To the casual observer, my morning with VR startup VirZoom was spent peddling like a madman with an Oculus Rift strapped to my face. My experience was a little different; far as I was concerned, I was atop a majestic Pegasus snagging coins out of trees in a verdant valley. The folks at VirZoom believe virtual reality doesn't have to be experienced on foot or on a couch, so they've made a $249 stationary bike (now up for pre-order) to help make exercising less tedious and more awesome.
Gallery: VirZoom close-up | 11 Photos
Gallery: VirZoom close-up | 11 Photos
The Massachusetts-based team has been at this for a while; they showed off a prototype at this year's E3 that put users on an actual road bike. The plan at the time was to build a sort of modular, bring-your-own-bike system, leaving users to steer around virtual worlds by turning the handlebars. Eventually, though, the team ditched all of that and built a custom stationary bike laden with sensors and buttons and thumbsticks on the handlebars. That modularity angle still sort of exists, though: VirZoom's software plays nice with the Rift, along with Sony's as-yet-unreleased PlayStation VR headset (which sadly wasn't working when I went to play with it). They even claim compatibility for HTC's Vive and its room-scale approach to VR, though we're not getting our hands on that anytime soon.
So, how does all of this actually work? Once you're strapped into a headset and seated on the bike, you'll spend most of your time leaning from side-to-side to navigate menus and peddling to jump into games. Speaking of, the software line-up is pretty limited so far — the launch bundle comes with five games, and you'll have to pay $9.99 a month to access your fitness data, multiplayer modes and updates for those existing games. The first month of that Plus subscription services comes free and you'll almost certainly need it, too. The pack-in games, while surprisingly immersive, feel more like quick, arcade-y hits than anything else.
Consider Pegaso, the game I spent the most time with. Leaning my body left and right steered my winged steed and pumping the bikes pedals enough made it leap and soar through the air. Cruising at high altitudes over a valley felt amazing (even though I was damned sweaty at that point), and slowing down to drop into the treetops and snag a coin quickly became second nature. That's it as far as gameplay, though — it's pure time attack, leaving you to collect coins and apples to prolong your flight time until you get tired of it. Another pack-in game has you astride an earthbound horse, racing down the dusty roads of a frontier town lassoing bandits.
This one's a little more complex and makes use of the handlebar buttons to snag varmints who keep getting faster and faster. Make no mistake: at higher levels (or with the bike's tension turned up), you'll be drenched. Slightly bored after a while, but drenched. Co-founder CEO Eric Janszen was quick to point out that games can be created widely used Unity engine, and that there are already a few other titles in the works.
While generally pretty neat, VirZoom's method of motion tracking isn't ideal for every situation. One of the launch titles puts you in the driver's seat of a high-performance car on a loopy track; leaning side-to-side steers the car while a button on the handlebars switches gears. If that sounds like no car you've ever driven, well, you're in good company. The fun of lead-footed starts off the line soon gave way to physical confusion — my big clumsy head and the camera tracking its motion didn't come close to replicating the precision of a steering wheel, or even a traditional handheld controller.
So yes, the VirZoom setup is far from perfect. It is, however, a surprisingly effective way to make exercise feel like anything but. I'll report back once final units start shipping to the masses, but those of you mulling a purchase might want to take the plunge soon -- the first 300 bikes are going for $199 instead.