As a person who pays for a monthly gym membership and rarely actually uses it, the idea of combining virtual reality and exercise is pretty exciting to me. That was my state of mind as I mounted a stationary bike-turned-game controller and donned a Sony PlayStation VR headset in the sunny sitting room of a high-rise apartment in downtown LA last week.
VirZOOM’s Eric Janszen (CEO and co-founder) and Spencer Honeyman (Director of Business Development) walked me through three demos: one where you chase down outlaws on a horse, one where you drive an F1 race car around a track, and one where you fly a pegasus around a fantasy landscape. Pedaling the bike more quickly makes your car or horse move more quickly in the games, while buttons, triggers and analog sticks on the bike’s handles help you navigate menus and control things like your lasso in the Wild West game. You look around the game worlds in 360 degrees just by turning your head, and the PS4’s PlayStation Camera tracks your movements, so leaning left or right steers in that direction (Janszen and Honeyman told me they worked hard to make the bike extra difficult to tip).
In my leisure time I’m usually playing a video game while also listening to a podcast or audiobook or watching something on Netflix, plus having five conversations across multiple platforms and devices, and having a snack or playing with my dogs during loading screens. Sitting on a stationary bike or pretending to climb stairs for half an hour is unbearably boring to my dumb caveman brain, which requires constant stimulation thanks to a life spent jacked into the internet.
That said, I have no idea whether the games I tried will prove to be a solution. They’re pretty rudimentary, since VirZOOM is developing them in-house (although I did thoroughly enjoy the adorable puppy copilot you can glimpse in your mirrors during the car race, its tongue flapping happily in the wind). From what I saw each game has a few different modes, and there are plans for online multiplayer. Janszen and Honeyman also told me they’ve made the development tools available to other game developers in the hopes of having more experiences available at launch, downloadable from a special digital storefront.
A publicist for the company shared the full details with me a few days ago: VirZOOM will begin shipping in the first half of 2016, with the first 300 units (“early access”) moving for $200 (plus $50 shipping) and every bike/controller after that going for $250 (again, plus $50). That comes with five games, including the three I tried, and a free month of VirZOOM Plus—a $9.99/month subscription service that gives you online multiplayer, long term data tracking (heart rate, calories, distance pedaled, etc.), and new games and game updates, according to the company. Obviously the VR headset needs to be purchased separately, once the PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launch next year (it’s compatible with all 3, though not the Samsung Gear VR, since that one uses a phone, which isn’t powerful enough for VirZOOM’s purposes).
I honestly can’t say whether something like VirZOOM will be able to get me to exercise more consistently, or if pedaling a stationary bike really tricks your brain into thinking you’re in motion and alleviates virtual reality’s nausea-inducing qualities like Janszen and Honeyman insist it does, or even if it will be worth all the sweat that will soak into the virtual reality headset you strap on as you do it. I do know that they were really excited about this launch trailer, so give it a watch and try to reach your own conclusions:
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. One day he will start going to the gym again, with or without virtual reality. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.