Can You Do a Good Job With Virtual Reality?

VR headsets have come a long way since I first saw the VR “arcade” in a shopping mall in the 1990s. (I never played, although I was curious; five bucks a game is like a weekly allowance.) Now you can put on your headset and walk around the living room, with options ranging from dance games to fitness apps, so I’m going to find out : 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 the need for a computer connection. You wear a headset that looks like glasses and hold two controllers, and games ask you to move your arms to do something.

In most VR fitness apps, you don’t have to press buttons on the controllers, you just wave your hands. Since the game also knows where your headset is in space, it may ask you to squat or bend over to the side. Games don’t differ too much in the types of actions they ask you to do, but they do differ a lot depending on what environment you immerse yourself in when you do so.

How to set up a virtual reality workout space

While the virtual world can be as big as the game developer wants, your living room is still the size of your living room. Games should allow you to move around without actually bumping into walls or hitting bookshelves with your hands, so there is a system that sets virtual boundaries.

In Oculus, the boundary is called your Guardian. (Vive, another popular VR headset, calls it Chaperone.) When it came time to customize the Guardian, the virtual world disappeared and I found myself looking at my real world in grainy black and white. My sofa, walls, and everything else were visible at this point, and the device advised me to use hand controllers to draw a line on the floor to define my safe space. (Movement is like spraying a stream of water from a garden hose.)

The minimum recommended size for “room-scale” games, those in which you can move around, is two meters by two meters, or 6.5 by 6.5 feet.

I was hoping I could possibly use the driveway as a playground, but Oculus warns against using it outdoors. This is for several reasons. First, you are completely blind to your surroundings when immersed in the game, so you may not notice people, cars, squirrels, etc., as you enter your space. Secondly, the headset uses small cameras to determine where it is (and where your hands are), and it cannot work in the dark or in very bright light. And thirdly, if sunlight hits the lenses, then you screwed up . Even a few minutes of sunlight – say, you take off your headset and leave it face up on a sunny day – can damage your device.

So, I installed my Guardian and started exploring the virtual world. When you turn on the headset, you are taken to a virtual home environment with a menu that appears in front of you in the form of a giant virtual screen. The border I drew was invisible, but if I ever got too close to it, I saw it appear momentarily as a transparent wall marked with grid lines.

If you go through the Sentinel’s wall, the game world will disappear completely and you will see your real environment again in this black and white form. I found it handy for placing a water bottle and sweaty towel next to my training area; I just had to stick my head across the border and I could have a drink without removing the headset. Another fun feature: you can add your real sofa to your virtual environment.

What do VR fitness games look like?

The simplest and, it seems to me, the best of them throw a stream of objects at you, and your task is to hit them in time with music. Other styles of play include dancing, in which you copy your partner or instructor, and boxing games, in which you immerse yourself in real-life fighting. (I found one boxing game so addicting despite the crappy graphics that I walked over to the bench in the games locker room hoping to find my water bottle there.)

There are also games that allow you to play real sports in the virtual world, including golf and table tennis simulators. Another intriguing format simply creates a constantly moving virtual world around you as you pedal on a real stationary bike.

How to deal with sweat and practical problems

Action-packed VR bridging the odd gap between video games (which can be played on the couch while munching on Cheetos) and workouts (which are done in sweat-wicking clothing). This difference takes some getting used to. For example, I needed to figure out how best to style my hair. I usually carry a bun or ponytail when I exercise, but the straps of the device get in the way. The low braid was the best option I found.

Another thing I found while browsing virtual reality forums is that people who actually use VR for exercise are cheating on their headsets with aftermarket straps and accessories. One that I bought was a silicone cover for the part of the device that touches your face. (Mine was unbranded cheap, but I was told the VR Cover is a Cadillac of these.) This prevents sweat from wicking into the foam, which makes for a much less harsh transfer when your son lends a headset to play Beat Saber and returns everything wet and smelly …

With the proper equipment, I’ve played a bunch of games, and next week I’ll walk you through my favorites. If you’ve done VR fitness workouts, let us know in the comments how you liked them and if there are any games I won’t miss.


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