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Technology: Virtual Reality fitness innovations

Making exercise enjoyable has long been a goal of the fitness industry. With virtual reality (VR) technology providing users with an escape from reality, Kath Hudson looks at the innovative ways VR and fitness are coming together

By Kath Hudson | Published in Health Club Management 2017 issue 10
Virtual reality is set to transform many industries and fitness is one of them - Bojana Knezevic, Holofit

VIRTUAL WORLDS
Virtual reality software platform, Holofit, from Holodia, transports gym goers into numerous exciting VR worlds: they can row down the rivers of Babylon, cycle through mountains on their own or in a virtual race. Launched this summer, it is already in use in a number of fitness clubs in Europe and Asia, including CMG Sports Club’s Saint-Lazare site, and Holofit is looking to expand further in coming months.

”Virtual reality is set to transform many industries and fitness is one of them,” predicts Bojana Knezevic, co-founder of Holodia. “Holofit is aimed at a fast growing younger generation who want effortless fun. It offers an immersive and fun experience, plunging users into amazing environments. Because the brain is diverted towards appealing aspects, such as gaming or competition, less hardship is felt around the training effort and boredom is avoided.”

Eight fully immersive environments, Holoworlds, have been created, and range from fantasy worlds to historical sites and famous landmarks. Each environment can be used in explorer or cardio training mode, and as single user or multiplayer, competing with one or more users.

A virtual coaching programme, CardioGoals, is also on offer. It provides real-time data to guide the user through the training session and encourage and reward results, while gathering data that helps the user to stay on track with their plan.

A companion app enables personalisation of training data.

“Users are reporting that they love it. We have people who have quit their gyms because they were bored, but they love our approach and want to use it regularly,” says Knezevic

GAMIFICATION
As a piece of kit that makes people feel like they are flying, Icaros offers a more enjoyable core workout than planking exercises: a virtual reality headset is coupled with a movement-sensing device that users lie on.

“Our dream was to make people fly,” says co-founder, Michael Schmidt. “We've introduced gamification, and combined fun and sports in a device. Users are positioned in a flying position and navigate through a virtual world by leaning and shifting their body weight. This movement activates muscles, especially around the core.”

A variety of gaming options are on offer, from challenging friends on the same wifi to a race, to shooting at drones or racing sharks. Games can be adjusted for different abilities, from strenuous to relaxing yoga-style sessions. The team is working on the functionality to integrate it with any online game.

Although it began with the frivolous dream of making people fly, there is also a serious side to Icaros. Sports scientists have been recruited to work on making it the most effective workout possible and adapt it for therapeutic use.

Interestingly, its first UK adopter is the orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Phil Heaton, who has added Icaros to his gym to help people get fit in preparation for their operations. Other physiotherapists are using the device to see if it can mobilise people after strokes, or brain tissue damage, as well as those with back problems and balance issues related to inner ear trouble.

“We're working on research with universities in Munich and Cologne to assess its impact and research has shown that Icaros leads to 30 per cent more energy expenditure than other core exercises,” says Schmidt. “It acts as a good warm up before a cardio programme. The exertion depends on the game, but generally the impact is the same as slow jogging.”

Although the device could work well as an addition to the gym floor, the team is promoting an Icaros studio concept that consists of 10 devices which can be synced to each other. “We'd like to turn it into a sociable class format within the next six months,” says Schmidt.

THE BODYBIKE
Stuttgart-based start-up MXO Media was founded just over three years ago. While the company markets itself as a 360 digital studio and virtual reality (VR) solutions provider, a key goal is making cardio more fun by bringing gaming into it via VR.

It’s this goal that makes the fitness industry its primary target.

“We've partnered with Bodybike to create a multi-player, online cycling simulation,” says MXO Media co-founder, Maximilian Schmierer. Many of Bodybike’s clients said they love the bikes and have great studios, but unless a class is going on it’s not being used, so they wanted something to bring it into use at all times.”

By creating a VR-experience that allows users to ride the bike through virtual, gamified settings, MXO tackles the boredom and repetition that can deter people from sticking to exercise regimes. Indeed, the MXO and Bodybike collaboration presents users with a number of different options: users can challenge friends to a race, whether they are in the same studio or another country. They can chase down a ghost rider – the rider with the fastest score – and if they succeed in overtaking, they become the ghost rider, which others chase. Alternatively, there is the endless cyclist option that lets users ride through constantly changing landscapes. All the while, it measures heart rate, cadence, which zone you are working in, how long you have been cycling and, if relevant, your place in the race.

Schmierer says it’s a truly immersive experience: “At a trade show, the guys in suits said they would only do 30 seconds as they didn’t want to get sweaty, but once they started they had to complete the whole experience. A big screen is the most practical and cheap way of offering the experience, but this isn’t as immersive as with goggles.”

Still a prototype, MXO Media is fine tuning the experience and getting the content right with a view to rolling out next year. Schmierer says they hope that by this time someone will have produced smaller VR goggles. “One issue that is holding us back are the VR goggles. They feel big and clumsy, and get uncomfortable after about 20 minutes,” he says. “But there are so many big companies working on them, it won’t be long until we’ll see more usable versions. Oculus have been given $3.5m by Facebook to design some.”

About holofit

• Holofit is available as a full bundle or software subscription and installation just requires a VR ready PC or laptop, and a VR headset. The subscription model comprises a fixed price software user license, which is £616 (€699, $834) and a monthly subscription fee ranging from £61 (€69, $82) to £175 (€199, $237).

• Holofit can be used with all cardio machines, except treadmills, for safety reasons.

• The headset weighs 400g and is made from washable leather.

• A scientific research project is underway, in cooperation with the government of a major European country. Early study results are expected in mid-2018.

Holofit can be used with a variety of cardio machines
Holofit can be used with a variety of cardio machines

Icaros research

The three month study Energy Expenditure and Muscle Activity during Training on the innovative fitness device ICAROS took place at the Technical University of Munich, and involved nine female and six male students.

Participants performed three different tasks in a random order: elbow plank with placed knees; static elbow plank on the ICAROS and playing the ICAROS game. Each task had a duration of one minute and a recovery time of eight minutes.

Oxygen consumption, muscle activity of six muscles (shoulder, arm, upper back, breast, abdomen, legs), blood lactate and heart rate were measured throughout the whole process for every participant.

The main parameters were:
- energy expenditure (measured in calories)
- muscle activity (measured in volts)

Playing on the ICAROS device showed 30 per cent more energy expenditure and two times more muscle activity than the elbow plank with placed knees.

Each Icaros machine costs £7,009 (€7,900, US$9469), which includes a staff training programme
Each Icaros machine costs £7,009 (€7,900, US$9469), which includes a staff training programme

How the bodybike works

• The biker's speed and pedal force are read with a magnet at the flywheel.

• The fan speed and the vibration motor are triggered by the biker’s experience. If the user drives faster, the fan speed increases and if they ride over rough terrain, the bike starts to shake.

• The Bodybike uses a Bluetooth interface to communicate with the program.

• The software makes use of the Unreal Engine suite, which is made from the programming language C++. MXO created a series of plugins for the engine that allow a more visual style of programming.

Bodybike riders can ride through ever-changing landscapes
Bodybike riders can ride through ever-changing landscapes
The Bodybike launched at FIBO 2016 in Cologne
The Bodybike launched at FIBO 2016 in Cologne
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