Ever since I started to use Virtual Reality regularly I began to think about VR fitness. I had used VR before; initially at work and then in the privacy of my own home via PSVR on my PlayStation, but all the experiences I had used were largely sedentary. I went underwater, I played first person shooters, I watched beautiful animations but the closest I ever got to raising my heart rate was when I occasionally punched the wall during games of Superhot, thanks to PlayStation’s lack of a visible ‘chaperone’ — which on other VR systems indicates when you’ve got close to objects or surfaces.
But then I bought an HTC Vive. The Vive came with sensors I could mount on the walls of my dining room and I was able to map a play-space around the furniture, so for the first time I had proper room-scale VR. I planned to just push my dining table back against the wall whenever I wanted to do VR — but pretty much straight away I realised it made far more sense to keep the table tucked back and just pull it into the centre of the room whenever I had people round for dinner. I use immersive content far more often than hosting dinner parties and having a functioning play-space permanently set up meant that my rig got constant use and wasn’t forgotten about — unlike the exercise bike I bought in the 90s that quickly turned into a clothes horse.
I didn’t want to re-buy apps I had been enjoying on PSVR because I wanted to try out new stuff so one of the first things I bought for the Vive was Audioshield. The game was simple; you had two shields (one blue, one red) and you hit round balls which were accompanied by music. I loved the way you could import your own songs or pull tracks from YouTube and I became quite hooked. I also found myself dancing whilst playing and this was quite a revelation. I have never danced in public; I like the idea of dancing but the reality of it overwhelms me. Even at school I hated dancing, be it as part of am-dram performances, school discos or during P.E. (the girls at my school did ‘dance’ as part of P.E. whilst the boys did basketball) but in VR I found myself dancing and genuinely enjoying it. It felt like the fact that I couldn’t actually see myself dancing was what finally enabled me to do it. I liked moving to the music and it enhanced the game for me too.
I realised playing Audioshield might be doing me some good. I wasn’t overweight but I hadn’t been doing much exercise recently. I spent over two years going running at 3am (a ridiculous time to go but I hated anyone seeing me do it) but circumstances meant I could no longer do this. I had become a single parent so I couldn’t disappear in the middle of the night for a run anymore and I had also contracted a nasty dose of pneumonia and pleurisy which had hospitalised me for a while and stopped me running for months. I tried starting again when I got better but never really got back into it.
So VR seemed like a good solution. I started playing Audioshield regularly after work and it made me feel happy and relaxed and I presumed I was burning a few calories at the same time. I even found an organisation called The Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise that reckoned doing Audioshield was on a par with playing tennis. But gradually I began to find it a little slow; it was enjoyable but not quite challenging enough so I started to look for other options. I had watched one of my friends playing a game called Sprint Vector where you had to move by pushing your arms back and forth as if you were speed skating. I tried it out. It was amazingly hard work and I wasn’t great at it (but it was fun). Another friend recommended archery game Holopoint. You had to shoot targets as fast as you could and then duck as they shattered and flew towards you. Again I wasn’t that brilliant at it but it was cool and really demanding. After one session I could barely use the stairs at work the next day because my legs were so stiff.
I told my friend I had “Holopoint Legs” and he knew exactly what I meant.
I also wanted a boxing game because I was keen to workout my arms. I nearly bought Thrill of the Fight but was put off by the grizzly male boxers in the clips I saw online. So instead I went for BoxVR which incorporated house music, flying targets and a New York gym environment for its timed rhythm boxing routines. It also came with loads of different workouts and you got clear easily readable stats. It was exactly what I wanted and I began using it a lot.
And then my friend Rob mentioned a new game called Beat Saber. To explain briefly; the player has two light sabres (one red, one blue) and the object is to slice red and blue flying blocks which come at you in time to the music, using the correct coloured saber. Most of the blocks also have arrows on them and have to be hit in the direction indicated — and if you miss too many, you fail the level and the music stops instantly. It’s a straightforward game which anyone can start playing immediately but it can be devilishly tricky and requires skill and stamina, which vary due to the duration, tempo and rhythms of the track, and how the blocks have been mapped.
