Entrepreneur and avid cyclist Eric Janszen doesn’t need an excuse to stay in shape. But for the millions of us who do, Janszen believes he’s found it — virtual reality. His new company VirZOOM builds exercise bikes that interact with popular VR headsets like Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR. VirZOOM also provides immersive videogames that reward players for their physical efforts — the longer and harder a player pedals, the higher the score. Janszen recently spoke with the Globe.
1. The technology behind VirZOOM only recently became practical. But Janszen came up with the basic concept decades ago, when he worked as a sales executive at now-defunct Stratus Computer.
“The idea came to me when I was in the basement of Stratus Computer riding a stationary bike. This is like 1983 . . . This is really boring. So I closed my eyes and imagined I [was] pedaling through a wireframe tunnel. They branch off; you have to choose the right one and you get some scores. A very primitive game. It’s all I could imagine then. I’ve kind of been nursing this idea ever since.”
2. Meanwhile, Janszen became a venture capitalist and economic analyst. In 1998, he launchediTulip, an online investment forum that became famous for accurately predicting the stock market collapses of 2000 and 2008.
“In March of 2000, I said ‘OK, get out, we’re selling everything’ — and guys that listened to that were spared a lot of pain. I did a very similar thing in 2007, because I wrote a long piece about the housing credit bubble. In December of 2007, I said, ‘Well, once again, time to get out. We’re going to see a 40 or 50 percent decline in the stock market.’”
3. In 2014,when Facebook spent $2 billion to buy VR innovator Oculus, Janszen decided his virtual cycling concept had at last become practical. So he reached out to Eric Malafeew, an engineer at videogame maker Harmonix Music Systems, creators of the massively successful games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Malafeew cobbled together the first prototype in his basement, using a bike belonging to his daughter. VirZOOM launched in February 2015.
“When we started this, Eric would have a hard time naming the parts of a bike and I didn’t know what a leaderboard was. So we had a pretty steep learning curve. I had to learn the gaming industry and Eric had to get his head around bikes.”
4. Janszen enjoys an occasional movie with his wife, but the current “golden age of television” is passing him by.
“I don’t do the television machine. I very rarely watch TV. I’d rather read. Anything from history to economics. I like real things. I don’t have time for any hobbies these days. When I have free time, I ride my bike. I live in Newton so my favorite ride is along the Charles River. That’s how I get here. I’m a little bit crazy because I like to ride in the street. I find it exciting.”
5. So far, VirZOOM has shipped about 2,400of its cycles, which sell for $400 each. The company recently introduced a device that adds VR to any stationary bicycle, and it plans to offer a variety of pedal-based gaming experiences to create an endless revenue cycle, and create incentives for gamers to keep on pushing.
“There’s a pretty broad range of different kinds of games that can be modified. Some games, the game mechanics are close enough that with some modifications we can turn them into virtual reality exercise games. Our median user uses our product for 38 minutes every 24 hours. The longer they have it the more they use it.”Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.