When we last left the Lifehacker Fitness Challenge, I was donning a VR headset and clearing out a space to play. I’ve now tried a bunch of different fitness apps and I have opinions. Here are my picks for some of the best ways to get your sweat on in virtual reality.
This one is personally my second favourite, but I’m mentioning it first because it seems to be more popular, and it’s also the game my son most often played when he borrowed my headset. So it’s good.
In Beat Saber, the controllers in your hands are the handles of lightsabers. Neon-coloured boxes fly toward you, with colours and arrows telling you the correct way to slash at them. You can choose specific songs from a jukebox-like interface.
You get more points for better technique and follow-through in your slashes, so it’s possible (and fun!) to play the same songs over and over trying to get a better score or trying to beat them on harder modes.
One thing that’s a bit annoying if you’re using this as exercise: missing too many moves can mean you lose the level, booting you out of the song all of a sudden. But you can always do songs on easy mode if you want to make sure to stay in the zone.
Supernatural has the same basic whacking-things gameplay as Beat Saber, but the game is geared more specifically to working out. A coach guides you through a brief warmup and cooldown, and encourages you through the levels. You also can’t fail a level. The feel is more like a spin class than a traditional video game: you know ahead of time how long the workout will be and what style of music it will feature, and then you’re inside it for the duration.
There’s a companion app for your phone, which tracks the sessions you’ve done, and enables you to use a heart rate monitor. For example, I can wear my Apple Watch, sync it to the Supernatural app, and keep the Supernatural app open while playing the game in virtual reality. (That’s a lot of setup, and to be honest, I’d rather just tell the watch I’m doing an “Other” workout and let it track on its own.)
I found this game more fun and interesting than others like Beat Saber. You’re in a real-life natural landscape, and balloons stream toward you from portals in the landscape. (You have black and white bats in your hands to match the black and white balloons.) The visuals are really well-done, and the gameplay keeps you in the flow no matter how many times you miss.
Alright, one more in the whacking-things-to-music category. SynthRiders is basically the same thing as Beat Saber, with different songs and a feature where you “ride” a wave of neon light with your hands.
Thrill of the Fight
Boxing experience Thrill of the Fight is the toughest game I played, it got my heart rate the highest, and even though the graphics were a bit cheesy I ended up totally immersed. Between rounds of one fight, I nearly sat down on the virtual stool in my corner of the ring.
The hands-on experience begins when you start the app and see the menus explaining how the game works. Instead of pointing your controllers at buttons on the menus (most games have you aim them like laser guns), you walk directly up to the menu screens and touch them with your virtual hands, which are already wearing boxing gloves.
You’re in a small gym with a garage-like feel. A coach stands off to the side, watching you but not speaking. There’s a locker room area, a dummy you can practice punches on, and an elevated boxing ring. Choose an opponent to fight, and suddenly you’re in one corner of the ring with a small crowd gathered around. You throw punches, and try not to get punched. If you do take a hit, the world fades a bit, goes black and white, and you (if you are like me) back away from your opponent for a minute while you try to get your bearings.
I won three rounds against my opponent, but it was exhausting. I hit him when I could, and kept moving toward him, trying to keep the pressure on. I found myself constantly pushing into the far corner of my Guardian, which the game helpfully draws as a red rectangle on the virtual ring’s floor. I needed to punch and punch again and not get punched myself. The audience was watching, my coach judging silently. I didn’t want to fuck this up. I didn’t want to get punched. If you want to get your heart rate up, or just be a little bit terrified for a short interval workout, play Thrill of the Fight.
Eleven Table Tennis
Shortly before I tried the Oculus, my parents got a ping-pong table. I have always been terrible at ping-pong. (I am sure that I have already angered all the ping-pong enthusiasts by calling it ping-pong.) I always hit the ball too hard, or not hard enough, or just send it flying in the wrong direction.
Eleven Table Tennis does not qualify as exercise in my mind, but it works. I played against a dummy opponent, perfecting my serve and my hits. When the ball rolls away under a couch in your virtual ping-pong parlor, you simply hold down the trigger on your left-hand (in my case) controller, and serve the ball, hitting it with the paddle in your right hand. I learned pretty quickly that you have to be careful about the angle with which you hold the paddle, because (duh) a slight change of angle can make a huge difference in where the ball actually goes. After ten minutes of virtual ping-pong, I was actually keeping up some extended volleys with my robot partner. And best of all, when I visited my parents again, I was actually better at ping pong. Balls were no longer bouncing off the walls of the garage — well, at least not as often.
You know how you can take a walk down a street anywhere in the world with Google Street View? VZfit is that, but the 2D photos are smushed back into 3D. The app’s demo took me down a road in rural Iceland, and another in busy Paris. It’s a bit odd: the resolution isn’t great, and you’re cruising past flat images of people who look like they’re pasted onto buildings, rather than the crowds that would be present in a more carefully crafted VR world. But it’s still pretty cool to see the world without leaving your living room.
If you have a bike with a cadence sensor, you can connect it to the game. I don’t, so I played the version that puts you on a sort of virtual cart that rolls down the road whenever you do any kind of rhythmic movement with your arms.
If you’d rather ride through a world that was purposely created for VR exploration, Holofit might be for you. I loved the idea, but again, without a connected device (it works with rowers, bikes, and ellipticals) I was just standing in the middle of my garage swinging my arms back and forth to get the scenery to move past me.
The game put me on a mine cart track, and I chugged through the tunnels of a mine. In one section, there were turtle monsters that could kill me (sending me seamlessly back to a save point); it took a few tries to figure out I could avoid virtual death by speeding up when I saw them. The track eventually took me onto a bridge and into a place where I could see the other creatures mining and carrying crystals, or whatever the heck exactly was happening. It was cool to watch, honestly, and it kept me swinging my arms like a goofball for 20 solid minutes because I wanted to see what was next — which is more than I can say for any stint I’ve ever done on a gym treadmill.