scenic route experiences.

So question would be, how do you balance that trade off? Is it just purely by listening to customers? Do you have a specific direction you want to go that your gut instincts pulling you in? And how are you making those decisions? Because I know a lot of our listeners get caught in those cross hairs as well.

Ilya Polokhin: Yeah. So there is a holistic reply and also a practical reply. So, holistic, we will go with the flow, we will not make decisions for the customer. We believe the customer, in this case at least, the customer knows what he or she wants. [00:42:00] And the way we find out is basically, every world you can run with Octonic, you don’t need to pay anything to try any of our worlds. They’re all free. And one of the reasons why we want them to be free is because, obviously, we want people to make informed choices and purchasing decisions. But another reason, after every demo a person does in our application, they can provide feedback about the world.

And so these are the beginners who are demoing, and we are getting information from them from each world they try for free, what world they liked and which world they didn’t like. That’s how we’re practically solving this problem on our end. And so far it’s fifty-fifty split, guys, roughly. In terms of gaming focus and non-gaming focus for our audience at least.

Ryan DeLuca: Well, maybe we’ll wrap things up. Final question for each of you. Where do you see VR fitness sports going the next few years? Obviously Octonic is [00:43:00] going to take over the entire cardio side. Let us have the strength training please, at least. But like every treadmill is gonna be upgraded with these amazing social experiences that are just gonna make it so much better than just staring at the wall or the mirror or just on a boring TV show. Where do you see, just overall in general, not just specifically Octonic, but where would you like to see in the next, like three to five plus years, VR sports and fitness go?

Ilya Polokhin: So, specifically one-on-one training and training in groups with the trainer. I think in five years, quite achievable. And I’m talking, not only about VR pure VR, but also asymmetric. For instance, the trainer is at his desktop or on his smartphone, and he can track the performance of his pupils in virtual reality, and he can actually communicate to them in virtual reality. That’s one of the implications, which may be a [00:44:00] very cool application for gyms, for instance, right? And one-on-one classes. Right now I do my yoga classes with my teacher, since Covid times, right? Via Zoom. I would love to do those classes in virtual reality and five years, is maybe, just enough time to get there. Maybe she’ll not be able to specifically correct me in my down dog, but it’ll be good enough. So that’s what I’m excited about in these, like, five years.

Ryan DeLuca: David, what’s your dream experience to workout or do sports in VR?

David Wen: It doesn’t matter too much for me as long as I’m having fun, I guess.

Ilya Polokhin: As long as you play Beat Saber, right?

David Wen: Yeah, Beat Saber was great. I mean, I think VR, the most appealing thing, at least about VR right now, to me is the fitness aspect. Like, it makes all the boring workouts more fun, right? And I think running on the treadmill, biking, whatever you wanna [00:45:00] do, you can do it with a headset on and it’ll be better.

Ryan DeLuca: So main dream is just current stuff, even better, but just so many more people are doing it, seeing the benefits of it. And I guess more and more people that are coming in, that means that there’s gonna be more Beat Saber type games and other ones, too, that will just allow a lot more investment to go into those and that’ll bring even more people in. That’s awesome.

Preston Lewis: And once it gets to photoreal, it’s gonna be insane. I bet you guys, when you strapped up that PC VR to your experience, I gotta imagine it was pretty incredible. We’re gonna get there.

Ryan DeLuca: Nahiyan, what’s your dream for VR Fitness?

Nahiyan Ahmad: I mean, in addition to what Ilya and David have already mentioned, I’d say two things. The first being major legacy fitness brands, or it could be current unicorns who are still considered startups, embracing this technology as a real element of their business. So I think having at least one, hopefully more than that, within the next five years will be big for VR Fitness. And also think the potential for VR eSports to bring a new and [00:46:00] expanding fan base into VR fitness, that can be key as well. Both with popularity as well as drawing the interest of people who are currently on the fence. I think largely more traditional gamers who are a little bit slower to embrace VR at this stage. I think a further proliferation of VR eSports can help capture their interest, and I think if that happens in the next five years, that’ll be an important driver behind VR fitness taking hold in the populace here.

