It’s a little disorienting at first, flying 1,500 feet in the air with nothing between me and the ground but a mythical winged horse. As we crest over a small rise I glance down past Shadow’s flapping wing—for the record, I’ve named my Pegasus “Shadow”—when suddenly the rocky hillside below gives way to a sheer, grass-covered canyon. A jolt of pure adrenaline flushes through me as I feel like I’m going to die. But then I feel free. It’s just Shadow and me now, soaring off into the bright blue sky.
Peace out, Earth. Nice knowing you.
“Cool, right?” says a disembodied voice behind me.
For the past 10 minutes I’ve been huffing away on a bike in a drab office at VirZoom, a tech company based in Cambridge, MA, about a half mile from Harvard University. And the voice I hear behind me isn’t disembodied at all—it’s coming from VirZoom exec Spencer Honeyman. He’s actually standing just feet away, but I can’t see him because I’m wearing an HTC Vive virtual-reality headset, which works in conjunction with my present ride—the $400 VirZoom stationary VR bike that officially went on sale last month.
After slaloming through some trees where Shadow and I chase after floating apples, I decide to let him rest his virtual wings and end the game. Honeyman, the company’s director of business development, then saddles up on a bike next to me and proceeds to lead me through a dizzying number of virtual worlds.
I ride along with seven prototype games in total, including a tank shooter, an Old West game in which you chase down and lasso bandits, and a helicopter game similar to the Pegasus; but it’s a multiplayer race car game that finally makes me sweat. The reason is simple: The faster you pedal, the faster your car goes—and thanks to my competitive nature as a former bike racer, I’m on a mission to beat Honeyman.
By the time we’re done, 20 minutes have flown by and I haven’t even noticed. When I finally remove the damp headset, I look down and find my shirt entirely soaked in sweat. I can’t tell what I feel like more: a kid who just played Mario Kart or an adult who just had his ass kicked in some high-octane spin class.
Honeyman shoots me a knowing look.
“Right now we’re at a crazy-weird intersection between fitness, gaming, and VR,” he says. “It’s something that’s actually fun and with the added result that you get a really badass workout.”
Sex with a Porn Star or a Run Through Bavaria: You Decide
Take a peek at the latest Consumer Electronics Show—essentially the world’s biggest trade show for gadgets and cool new technology—or scroll through any tech-centric website and the two letters you’ll most likely run across are “VR.” If industry analysts are to be believed, the world will soon be awash in goggled users navigating realities previously thought unimaginable: flying through the air, fighting Orcs, having sex with porn stars. In the virtual world, literally anything is possible. Or so they say.
This year three tech giants, Facebook, Valve HTC, and Sony, will release, respectively, the Oculus Rift, the Vive, and the Playstation Morpheus. The Oculus and Vive headsets will plug into high-end gaming PCs and the Morpheus into the PS4 and drop the user into a 360-degree, fully immersive virtual world. “Think of all of the things we can do with movie special effects,” says Ken Perlin, professor of computer science at NYU and one of the leading experts on virtual reality. “Now VR puts you in the middle of it.”
But perhaps no industry is as bullish on the untapped possibilities of this technology than in-home fitness. Companies like Australia’s The Realm System, which is designing an accessory that will allow you to feel resistance while swinging swords in a video game, and Icaros, a German firm developing a machine to let you work out while flying through virtual worlds, offer up a glimpse of what the future of VR could look like. The gaming company Virtuix Omni, which produces Tron-esque pedestals that allow users to roam through virtual war zones carrying a gun, has just released a treadmill.
Of course, ever since Jane Fonda first squeezed into a leotard, we’ve been using visual technology—from Jazzercise VHS tapes to P90X DVDs to HIIT apps—to juice our workouts from the comfort of our own homes. (We’ve used several VR precursors in our gyms, too: If you’ve knocked out a few miles on just about any treadmill made in the last couple of years, like the widespread ones manufactured by Life Fitness, you’ve had the option of looking at a screen with bouncing views of a New Zealand beach or Bavarian forest, and the boutique gym IMAXShift offers a spin class conducted in front of a giant video screen that hauls you through mountain vistas or far-off solar systems.) But what we’re seeing today with at-home spinning bikes—just about all VR tech is geared toward bikes for obvious, practical reasons (i.e., the participant is stationary)—is reaching cultlike devotion.
And no single company has capitalized on the virtual craze like Peloton.
Peloton inhabits a sector of the fitness industry that can best be described as augmented reality. Though you aren’t flying on a winged Pegasus, you’re still on a bike, plugged into a reality that exists mostly in a digital space—in this case, that digital space being a streaming spin class delivered to you on a 22-inch tablet mounted on the handlebars. Every day you can plug into 10 live-streaming workouts complete with real riders taking the same workout in a real studio in New York City, a live instructor, and a huge digital leaderboard that shows how you stack up against anywhere between 100 and several thousand virtual and in-studio riders. There are dance and Flywheel-style classes, metrics-based classes, classes based on particular types of music, even classes taught by former pro cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde.
