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New virtual reality fitness apps aim to make exercise less tedious


This year, high-end virtual reality headsets such as HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have finally hit the market, putting immersive multimedia in the hands of consumers. While the industry has focused primarily on gaming and entertainment, a handful of start-ups are choosing a different route: fitness and medical applications of VR.

This month, the Virtual Reality LA Summer Expo 2016 boasted more than 6,000 attendees who crowded the halls of the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center throughout the two-day convention. Industry professionals and members of the public lined up for a glimpse at the latest gadgets and experiences that VR has to offer. The immense growth of the event, which started as a modest local meetup for VR developers, mirrors the popularity of the technology itself.

Many in the industry believe virtual reality will first break into the mainstream through entertainment such as first-person video games, cinematic VR and virtual concerts/sporting events — and these applications comprised the majority of the expo. For instance, Friday’s opening keynote presentation unveiled a pay-per-view VR pod that looked like a futuristic arcade machine, coming to a movie theater lobby or shopping mall near you by the end of the year.

Beyond fun and games, a few companies at VRLA possessed loftier goals related to wellness and medicine — but many of these applications remain in their early days or could prove costly for the average consumer. For instance, a couple of start-ups want to use VR to make workouts less tedious, but they require the separate purchase of a VR headset (up to $799) and a VR-ready computer (around $1,500) along with the product itself.

Blue Goji, an Austin-based wellness technology company, turns your cardio exercise machine into a giant game controller. Its product, Goji Play, consists of two straps with buttons that wrap around the handlebars of an elliptical, stepper or stationary bike. The user downloads an app that contains a library of games designed to break away from a traditional, sometimes monotonous cardio routine.

While originally designed for smartphone and tablet gameplay, Blue Goji has recently expanded its product into the realm of virtual reality exercise. The VR game I tried used the Goji Play and an elliptical machine to control an antigravity racer on a futuristic neon track — quite an exhilarating, mind-bending experience.

Goji Play costs $119 retail, but users must provide their own VR headset, VR-capable computer and cardio machine — none of which run cheap. On top of that, the VR platform update that Blue Goji plans to release this year will cost extra.

Another company attempting to gamify fitness through virtual worlds is the Boston-based VirZOOM. Instead of piggybacking onto existing cardio equipment, VirZOOM has created an entire exercise bike that functions as a game controller.

For $399.95, you get what looks like a spinning bike with button-riddled joysticks for handlebars, plus access to games and software. However, as with Goji Play, a VR headset and computer must be purchased separately. VirZOOM can be purchased from its website, but the product's retail launch on Amazon, Target and GameStop is planned for this fall. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Unlike other kinds of fitness equipment where there’s something maybe to distract you to make it less boring, we cause you to move because you’re reacting to the experiences in games,” said Eric Janszen, chief executive and co-founder of VirZOOM. “So a half-hour or an hour goes by, and you’re exhausted because you’re exercising but don’t know it.”

I tried a handful of games during the demo and admittedly felt giddy riding a virtual Pegasus, leaning left or right on the bike to steer my steed and collect gems. But due to the simplistic nature of the games, I questioned how long the novelty would last. Would the VR bike, if I were to purchase it, eventually sit collecting dust in my living room like other pieces of exercise equipment?

A second group of companies aims to bring virtual reality into health care: Think medical students performing virtual autopsies, or radiologists using a VR headset to view CT scans in 3-D. Unfortunately, tech start-ups eager to jump into health care often run into roadblocks involving regulatory issues and outdated technology.

“Medical is 15 years behind the rest of us — they're still using Windows 95,” said Rik Shorten, co-founder of Bioflight VR, speaking on a panel about VR applications in education, enterprise and medicine. “That doesn't scare us, but it’s an illustration for anybody in this room thinking about enterprise, especially in a highly regulated area like medicine where policies, protocols and compliance are herculean to navigate.”

Shorten, an Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor who worked on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” for eight seasons, launched Bioflight VR after a long career of creating human anatomical 3-D models for television and film. Upon seeing his anatomical models in virtual reality, where they could be rotated and enlarged at will, he envisioned an immersive and interactive platform for the medical field.

Bioflight VR renders CT or MRI data in a 3-D virtualized environment coupled with peripheral tracking and gestural interface technologies, which allow for “Minority Report”-style manipulation of images. Right now, the software platform remains only in demo mode, but the potential applications range from medical education to patient-specific surgery simulation.

Although he acknowledges that several years may pass before radiologists can use Bioflight for diagnostics, Shorten and his colleagues are developing training techniques with institutions such as Duke University, the University of Southern California and Case Western Reserve University. The company is conducting pilot studies, one comparing VR-assisted education to a standard curriculum for training in pediatric trauma, and hopes to publish results early next year.

“We’re still in development on the platform, but we are creating content for education partners in hospitals,” Shorten said. “We’re trying to show that there’s value in virtual reality technology beyond gaming and entertainment.”

The company will start beta-testing the platform next year, but it will prpobably take 16 to 18 months until the full product is released. So until then, Bioflight — and the rest of the world — will have to wait and see whether health care is really ready for VR.

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