Placing a pilot in the cockpit of an F-14 in the middle of a combat mission is about as difficult as it sounds – even when you’re just replicating the experience in a training facility. Yet we’ve had some version of flight simulators for decades, and as the technology behind them has grown increasingly sophisticated and decreasingly cost-prohibitive, the designers working in the virtual reality space continue to break new ground — and deliver to new markets.
As a simulation engineer at Lockheed Martin in the mid-1990s, I had a front-row seat (and, in some cases, had my hands quite literally on the wheel — or flightstick) for some of these advances. And when I later joined Harmonix, where I was technical director of Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Central and other games, I was even more deeply involved in creating motion technology and virtual simulations for the entertainment space. In a short time, I’ve seen the field grow exponentially. With virtual reality now being applied to activities as far-ranging as athletic training, physical rehabilitation, concert performances, and gaming, the lines between fun and function have blurred.
From that booming environment springs a relatively new VR platform: immersive fitness. Now, some of us love nothing more than a sweat-inducing session at the gym. But for others, exercise is only work. By adding elements of virtual reality to a workout (including engaging game play), immersive fitness occupies a participant’s attention beyond the usual exercise parameters, diminishing workout drudgery and, in some cases, helping to increase performance.
As the cofounder and CTO of VirZOOM, a virtual reality fitness company launched in 2015, I have a dog in this hunt. But I’m also keenly interested in the direction immersive fitness is steering VR. And let’s be clear about that: It’s the demand that’s now driving design.
Last decade, the development of Guitar Hero inspired my team to build a game controller that not only looked and felt close to the real thing but also was intuitive enough for a novice to pick up and quickly develop some level of mastery. The game play didn’t transform you into Jimi Hendrix. But it helped you skip past the thousands of hours of deliberate practice to instantly feel like a rock star, while creating an attainable challenge for a gamer to rise up to meet.
Likewise, fitness enthusiasts also need challenges and immersive distractions. But conventional VR controls for gamers aren’t enough. Four years ago, my friend and cofounder brought up the idea of biking in VR. I knew the raw problem would be how to “move through it.” In the past, one of the complications of virtual reality headsets had been the incidence of motion sickness. By breaking that down to its core causes, we found a solution that naturally suits pedaling and leaning on a stationary bike. New VR controls enabled us to create a unique fitness challenge and, at the same time, solve a problem through design. Because what good is possessing the technology to transform a tedious gym workout into a trek through spacious Yosemite National Park if it’s only going to make the user nauseous?
The development of VR
What we’re seeing as a result is a cultural shift in the virtual reality community – like hitting the reset button. New markets are being formed, forcing advances to keep up with consumer expectations. The opportunity to engineer new types of controls is clear: User-friendly, intuitive interfaces are necessary to grow the VR community, and new methods for interacting – voice, sensors, hand movements – will increasingly make their way into the hardware.
It’s shortsighted to think about only the ways players can consume the virtual reality technology we’re capable of developing. Instead, what’s exciting to me is considering how we might bend our VR design to meet the needs – fitness and otherwise – of the general population in order to grow its adoption.
Eric Malafeew is the co-founder and CTO of VirZOOM, and an MIT graduate with 25 years of leadership and development experience in the video games industry.