Originally launched as a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, Peloton’s become a darling of both Silicon Valley and the fitness world. Since its inception, it’s raised $120 million in capital, $75 million of which came late last year from Catterton, a consumer-focused private-equity firm. And since January 2014, it’s sold nearly 20,000 bikes, primarily to affluent 40- to 50-year-olds who, thanks to kids and work, can’t always get to the gym or summon up enough motivation to work out alone in the basement.
Which is why VR holds so much allure for the fitness world—including less-gym-oriented young guys who’d rather be playing video games than hitting the weights. By using virtual wizardry to fill the dead cognitive space of a traditional workout, the hope is that exercise can turn into an activity that’s as far from drudgery as possible. Which begs the question: Does it actually work? Or is Peloton the latest fitness fad, doomed to occupy the space in a dusty corner next to the old Chuck Norris Total Gym?
I interviewed several actual Peloton users and was surprised by how positive the reviews were. “The digital leaderboard on the Peloton screen, that competition, for me it just changes the workout,” says John Bernstein, a 52-year-old investment banker from Minneapolis. “If I’m in the top 10, let’s just say I try like crazy to stay there.” I heard similar ravings from less competitive users.
“For me, the addiction of Peloton was seeing my progress,” says Karen Holmes, a physician assistant from Austin, TX, who credits the bike for getting her into fitness. With the ability to measure herself against other riders, as well as her own metrics, she could see that each workout provided a baseline for improvement—a major win for any fitness regimen. Both Bernstein and Holmes praised the virtual community that formed around them. “I’ve made a bunch of friends all over the country,” says Bernstein.
And all of the Peloton users I spoke to praised the variety of classes, which also include 1,500-plus on-demand workouts. This huge well of ever-changing content is a huge factor in motivating yourself to keep using it, says Richard M. Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry, and education at the University of Rochester, co-founder of Self-Determination Theory, and an authority on human motivation. “Where virtual reality can help is in making the exercise more game-like and fun,” he says. Simply put, “a boring exercise program will kill anyone’s motivation.”
Still, as an old-school fitness guy and weight-room junkie, I remain skeptical. I’ll admit that flying on Shadow is pretty cool, but any day of the week I can ride a bike across the Williamsburg Bridge, hovering 300 feet off the ground, fighting high winds with a god’s-eye view of New York City. With motivation like that, who needs the world of Super Mario? Also, Peloton costs $2,000 for the bike and $39 for a monthly membership. Are we spinning our wheels to replace our real world with a virtual one simply because it looks cool?
With those questions in mind, I head to Peloton’s NYC offices.
You Can’t See BigDaddy88—But You Know He’s There
As I tour Peloton’s gleaming facilities with the company’s PR director, Jaime Kinsley, I feel like I’ve entered some hybrid of an Equinox and a James Bond villain’s command center. There’s a small café, a work area with Wi-Fi, crisp white locker rooms, and a full-blown television studio with a panoply of screens. And then there’s the spin room, which right now is a darkened chamber of high-tech Peloton bikes all lined up as if they were robot soldiers readying for battle.
I hop on a home version of the bike and confess I’m immediately impressed by the design. I often have a hard time adjusting to the geometry of spin bikes, but the Peloton is modeled after a Pinarello road-racing bicycle, so once in the saddle I feel right at home.
Eventually I settle on a 30-minute on-demand metric class, essentially a spin version of HIIT, taught by Steven Little, one of Peloton’s lead instructors. On my 22-inch waterproof tablet screen I can see the class, the instructor, and the metrics, such as average and maximum power output, pedal cadence, resistance, and heart rate. On the right-hand side is the most important tool: the leaderboard, on the bottom corner of the screen. Just as with other boutique workouts, your primary motivator with Peloton is the ability to measure yourself against others in the class.
The workout starts, and I gotta say: The virtual experience is surprisingly close to the live one. The music is thumping, Little clearly knows how to get your heart rate up, and the bike itself is comfortable. Unfortunately, the music and coaching don’t distract me at all from the pain. Nothing does. I feel just about every second of that class. So I concentrate on the leaderboard. My competitive streak pushes me to get as high on that thing as possible, and when I see that just a little more effort could get me ahead of BigDaddy88, I go for it.
Later, I ask Little over the phone whether he has any issues teaching a class that exists for him almost entirely in cyberspace, and he tells me that, aside from setup, it’s not much different—“Though I’d prefer to be there when I talk to new clients and be there to set them up.”
All I know is that I beat BigDaddy88—I just wish he were here in person so I could see the look on his face.
For more on Virtual Reality, see: