My VR exercises were fun – but I wanted to know if they actually worked. So I visited an exercise lab and put together a virtual reality headset to test four different fitness apps. When the headset came off, I knew I had been walking around for 80 minutes, sweating mascara and voluntarily stepping on the salsa in front of a co-worker.
I’m not the only one exploring virtual reality for exercise: Americans’ Google searches for virtual reality fitness soared to an all-time high in January. Nearly a quarter of adults are online In the US, they say they are interested in purchasing a VR headset, according to research firm Forrester, and 18% say they would use a headset primarily for exercise.
Ads for the Quest 2 headset from Facebook parent company Meta, which connects to a variety of apps, promised a “heart that never hurts.” But even people who love that heart-pounding feeling may decide that virtual reality deserves a place in our home gyms.
In tests, the team at the Virtual Reality Health and Exercise Institute (VRHI) found that VR fitness apps can be as powerful as common workouts in the real world. In a 2018 paper, authors including Jamie Bagley, associate professor of kinesiology at San Francisco State University and principal investigator at VRHI, found evidence that exercise in virtual reality leads people to underestimate their exertion.
“People don’t realize how much they exercise,” he told me. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”
This seemed to be true for the four apps I tried. Take Supernatural, a game in which the player travels to vibrant landscapes and hits colorful balloons while squatting under obstacles. During 30 minutes of playing, people’s metabolic rate rose to the same level as riding a bike: 11.44 times their resting rates, according to the VR Institute. (That’s 11.44 METs, which is the metabolic equivalent of the task.)
Other big-name virtual reality exercises are also effective. The Thrill of the Fight, a boxing game, has a score of 9.28 on the MET. FitXR, which offers boxing, dance and interval training, came in with an average of 7.94 metres, roughly the same as tennis. And Until You Fall, a sword-fighting adventure game, got 6.5 metres. (For comparison, the Wii Fit scored a 3.8 in this analysis.)
According to Gartner, people who have spent time in virtual reality seem to show a greater affinity for fitness than for other uses. Chief Analyst Kyle Reese. This could be important to Meta as they try to sell their $299 headphones — especially since many people aren’t keen on getting into virtual reality.
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Why can virtual reality make exercises effective
Virtual reality helps with fitness in the same way it helps with other types of training, says Derek Belch, founder and CEO of VR Strivr.
“Your body is in one place, but your mind thinks you are in another,” he said.
He noted that this is a huge benefit for athletes who memorize plays, or managers who learn how to kick out people or regular people doing cardio at home. Strivr originated from master’s degree research at Belch With the Stanford University Football Team – now developing VR training for businesses Including Walmart.
Another key, Belch said, is gamification, which distributes rewards when we play longer or more aggressively. The combination of gamification and “breakaway” — where we forget we’re training — has the potential to change the way Americans work, Bagley said.
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The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, but only about 20 percent of us meet these criteria, the organization says. According to Bagley, virtual reality games or fitness apps are one way to get there. They’ve also come to a beautiful place: more energetic than sedentary video games and arguably more engaging than repetitive, screen-free workouts.
Obstacles to widespread adoption
Despite its promise, virtual reality fitness does come with pitfalls and most importantly the hardware itself. Headphones are bulky and sweaty and make a lot of people feel sick. Belch tells me that app developers are to blame — when what’s happening in the virtual environment doesn’t match our physical movements, it makes us nauseous.
On the other hand, Bagley said things will get better as the hardware gets better. That’s the case with any new technology, he noted, as he compared the upcoming Meta headset model to early iPhones. Was the iPhone 3G cool? certainly. But he said Apple still has a long way to go.
Meta spokeswoman Johanna Peace said the Quest 2 headset is 10 percent lighter than the original, and the company continues to work on making the hardware more comfortable. As for the race, Meta plans to release the grips for consoles and an “improved workout face interface” later this year, it said.
Other problems are hard to ignore: people are not familiar with virtual reality and familiar people are not enthusiastic. Gartner found that 73 percent of consumers either hadn’t heard of “metaverse” — the Meta term for virtual reality endeavors — or were unable to describe what it might mean. Among consumers with some familiarity, only 18 percent reported feeling excited about it, while 21 percent were concerned and 60 percent had no opinion. Reese said consumers may be concerned that virtual reality is “just another ploy by the Facebook group of companies” to get more of our time and attention.
In 2021, technology spoke of a “metaverse”. One problem: it doesn’t exist.
“Of course, no exercise device, device, or program can be everything to everyone,” said Meta Pace. “Our community tells us that virtual reality is a great way to mix up their usual routine with something fun and new, but one that doesn’t necessarily need to replace all other styles of exercise.”
If I have any pointer, the so-called trick works. I may not want to hand any more of my personal data over to the Meta, but those little Supernatural balloons are just begging to be popped.