Virtual Reality Hits the GymBy
Icaros lets exercisers feel like they’re flying or diving
Skeptics say gimmicks won’t trick brain into making body work
Johannes Scholl is betting virtual reality can keep people excited about working out.
Scholl’s startup, Munich-based Icaros GmbH, has developed a VR exercise machine that delivers a core workout by making it seem like users are flying and deep-ocean diving. About 200 gyms and entertainment centers from London to Tokyo have installed the machines, which cost about $10,000 after including shipping and other costs. A cheaper home version for about $2,000 is under development and could be unveiled around the start of next year.
“There’s no comparable thing you can do at a gym,” says Scholl, who co-founded Icaros in 2015 with fellow industrial designer Michael Schmidt.
The fitness industry has been trying for decades to make exercise less boring -- from TVs embedded in treadmills to apps nudging users to stay on schedule -- but technology has yet to find a cure for the monotony of working out. Scholl is part of nascent community that believes the addictive pull of video games combined with the immersive power of VR will do the trick.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based VirZOOM Inc. transforms bike machines into VR controllers that let gamers fly horses and drive Formula 1 cars. A Helsinki augmented reality startup overlays digital images onto rock-climbing walls, letting climbers play games or battle each other while ascending. More low-key solutions include home workouts built around VR archery, shooting and boxing games which enthusiasts say help people build upper-body strength and lose weight.
Proponents point to Pokemon Go as an example of technology spurring exercise. Less than a week after the app’s release last July, gamers were zig-zagging through neighborhoods and parks around the world and organizing massive Pokemon-catching walking-tours in cities from Sydney to New York. The game persuaded the most enthusiastic users to walk 25 percent more than usual, according to researchers at Stanford University and Microsoft Corp.
Fitness experts are skeptical that high-tech gadgets can get people to exercise more -- or stick with it. Innovations such as underwater earphones and running shoes that automatically adjust tightness have largely failed to motivate the masses. “A lot of this technology is being adopted by people who exercise already and not that much by people who are new to the game,” says Remco Polman, head of exercise and nutritional studies at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.
While Pokemon Go should be lauded for getting more people out and about, he says, gamifying exercise won’t necessarily trick the brain into doing something the body resists. Rather than layering on gimmicks, he says finding a way to enjoy exercising itself -- outdoors, for example -- is key to sticking with it for a meaningful period of time.
"The problem with extrinsic motivation is that you only do it until the reward has been taken away,” Polman says. “Once you collect all your Pokemons, then what’s the reason to do anything more?”
Icaros’s Scholl doesn’t disagree and says some activities, like traditional sports, won’t work well in the virtual realm and should be done outdoors. But he thinks VR fitness can take people where they otherwise can’t go.
“I love road-biking and snowboarding, but I love to do that outside,” said Scholl. “In VR, I love to do stuff which I always dreamed of but that I can’t do in reality.”
Icaros promotes a core workout, which improves balance and stability. Users place their knees, elbows and forearms into foam-padded cups, then don a VR headset and grab a handle with each hand. They mostly use the abdomen, back and leg muscles to tilt the device to navigate while flying or diving; a hand controller lets them fire at targets during the game. A Bloomberg reporter managed to work up a sweat after about 10 minutes on the medium setting, with the rigorousness roughly equivalent to a plank exercise.
Besides the home version, Icaros is already building the second-generation machine for professional gyms. Scholl says it will offer more intense cardio exercises and muscle-building and is based on the concept of exercising using animal-like movements.
"The machine you have now is much about balance and coordination and it’s more like a yoga-like approach,” Scholl said. “Whereas the next prototype will be about very active strengthening of the whole body.”
The company plans to add more software to the machine, including a new space-theme game later this month and support for outside developers.
Some gyms that have bought an Icaros are upbeat about the machine, if only for the media coverage it has attracted. Shuhei Miyajima, a personal trainer at The Body Ride gym in Tokyo, convinced his boss to buy an Icaros machine last August. After an initial flurry of excitement, he says most gym members now have become bored of the two modes available -- flying and underwater diving -- and only use the machine once or twice a month. He says he’s eagerly awaiting new software updates, but is still glad the gym bought it.
“Let’s face it, working out isn’t actually fun,” Miyajima says. “But by just having this machine, it gets people inspired and excited because it’s not the same old stuff.”