Virtual reality headsets have come a long way since I first saw a VR “arcade” pop up in a mall in the 1990s. (I never played, though I was curious; $ 5 a game was like spending a week’s pocket money.) Now you can put on a headset and walk around your living room, with options ranging from dance games to fitness apps I want to learn: How well can you train in virtual reality?
What can a VR headset actually do?
I’m trying out the Oculus Quest 2, a device that plays games on its own without being connected to a computer. You wear the goggle-like headset and grab two controllers, and the games require you to move your hands to do things.
In most VR fitness apps, you don’t have to press any buttons on the controllers, you just move your hands. Since the game also knows where your headset is in space, it can ask you to crouch or lean to the side. The games don’t differ too much in the types of actions they are prompted to take, but they differ widely in the type of environment you are immersed in while performing them.
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 as big as your living room. The games have to keep you moving while preventing you from actually running into a wall or slamming your hands on your bookshelves, so there is a system in place that sets virtual boundaries.
At Oculus, the boundary is called your guardian. (Another popular VR headset, Vive, calls it Chaperone.) When it was time to set up the Guardian, the virtual world disappeared and I saw my real surroundings in grainy black and white. My couch, walls, and everything else were 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 movement is similar to spraying a jet of water with a garden hose.)
The minimum recommended size for room-scale games that allow you to move around is two meters by two meters, or 6.5 by 6.5 feet.
I was hoping to maybe use my driveway as leeway, but the Oculus comes with warnings not to use it outdoors. There are several reasons for this. First, you are completely blind to your surroundings while playing, so you may not notice people, cars, squirrels, etc. entering your room. Second, the headset uses small cameras to find out where it is (and where your hands are), and it may not work in the dark or in extremely bright light. And third, if sunlight gets on the lenses, you’re fucked. Even a few minutes of sunlight – let’s 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 started exploring the virtual world. When you start the headset you are in a virtual home environment with menus that appear 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 for a moment, a transparent wall marked with grid lines.
If you go through the guardian wall, the game world disappears completely and you can see your actual surroundings again in this black and white view. I found this handy for placing a water bottle and sweat towel just outside of my exercise area. I just had to stick my head through the perimeter and I was able to have a drink without taking off my headset. Another fun feature: you can add your real couch in your virtual environment.
What do VR fitness games look like?
The simplest, and I find the best, throw a torrent of objects at you, and your job is to smash them to the beat of the music. Other styles of play include dances where you copy your partner or teacher and boxing games where you immerse yourself in real fights. (I found a boxing game so exciting, despite the cheesy graphics, that I went to the bench in the game locker room and expected to find my water bottle there.)
There are also games that allow you to practice real sports in a virtual world, including simulators for golf and table tennis. Another fascinating format is simply creating an ever-moving virtual world around you as you pedal a real exercise bike.
Dealing with sweat and practical issues
Active VR games bridge a strange gap between video games (played on a couch while nibbling Cheetos) and workouts (done in sweat-wicking clothing). The difference takes getting used to. For example, I had to figure out the best way to arrange my hair. I usually grab a bun or ponytail when I work out, but the straps on the machine get in the way. A low braid was the best option I found.
Another thing I found while browsing virtual reality forums is that people who really use VR for training have tricked their headsets with aftermarket straps and accessories. One of these that I actually bought was a silicone case for the part of the device that touches your face. (Mine was a cheaper one, but I was told that VR coverage is the Cadillac of such attachments.) This prevents sweat from seeping into the foam, resulting in a much less harsh handover if your son borrows the headset to play Beat Saber and returns it all wet and smelly.
I’ve played through a number of games with the appropriate gear and I’ll take you on a full tour of my favorites next week. If you’ve done VR fitness workouts, let us know in the comments how you liked them and if there are any games I shouldn’t miss.