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In Virtual Reality, Exercise Bike Becomes a Race Car

VirZoom’s stationary bike has video-game controllers for handles, so you can slip on a virtual-reality headset and leave the drudgery of exercising behind.

A new stationary bike from Boston startup VirZoom requires an unusual accessory while you’re pedaling: a virtual-reality headset, so you can turn your workout into a virtual adventure.

VirZoom’s exercise bike works with a virtual-reality headset so you can exercise while feeling immersed in a game.

Last week I pulled an Oculus developer headset over my eyes and settled onto the bicycle, which will retail for $250 when it ships next year. It looks almost exactly like a traditional folding bike except for the buttons and triggers scattered across its two handles.

With several virtual-reality headsets for consumers coming out this year—including Oculus’s anticipated Rift—excitement is growing around applications like gaming. But virtual reality has long been used for rehabilitation, including exercising.  A 2011 study from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, for instance, found that when people thought the intensity of a virtual-reality workout increased, so did their motivation.

Inside the headset, VirZoom cofounder and CEO Eric Janzsen challenged me to a race-car race. I leaned to hug corners on tight turns and pedaled faster to speed up my car. When I rolled over what looked through my headset like rougher ground, I was forced to pedal harder to keep up the same pace.

In another game, I became a Pegasus, flying through a world filled with trees and rolling hills. The harder I pedaled, the higher I flew. The game itself was simple and, after a while, a bit boring: I had to find coins and fly through them to gain energy. While I felt my legs growing tired over time, my mind never had time to dwell on the pain of working out.

One VirZoom activity has you drive a race car—you pedal on the bike to control the car’s speed.

Initially, VirZoom will be compatible with three forthcoming virtual-reality headsets—the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive—all of which track head movements to make the leaning motion translate into movement within the game. The bike itself tracks how fast you pedal and can add more resistance based on what avatar you take on or what type of land you travel over.

“We move you through the world in proportion to your effort,” Janzsen says.

The platform will eventually open up to developers, but for now VirZoom is building its first five games from scratch because its team worries the types of motion in existing games could make users sick. That makes sense: early on, leaning too far to the side gave me a twinge of nausea. But as I grew more experienced with the bike, that feeling went away.

Still, purchasing all the gear you’ll need to buy the bike won’t be cheap, and using it will be clunky. While VirZoom will cost $250, buyers will also have to factor in the cost of a headset (still undetermined for the three supported ones, which are all slated for release in 2016). And the Vive and Rift will need to be tethered to a powerful desktop computer, while the PlayStation VR will have to connect to a PlayStation 4.

For now, VirZoom is only planning to sell its bike to people who want to use it at home. Headsets will likely be too expensive and delicate for gyms to lend out to attendees in a spin class at a gym, and I’m guessing people may not be too keen on sharing sweaty headsets—I know mine felt pretty gross when I was done with my workout.

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