Virtual reality headsets have come a long way since the first time I saw a VR “arcade” pop up in a mall in the 1990s. (I never played, although I was curious; five bucks a game was like a whole week’s allowance.) Now you can strap on a headset and walk around your living room, with options ranging from dancing games to fitness-centered apps, so I’m setting out to learn: how good a workout can you get in virtual reality?
What can a VR headset do, anyway?
I’m trying out the Oculus Quest 2, a device that plays games on its own without needing to be connected to a computer. You wear the goggle-like headset and grasp two controllers, and the games ask you to move your hands to do things.
In most VR fitness apps, you don’t need to press buttons on the controllers, you just wave your hands around. Since the game is also aware of where your headset is in space, it can ask you to squat or to lean to the side. The games don’t differ too much in the types of actions they ask you to do, but they vary greatly in the kind of environment you are immersed in while you do it.
How to set up your VR workout space
While a virtual world can be as big as the game’s developer wants it to be, your living room is still only the size of you living room. The games have to let you move around while stopping you from actually running into a wall or smacking your hands into your bookshelves, so there’s a system that sets virtual boundaries.
With Oculus, the boundary is called your Guardian. (Vive, another popular VR headset, calls it a Chaperone.) When it was time to set up the Guardian, the virtual world faded away and I found myself looking at my actual surroundings in grainy black-and-white. My couch, the walls, and everything else was visible for this step, and the device told me to use my hand controllers to draw a line on the floor to define my safe space. (The motion is similar to spraying a jet of water with a garden hose.)
The minimum recommended size for “roomscale” games, the ones where you can move around, is two meters by two meters, or 6.5 by 1.98 m.
I had hoped to perhaps use my driveway as a play space, but the Oculus comes with warnings not to use it outdoors. This is for a few different reasons. First, you are totally blind to your surroundings while you’re immersed in a game, so you may not notice people, cars, squirrels, and so on entering your space. Second, the headset uses little cameras to figure out where it is (and where your hands are), and it can’t work in the dark or in extremely bright light. And thirdly, if sunlight gets on the lenses, you are screwed. Even a few minutes of sunlight — say you take your headset off and leave it screen-side-up on a sunny day — can destroy the device.
So, I set up my Guardian and began exploring the virtual world. When you start up the headset, you’re in a virtual home-like environment with menus appearing as a giant virtual screen in front of you. The border I drew was invisible, but if I ever got too close to it, I saw it appear momentarily, a transparent wall marked with grid lines.
If you walk through the Guardian’s wall, the game world disappears entirely and you see your actual surroundings in that black-and-white view again. I found this handy for placing a water bottle and sweat towel just outside my workout area; I just had to poke my head through the boundary and I could take a drink without having to take my headset off. Another fun feature: you can add your real-world couch to your virtual environment.
What do VR fitness games look like?
The simplest and, I think, best ones throw a stream of objects at you, and your job is to whack them in time with music. Other styles of gameplay include dances where you copy your partner or instructor, and boxing games where you’re immersed in an actual fights. (I found one boxing game so engaging, despite the cheesy graphics, that I walked over to the bench in the in-game locker room expecting to find my water bottle there.)
There are also games that let you play real sports in a virtual world, including simulators for golf and table tennis. Another intriguing format simply creates a continually-moving virtual world around you as you pedal a real-life exercise bike.
Dealing with sweat and practical issues
Active VR games bridge an odd gap between video games (which one plays on a couch while munching Cheetos) and workouts (which one does in sweat-wicking clothing.) The difference takes some getting used to. For example, I had to work out the best way to arrange my hair. Normally I go for a bun or ponytail when I exercise, but the device’s straps get in the way. A low braid was the best option that I found.
Another thing I found, as I browsed virtual-reality forums, is that people who are really into using VR for exercise have tricked out their headsets with aftermarket straps and accessories. One of these I actually bought was a silicone cover for the part of the device that touches your face. (Mine was an off-brand cheap one, but I’m told the VR Cover is the Cadillac of such attachments.) This stops sweat from soaking into the foam, which makes for a much less gross handoff when your son borrows the headset to play Beat Saber and returns it all wet and stinky.
Suitably equipped, I’ve been playing through a bunch of games, and next week I’ll take you on a full tour of my favourites. If you’ve done VR fitness workouts, let us know in the comments how you liked them, and if there are any games I should make sure not to miss.