Can you get a good workout with virtual reality?
Virtual reality headsets have come a long way since I first saw a VR “arcade” pop up in a mall in the 1990s. (I never played, although I was curious; five dollars per game was like a whole week’s allowance.) Now you can strap on a headset and walk around your living room, with options ranging from dance games to fitness apps, ready to learn: just how can training be good in virtual reality?
What can a VR headset do, anyway?
I’m trying the Oculus Quest 2, a device that plays games on its own without needing to be connected to a computer. You wear the glasses-shaped headset and grab two controllers, and the games require you to move your hands to do things.
In most VR fitness apps, you don’t need to press buttons on controllers, you just wave your hands. Since the game also knows where your helmet is in space, it may ask you to crouch or lean to the side. The games don’t differ too much in the types of actions they ask you to do, but they vary widely depending on the type of environment you’re immersed in while doing it.
How to set up your VR training space
While a virtual world can be as large as the game developer wants, your living room is still only the size of your living room. Games need to allow you to move around while preventing you from bumping into a wall or clapping your hands on your shelves, so there is a system that sets virtual boundaries.
With Oculus, the limit is called your Guardian. (Vive, another popular VR headset, calls it a chaperone.) When it was time to set up the Guardian, the virtual world vanished. away and found myself staring at my actual surroundings in grainy black and white. My sofa, the walls and everything else was visible for this step, and the device says me to use my manual controls 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 “roomscale” games, those where you can walk around, are two meters by two meters, or 6.5 by 6.5 feet.
I had hoped to maybe use my driveway as a play area, but the Oculus comes with warnings not to use it outdoors. This is for several different reasons. Firstly, you are totally blind to your surroundings while immersed in a game, so you may not notice people, cars, squirrels, etc. entering your space. Second, the headset uses small cameras to determine where it is (and where your hands are), and it can’t work in the dark or under extremely bright light. And third, if sunlight enters the lenses, you are screwed. Even a few minutes of sunlight (say you take your headset off and leave it on the screen side on a sunny day) can destroy the device.
So, I installed my Guardian and started exploring the virtual world. When you turn on the headset, you find yourself in a virtual home-like environment with menus appearing as a giant virtual screen in front of you. The border I drew was invisible, but if I ever got too close to it, I would see it appear momentarily, a transparent wall marked by grid lines.
If you walk by the guardian wall, the game world disappears entirely and you see your real surroundings again in this black and white view. I have found it handy to place a water bottle and a sweat-wicking towel just outside my training area; I just had to stick my head through the limit and I could have a drink without having to take my helmet off. Another fun feature: you can add your real world sofa to your virtual environment.
What Are VR Fitness Games Like?
The simplest and, I think, the best throw a flood of objects at you, and your job is to hit them to the beat of the music. Other styles of play include dances where you copy your partner or instructor, and boxing games where you get immersed in real fights. (I found such an engaging boxing game, despite the cheesy graphics, that I walked over to the bench in the game’s locker room, expecting to find my water bottle there.)
There are also games that let you play real sports in a virtual world, including golf and table tennis simulators. Another intriguing format simply creates a virtual world in constant motion around you as you pedal on an actual exercise bike.
Dealing with sweat and practical problems
Active VR games bridge a strange gap between video games (which one plays on a couch while munching on Cheetos) and workouts (which one does with sweat-wicking clothing). For example, I had to find the best way to arrange my hair. Normally I go for a bun or ponytail when I exercise, but the straps on the device get in my way. A low braid was the best option I found.
Another thing I found, while browsing VR forums, is that people who really use VR for exercise have tricked their helmets with aftermarket straps and accessories. One of them I bought was a silicone cover for the part of the device that touches your face. (Mine was a good off-brand market, but I was told the VR coverage is the Cadillac of those accessories.) This keeps sweat from getting into the foam, making the transfer much less gross when your son borrows the headphones to play Beat Saber and makes it all wet and smelly.
Well equipped, I’ve played a bunch of games, and next week I’ll give you a full tour of my favorites. If you’ve done any VR fitness workouts let us know in the comments how you liked them, and if there are any games I should make sure you don’t miss out.