Virtual reality headsets have come a long way since I first saw a VR “arcade” appear in a mall in the 1990s. (I never played, though I was curious; five dollars per game was like a whole week.) Now you can plug in headphones and walk around the living room, with options ranging from dance games to to gym-focused applications. I aim to learn: to what extent can you do a virtual reality workout?
What can a virtual reality headset do?
I’m testing the Oculus Quest 2, a device that plays on its own without the need to be connected to a computer. Put the similar headphones on your glasses and grab two controllers and the games ask you to move your hands to do things.
In most VR fitness apps, you don’t have to press the drivers buttons, you just have to shake hands. Since the game is also aware of where the headphones are in space, it may ask you to squat or lean to the sides. Games don’t differ too much by the type of actions they ask of you, but they vary greatly by the type of environment you’re immersed in while doing it.
How the virtual reality training space is set up
While a virtual world can be as big as the game developer wants it to be, your living room is only the size of your living room. Games should allow you to move while preventing you from running against a wall or hitting your hands on the shelves, so there is a system that sets virtual boundaries.
With Oculus, the border is called your guardian. (Vive, another popular VR headset, Chaperone calls it). When it came time to set up the Guardian, the virtual world faded away and I found myself looking at my real environment in grainy black and white. My sofa, the walls and everything elses visible for this step, and the device said so that I use my manual controllers to draw a line on the ground to define my safe space. (The movement is similar to spraying a stream of water with a garden hose.)
The minimum recommended size for room-scale games, those where you can move, is two meters by two meters or 6.5 by 6.5 feet.
Maybe I was hoping to use my driveway as a play space, but the Oculus comes with warnings not to use it outdoors. This is for several reasons. First, you are completely blind to your surroundings while immersed in a game, so you may not notice people, cars, squirrels, etc., entering your space. Second, headphones use small cameras to find out where they are (and where their hands are) and cannot operate in the dark or in extremely bright light. And third, if sunlight reaches the lenses, it is screwed. Even a few minutes of sunlight, for example, taking off the headphones and leaving the screen facing up on a sunny day can destroy the device.
So I set up my Guardian and started exploring the virtual world. When you turn on the headphones, you’ll find yourself in a virtual home environment, with menus appearing like a giant virtual screen in front of you. The border I drew was invisible, but if I ever got too close to it, I saw it appear momentarily, a transparent wall marked with grid lines.
If you walk through on the wall of The Guardian, the game world disappears completely and you see your real surroundings again in this black and white view. I found it helpful to place a bottle of water and a sweat towel just outside my training area; I just had to stick my head across the border and I could have a drink without having to take off my headset. Another fun feature: you can add your real world sofa in your virtual environment.
How are VR fitness games?
The simplest and, I think, the best ones throw you a jet of objects, and your job is to hit them in time with music. Other styles of play include dances where you copy your partner or instructor and boxing games where you are immersed in a real fight. (I found a boxing game so appealing, despite the cheeky graphics, that I went to the game locker room bench waiting to find my bottle of water there.)
There are also games that allow you to play real sports in a virtual world, including golf simulators and table tennis. Another fascinating format simply creates a virtual world in constant motion around you as you pedal with a real-life exercise bike.
Dealing with sweat and practical problems
Active virtual reality games bridge a strange gap between video games (which are played on a couch while eating Cheetos) and workouts (which are done with sweat-absorbing clothing). The difference needs a little getting used to. For example, I had to figure out the best way to fix my hair. I usually do bun or ponytail when I exercise, but the straps on the device get in the way. A low braid was the best option I found.
Another thing I found, while browsing the virtual reality forums, is that people who want to use the RV for exercise have tricked their headphones with belts and spare accessories. One of those I actually bought was a silicone case for the part of the device that touches your face. (Mine was cheap off the mark, but they tell me VR deck is the Cadillac of these attachments.) This prevents sweat from sinking into the foam, which is a much less dirty transfer when your child borrows headphones to play Beat Saber and makes it all wet and smelly .
With proper equipment, I’ve been playing a lot of games and next week I’ll give you a full tour of my favorites. If you’ve done virtual reality fitness exercises, let us know in the comments how you liked them, and if there’s any game, I need to make sure I don’t miss them.