Ryan DeLuca: Can’t wait till 2028.

Nahiyan Ahmad: We’d love to see you guys at East Coast sometime. Open up a Black Box here. I’m waiting for you guys to open up here on the East Coast. I know you guys have a strong presence out West, but we’re waiting for you guys to…

Ryan DeLuca: We can’t wait.

Nahiyan Ahmad: …to make roads over here.

Ryan DeLuca: Yeah, it’d be cool, dude. Like, I guess my dream for myself would be something like a Beat Saber, but like a more social experience. More a game experience that has, like, progression and more role playing type of thing together with these sports, kind of social. So I’m always, like, working on something versus just repeating the same thing over and over. But, then be able to go to a gym that has like specialized equipment, like Black Box VR, [00:47:00] resistant training equipment with a community there, with Octonic treadmills. And maybe upgraded versions that it’s harder to get at home. Other type of experiences like that with peripherals, and full tracking and higher end headsets. Just this amazing full fitness experience at this location. So, you guys already know Real Estate in Manhattan, so let’s go. What, what are we waiting for?

Preston Lewis: Dude, it’ll be like that Billions episode. Showtime put us on that… have you guys heard of the show Billions? We were on Episode 13, I think it was Season 2 or 3, I can’t remember. But there’s a scene where they have Black Box machines, and this was back in 2018 or ’19, and they have Black Box machines, and then they have people on treadmills with headsets on running. So that’s gonna be a thing.

Ryan DeLuca: That’s kind of all faked, you know, but it’s this idea of this futuristic gym. Well, the funniest part about that was that the person was in VR and they had a trainer, but the trainer was outside VR, like, pretending to guide them. I’m, like, maybe they had passthrough, you know, the person can’t even see you and they’re, like, telling ’em what to do.

Ilya Polokhin: You may have seen it, you may not have seen it. A couple of months ago, Qualcomm [00:48:00] was introducing a new processor. And obviously, you know, in their video advertisement they had a person running on the treadmill with the glasses, AR glasses. And what do you think this person saw through AR glasses? They actually showed us what she saw. She saw this size, small chart with her pulse and how much. Sure, that’s how they use the processor.

Preston Lewis: It’s almost more torturous, I swear. If I’m ever on a treadmill, like just seeing my pulse, and heart rate and calories barely tick up. I’m like, “oh man, this sucks.”

Ilya Polokhin: They got to the point, they’re like, “oh yeah, mixed reality is gonna kick ass in treadmill running.” And then they found the best application just replicating the Fitbit.

Ryan DeLuca: Yep. It’s crazy. .

Preston Lewis: Yeah, wow. Well, that’s all the time we have. Thanks so much, guys, for joining us and sharing your story, insights and passion for creating the future of VR Fitness with our audience. And anyone in our audience, if you’d like to get into contact with the team, we’ll put all their info into the show [00:49:00] notes, so be sure to check those out. Thanks again.

Thanks for listening to the VR Fitness Insider podcast. Do you know of anyone that should be on our show or have feedback? Don’t forget to email us at podcast vr fitness insider.com and follow us at VR Fitness Insider on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. You can also join our Discord channel. Until next time, keep creating and dreaming up the next big thing that will revolutionize the world of fitness.

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Preston Lewis
Preston is the Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer at Black Box VR. Preston is a fitness fanatic, UXUI junkie, product design ninja and product visionary. Preston has provided creative direction and product management to some of the largest brands in the world. His passion for amazing products and solving difficult design problems has earned him numerous awards for projects ranging from traditional print campaigns and packaging design, to chart-topping mobile applications with complex information architectures. After helping grow multi-million dollar brands, Preston decided to leap back into the world of entrepreneurship with a mission to combine his passions for technology, games, fitness, and changing lives, to create the future of fitness; with this vision, Black Box VR was born. When he's not creating new digital products and growing brands, he can be found enjoying paleo treats with his wife that she posts on her blog, AmazingPaleo.com, playing the guitar, singing, working out in VR and dreaming up the next tech innovation.