What if your time at the gym felt more like playing a video game; an immersive virtual reality video game than it did the slog it might be currently? Could gamifying and providing a rich world of levels to beat and achievements to gather make working out feel like conquering in Battle Royale?
This past week I decided to test out the Blackbox VR gym while I was up visiting a client in San Francisco.
I’d walked by the location for many months while they were setting up, so I was already excited to be a guinea pig. After visiting their website prior to opening, it seemed even more exciting, although some of the gamified aspects of it seem a little overwrought.
Finally, I stopped by their proof of concept location after a full day of writing code. It was about 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and instead of being a lookie-loo like most, I went in with the intention of booking time for a workout, virtual-reality style.
The all-important first impression: the on-boarding process made no sense to me, when I went through it.
It took a lot of direct questions to get at what the offering truly included. I would chalk this up to a fairly new business with staff that is still figuring it out, but it shouldn’t be this difficult. To save you the trouble, the day rate is $27 and on a monthly basis the cost is $199 with a first month free deal. They have a demo you can do which takes you through two exercises (row and squat). When I asked if I could get on the schedule I was told to download an app and schedule it there.
Someone thought it was a good idea to turn away a walk-in to download an app and hope that an impersonal experience would somehow be better. This faulty logic is not without its friends in the industry. My girlfriend and I went to a Peloton store a few weeks back and included with the odorous smell of teenage locker room was a store clerk (one of four) who was supposedly there to answer questions but told us to go download the app and schedule to actually get on one.
If I hadn’t listened to a podcast interview given by the person who created Peloton I may falsely assume they don’t intend for you to buy in store. They do. Perhaps it’s a way to pump up the always cited important downloads metric without a nod to just engaging as humans; or a way to weed out those unwilling to jump through some hoops to keep the machines fresh for the real buyers. It is also probably somewhat funny that I was expecting a more human touch in a place that has replaced the realness of a gym for the virtual world they created in a sealed off AI controlled box.
In a word the facility is beautiful. It’s new, and modern; everything you’d expect from a small gym. There are some cycle bikes in a mirrored room and 4 bathrooms which have showers with stocked supplies for getting back to presentable shape after you’ve killed some virtual monsters.
The booths are big enough to move around while in-game. Headsets look positively futuristic of course, with oddly oversized pucks that attach to your wrists. None of the devices seemed gratuitously heavy though, which was a nice surprise.
After one of the employees helping you get fitted and ensuring that the screen and system is interacting, you’re ready to begin.
Chances are that with today’s media exposure, you’re either excited or terrified — or both — about the real world applications of VR. The folks at Blackbox VR have created an experience that deftly merges real world actions with a virtual world. It’s not without its quirks. The machine uses a pulley for each hand and a metal bar with a cylinder pad which your mid-section rests against while doing rows. This works out fine but part of the game mechanics are in front of you, where an orb allows you to deploy a fighter in game while you’re asked to perform chopping motions to the left and right twice and tagging a similarly colored ball to complete In order to win you must do exercises which use the pulleys. Deploying one of the two orbs (row or squat) activates the machine behind you, and it takes so long to adjust it pulls you out of the game mechanics for enough time to be frustrating.
After a few rounds of fighting, you get the gist of things fairly quickly. The machine gauges over time how much resistance to apply after you’ve done several sets. This means that over time the machine will start getting more challenging. It’s difficult to identify after a one hour demo how well this would work over the long haul. It was an experience I’m glad I went through, but probably would not return at least in the existing incarnation.
If you’ve ever seen someone put on VR glasses, the experience of watching someone trying to navigate this landscape is hilarious. While movement in a VR world from the outside will always grow and continue to be more natural, it isn’t fully there yet. Layer on top of this an experience where you’re not just asked to navigate a landscape, but perform a workout in one, and you’ve got a recipe for some pain and misery.
When using workout equipment in the gym, your form is likely the most important thing about the exercise. Do the exercise with the wrong form, and you risk injury or ineffective growth. Imagine attempting to proffer an exacting posture in a virtual world being asked to do exercises when you don’t have a real sense of your body and its position? I think you’re asking for trouble. I brought this up to one of the employees after my session and there are plans for in-game avatars which can help here, but suffice to say the technology is not quite there yet; and I can say from the day after experience that the muscle pain I’m having is likely from maladjusted form.
If you’ve got an hour, are generally excited about VR and can jump through the on-boarding hoops you have to go try it.
For me, I’m putting on my shoes and going for a run.