I adored Beat Saber from the moment I sliced through my first block. It feels faster than Audioshield, the sound and haptics are great when you hit the boxes (or touch the sabers together) and you get a huge sense of achievement as you progress. Finishing a level on ‘Hard’ that you’ve failed a few times before feels great but then it just gets even better when you find you can eventually do the same song on ‘Expert’. I also quickly realised that if you have friends who play via Steam and you can see their scores, then it can get really competitive even though it’s a solo game. It made me want to play more and more, just so I could place higher than my friends on the scoreboard and when they beat me it just made me even more determined.
When Beat Saber launched you couldn’t import music like with Audioshield — and instead it came with 10 specially made tracks (which then increased to 11 when they released an update with a new longer song). But just when I thought it might start to get a bit samey, someone came up with a mod and people began mapping custom tracks, downloadable via a website called Beat Saver. Creating levels via modding was so easy that I even mapped one myself. Now players could play Beat Saber to a whole host of commercially released songs and because each one had to be mapped manually some really creative interpretations appeared. As much as I hate the song Gangnam Style I had to respect the person who created the Beat Saver level of it because they put in a crossed hand sequence so you actually have to do its famous dance moves whilst playing it. Nice touch.
And it was my love of Beat Saber that led me to the decision to do a month of VR fitness. Rob (mentioned above) is a better Beat Saber player than me and whilst we were chatting about the game he mentioned that he was thinking of doing a month of VR exercise. I thought this sounded like a good idea and said I would do it too — although not in the summer when he first mentioned it. I had issues with the lenses of my headset fogging up as I got hot, so I figured I would wait until October to have a go — and then I could do a run of 31 days straight when it was cooler. But at that stage I still wasn’t quite sure what I’d play for my VR fitness regime.
I initially planned to do an hour a day of ‘some kind of VR which would make me move about’. And because I would be doing it every day I thought I would mix activities, partly so I wouldn’t get bored and also so I could have lighter more restful days. I planned on Beat Saber, Audioshield, Holopoint, BoxVR and Sprint Vector. But then as October got nearer and I still hadn’t drawn up any kind of plan or schedule, I decided to just do Beat Saber and lower my minimum daily amount from 1 hour to 30 minutes — because I worried that if I did an hour a day of full-on Beat Saber without any rest days I could hurt myself. I also decided to keep data and I tracked every session via my Apple watch using the ‘High Intensity Interval Training’ option because that seemed the most appropriate.
My month went well. I started by playing through all the included tracks each day on Hard (and within days was doing them all on Expert) and then I’d do some custom tracks as well to take me up to around 30–40 minutes a day. As the days progressed I moved onto doing mainly just customs and by the end of the month I had downloaded quite a lot of new songs — some I already knew and some which were previously completely unknown to me.
One of the advantages of just playing one specific game was that when I tweeted about it, Beat Saber helpfully retweeted me so I got a lot of love from their community of followers. Some people offered to send me playlists (which I gratefully received), whilst others said what a good idea it was, which really encouraged me. I did get one reply which scoffed at my ‘at least 30 minutes a day’ target from someone who told me they played Beat Saber every day for three hours a day — but I didn’t let it bother me. I knew my exercise time took into consideration the fact that I was also commuting for two hours a day, working a full time job and being a single mum. I also knew that my Beat Saber technique involved me dancing and really ‘going for it’ rather than just standing fairly still flicking my wrist (both techniques are equally valid but the calorific burn is obviously different) so I knew my time wasn’t being wasted.
During the month I did have some challenges. The main issue I had was fogging. I wear glasses with my headset and both my Vive and my glasses would get condensation on them and make it increasingly difficult to see. I tried wearing my contact lenses but I much prefer using glasses for VR, so I managed to reduce the fogging a bit by making sure my HMD was warm before starting playing and by trying to keep it on for the whole session rather than taking it off and letting cold air in. I get quite hot (ok, sweaty) when doing VR fitness so I also made sure I wore yoga pants and a t-shirt during sessions so I could comfortably dance as I played, and I already had a couple of spare Vive face cushions so I changed and washed them regularly on rotation. I also had a bottle of water on standby with a sports cap so I could hydrate whilst playing without taking my headset off.
I did experiment with wearing sweat bands on my wrists and head but they didn’t make much difference and I felt like a dork so I ditched them.
