Health & wellness

Local startup lets gamers get in a workout while they play

The author tried out a virtual workout with guidance from VirZOOM’s Eric Janszen (center) and Eric Malafeew.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
The author tried out a virtual workout with guidance from VirZOOM’s Eric Janszen (center) and Eric Malafeew.

CAMBRIDGE – In this world, I am a horse.

I hear my hooves trotting down a mountain track. I see rabbits, pines, and outcroppings of rock. I turn my head and the hillside spills sharply away to a valley and lake below. I kick into a canter. Then, I flap my wings. Yeehaw. I’m Pegasus. That’s right: Like that airborne horse of Greek mythology, I slowly lift from the earth, each wing-flap resounding in my ears. I’ve always wanted to fly.

I flap harder and soar over the desert landscape. I spot strange blue glowing things, like diamonds, and swoop to collect them. I also eat apples, which give me energy.

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That’s a good thing, because I’m shedding some serious sweat. “I’m getting my heart rate up,” I blurt out. In this fantasy landscape, the point is to get a workout.

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Welcome to the brave if somewhat scary new world of virtual reality (VR) fitness, courtesy of VirZOOM . The Cambridge-based tech startup is slated to launch its eponymous apparatus — essentially, a game controller and VR headset plugged into your grandma’s stationary exercise bicycle — in mid-to-late spring. In the company’s Harvard Square offices, I’m getting a test drive, guided by VirZOOM’s cofounders, CEO Eric Janszen and CTO Eric Malafeew. It’s an indoor ride, but one on which I see a lot more than the walls of my den or health club.

In real life, I use my bike to get around town, but never intentionally for fitness. I can’t stick to a workout regimen, and the gym mortifies me. But I do play the occasional video game. So it is with both skepticism and an obvious need for motivation that I strap on the VR headset — VirZOOM is being developed to work with Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, or HTC Vive VR — and begin pedaling.

Right away, the founders clear up the most common misconception: that VirZOOM must be some virtual velodrome. “No, it’s not a bike simulation,” says Janszen, a lifelong biker himself. The $299 VR bike ships with three gaming experiences (more are on the way), each about as far from the Tour de France as you can travel. VirZOOM has its crosshairs mostly focused on one demographic — gamers — and hopes to inspire them to get off their butts and get moving.

Ideally, the VR technology, complete with auditory and visual feedback, will fool the unsuspecting couch potato so that “the bike melts away,” Malafeew says, and “just becomes the way to power your avatar.” Each game world has multiple levels, which last from three to 15 minutes, and can be played as a solo workout routine or in head-to-head, multiplayer competition.

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Before I’m given the keys to my Pegasus, the tech takes a little getting used to. The VR headset, which fits onto my face like ski goggles, fills my field of vision. It’s like my eyes are glued to an IMAX screen, a disorienting sensation since I can’t sense my body’s position in space. Thankfully, my rear end is firmly planted on the bike seat. A motion-sensing camera tracks my head movements. Another sensor keeps track of how fast I pedal. Buttons built into the handlebars allow me to capture jewels, eat apples, and navigate menus.

My maiden virtual workout voyage occurs on the frontier, with “Stampede!,” a horse-riding, rope-twirling game. I start off pedaling at a leisurely pace and enter the game’s first level, called “Wild Pete.” Immediately, I become an avatar galloping down that Main Street seen in a thousand westerns, in hot pursuit of bandits. The graphics aren’t as seamless and photorealistic as those in high-end games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, but the digital environment I see (road and storefronts flying past) and hear (thundering hooves and neighing) provokes an emotional and physical response. To control my horse’s left-to-right position, I learn to not move my whole body — I don’t want to fall off the bike – but rather, subtly shift my head. If I twist my head or tip it up or down, the picture in front of me shifts and I can “see” more of the virtual western town above, behind, and to either side of me.

To rope the bandits, I “fire” my lasso with a simple targeting system.

My first few shots are misses. But soon, bingo! I yank a bandit off his saddle.

“How ’bout that, pardner?” I say to myself. I’m perspiring so much I expect to see sweat drip onto the horse’s neck below me. Tougher levels, Malafeew says, have waves of increasing and decreasing bandit difficulty, “that act like a spin class.”

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Once I get the hang of things, I’m off to the races with “Go Fast Car,” a Formula One racing environment — except one where your racecar-driving avatar is a dog. (I can see my ears and tongue wagging in the side-view mirror.) Here’s where I hit a VR wall: I accidentally try to use the handlebars like a steering wheel. They’re locked in place. Then I over-steer with my head, careen into the guardrail and, instinctively, take my feet off the pedals to brace myself for an impact that never comes. My body is riding a bike, while my brain is telling me I’m driving a car, and two different sets of habits collide.

The racetrack also gives me a wee case of “simulation sickness,” a queasiness that can happen when your inner ear senses your real world movements are out of synch with the way you’re moving in the virtual world. The designers and techies at VirZOOM have worked to mitigate the problem (Malafeew says most users don’t feel any ill effects), and soon the nausea passes. In the next race, I practically sprint the whole way, and I come in second, in an effort that requires more sustained aerobic exercise than I’ve gotten in a while.

As I finish the heat, panting, and slip off the VR mask, Janszen says, “Imagine just doing this for 15 minutes a day.” He’s right: After a couple make-believe races like this each morning, I’d be in great shape for the real world. Maybe I’d be no Mario Andretti. But my abs would probably be more six-pack than his.

My last virtual experience is “Pegaso,” the Pegasus flight simulator. Compared to all the gunfire and whooping-it-up of “Stampede!” and redlining engines of “Go Fast Car,” it’s serene. The treetop view of the land calms me. And the unicorn horn I sprout glows green every time I find a gemstone. This workout as Pegasus feels as meditative and centering as it is calorie-burning.

Fitness “gamification” tools like the Fitbit are all about turning something that’s hard into fun. In this regard, VirZOOM succeeds. Even with the occasional clash between fantasy and reality, I’m surprised how easily my body and mind are tricked into that feeling of “being there.” The experience is about 1,000 times more distracting, and immersive, than watching “Real Housewives” while jogging on the treadmill. Could I get into shape using this thing? Sure.

But would I? As I leave VirZOOM’s headquarters, my inner skeptic isn’t sure. Three-hundred bucks might be a bargain compared to a year’s health club membership I’d never use.

But part of me longs to jump on an actual mountain bike. To feel the wind on my body and smell the scent of pines. And to hijack a real pegasus for a ride.

Settings include the frontier.
VirZoom
Settings include the frontier.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or on Twitter @ethanfreak.