Get in shape with VR

Icaros has designed and developed a VR exercise machine.
Icaros has designed and developed a VR exercise machine. PHOTO: ICAROS/ FACEBOOK

A start-up is creating a machine that delivers a workout while making users seem to fly or dive

LONDON • Mr Johannes Scholl is tapping on virtual reality (VR) for inspiration to help keep people excited about working out.

His start-up, Munich-based Icaros, has designed and developed a VR exercise machine that delivers a core workout by making it seem like users are flying or diving in the deep seas.

About 200 gyms and entertainment centres from London to Tokyo have installed the US$10,000 (S$14,000) machines.  A cheaper home version for about US$2,000 is under development and could be unveiled around the start of next year.

"There's no comparable thing you can do at a gym," said Mr Scholl, who co-founded Icaros in 2015 with fellow industrial designer Michael Schmidt.

The fitness industry has been trying for decades to make exercise less boring - such as television sets embedded in treadmills - but technology-based design has yet to find a cure for the drudgery of working out.

Mr Scholl is part of the nascent community that believes the addictive pull of video games combined with the immersive power of VR will do the trick.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Virzoom transforms bike machines into VR controllers that let gamers fly horses and drive Formula One cars. A Helsinki augmented reality start-up overlays digital images onto rock-climbing walls, letting climbers play games or battle one another while ascending.

More low-key solutions include home workouts built around VR archery and boxing games that enthusiasts said help people build upper- body strength and lose weight.

Proponents point to Pokemon Go as an example of technology and design merging to spur exercise.

Less than a week after the app's release last July, gamers were zig- zagging through neighbourhoods and parks around the world, including Singapore. Massive Pokemon- catching walking tours were held in cities such as Sydney and New York.

The game persuaded the most enthusiastic users to walk 25 per cent more than usual, said researchers at Stanford University and Microsoft.

Fitness experts are sceptical that high-tech gadgets - however slickly designed they are - can get people to exercise more or stick with it. Innovations such as underwater earphones and running shoes that automatically adjust tightness have largely failed to motivate the masses.

"A lot of this technology is being adopted by people who exercise already and not that much by people who are new to the game," said Mr Remco Polman, head of exercise and nutritional studies at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

While Pokemon Go should be lauded for getting more people out and about, he noted, gamifying exercise will not necessarily trick the brain into doing something the body resists. Rather than layering on gimmicks, he added that finding a way to enjoy exercising - outdoors, for example - is key to sticking with it for a meaningful period of time.

But Mr Scholl thinks VR fitness can take people where they otherwise cannot go. "I love road-biking and snowboarding, but I love to do that outside. In VR, I love to do stuff which I always dreamt of, but that I can't do in reality."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Get in shape with VR'. Print Edition | Subscribe