Then with three days left to go before finishing my month of VR fitness a few of my friends from VR Manchester were discussing fogging on Slack and one of them mentioned using a hairdryer to warm the lenses of your HMD for a few seconds before starting. I tried it that night and it was a revelation. I got absolutely no fogging and the face cushion was lovely and warm (which was nice because I had just come in from a very cold commute home). It would seem that hairdryers are amazing for keeping the vision in your VR headset clear. Who would have thought it?
My other biggest challenge was finding time to play on days I had to go out straight after work — I was determined not to miss a day so on those occasions I got up at 5:45am and played before getting ready for work. That was quite hard at first but was the best option for me. We have Beat Saber in a lab at my work which I could have tried to use during lunchtimes but I wasn’t keen on that for various reasons. I did however find that I actually ended up quite liking early morning sessions because going into exercise feeling tired from waking up was preferable to feeling tired from a day at work.
I did however find that playing every day meant that on a number of occasions my arms, shoulders and neck got incredibly sore. When that initially happened (around Day 11), I really struggled, especially with songs that used a lot of blocks positioned very high up (I’m 5 foot 2 so songs mapped with lots of high or widely spaced blocks can be very tiring). I always expected there would be a point when I would feel achey and fed up but I also knew that I would just have to get through it; and that thought kept me going. And sure enough by Day 15 I was feeling a lot better, much less achey and completing custom songs that I had previously failed several times before.
Tiredness got to me again on Day 22 when I had a day in work where I felt so poorly with cramps and back pain (which were completely unrelated to Beat Saber) that I wanted to go home sick. I got through the day and went home to do my exercise that evening and it made me feel much better — until I realised when I finished that I hadn’t actually recorded my session on my watch. Having a hole in my dataset was too much to bear, so I put my headset straight back on and did another half an hour which I recorded. I was annoyed not by the fact that I had to play more but that the calorie burn wouldn’t be as good as my first attempt because I was so incredibly tired.
I discovered some great things during my month of Beat Saber. I realised that it does genuinely help having people encouraging you when it comes to exercise goals — the nice comments from my friends at VR Manchester about what I was doing and tweets from the Beat Saber Community were ace. I also realised that muscle memory is brilliant and works a lot quicker than I thought. When I repeatedly fail at something in Beat Saber my technique is to forget about it for a while and play other tracks. Then when I go back to it days later I generally find it a lot easier. In my month of doing Beat Saber I completed more Expert levels than ever before and I found out that sometimes doing something similar but different gives you the skills you need to go back and crack the problem that was originally foxing you.
I also discovered that although my calorie burning didn’t appear to be that high, (particularly on days when I was coming home tired — stats below if you’re interested) I was getting a positive feeling from exercising by doing something I really enjoyed. I also built muscle in my arms. This was quite a surprise because I didn’t expect to see any visible changes in just a month. But on Day 20 my daughter pointed out whilst I was brushing my teeth that I had a ‘bulge’ in my right arm. We could both see it. I had some muscles!
Thanks to the vast array of modded tracks I never got bored — I downloaded a lot, fell in love with songs I had never heard before and by the end of the month had downloaded (and paid for) several albums and singles via iTunes which I listened to outside of the game. At no point during the month did I wish I wasn’t doing a month of VR fitness — which was perhaps the biggest surprise to me. Playing Beat Saber to some of the tracks in particular made me feel very happy indeed even after a long day at work.
At that point I knew that VR was not only helping my physical fitness but it was also strengthening my mental wellbeing too.
As for the future, I don’t think I will be playing Beat Saber every single day but I intend to try and schedule VR exercise sessions regularly, so I can play at least three times per week and do it in such a way that I’m putting some real time and effort in. I also want to spend more time on other fitness games I already own such as BoxVR as well as finding new ones which might work for me.
In the long term my hope is that as VR and AR kit becomes cheaper, lighter and more functional, VR fitness will become a growth industry that users can really embrace via solo and multi-player activities, both at home and in the gym. I also hope it will come with accurate recordable fitness tracking data. And even in its current state if it gives people so much genuine enjoyment and pleasure that they actually want to make time in their busy lives for immersive experiences that provide a workout at the same time, then that can’t be a bad thing at all.
For more information on VR Fitness there is an excellent Voices of VR podcast on the subject which is well worth a listen.
And finally, below are my stats if you’re interested in that sort of thing…