Virtual Reality Cycling is Finally Here and It Is Amazing

A Review of VirZOOM’s VZfit — the first commercially available, bike-agnostic VR indoor cycling platform

VZexplorer

Since the days of bootleg Tour de France VHS tapes, cyclists have searched for ways to make indoor cycling more interesting and less, well, painful. For me, the pinnacle of this journey has always been virtual reality – full of promise but just out of technological reach. As an enhancement to indoor cycling, VR offers a truly immersive indoor training experience, and a chance to ride outside the basement pain-cave even on the coldest, rainiest days.

There have been countless improvements in indoor cycle training technology in recent years, and even some rumors and early concept attempts at VR cycling. Zwift teased a prototype in 2017 to much fanfare, but never bothered to commercialize it. I even did some simple tests myself with fair results. But now the wait is finally over, and based on my initial trials this newest VR cycling platform has great potential.

Later this month the Boston-based VirZOOM will release VZfit — the first commercially available, bike-agnostic VR indoor cycling program in collaboration with Oculus. This is by far the best and most accessible VR fitness application available today and I see tremendous potential for the company.

How it works

VZfit requires three key hardware items – your existing stationary bike, the VZfit sensor kit (spoiler alert – it’s a cadence pod and a handle-bar mounted game controller), and an Oculus Go or Oculus Quest headset. You really can use any bike, provided it has a crank to attach a cadence sensor to. The entire setup process took me less than an hour from box to saddle, including charging the Oculus headset.

There are currently two VZfit apps in the Oculus app store. VZplay features a series of arcade-style games that involved some combination of speed (how fast you pedal), steering (via head turns) and game play (shooting or throwing things using the included game controller). To get the feel of the gameplay you really have to see it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ry0zPkhrH58

VZexplorer allows you to ride real-world routes using Google Streetview data. You can either select one of VZfit’s featured routes or map your own. I took a ride through my home town and enjoyed the familiar scenery. The current release doesn’t feature seamless 360 video and there are transitions between the streeview images, but it is very cool regardless. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwEFMjFnNbY

But isn’t it hot?

The first question about VR cycling is always about headset comfort and heat management. These are reasonable questions considering that you’re wearing a mask. I’ll let you in on a secret from my pre-release trials. Yes, it is hot. Yes, there is a fair amount of sweat involved. I used my standard trainer setup fan to help control the heat and I was able to ride for 30-40 minutes without too much discomfort or fogging of lenses.

The trade-off is in the quality of the immersive experience and how fast workouts went while I was playing along with the various VR games. I wouldn’t tackle a century ride wearing this kit, but for a quick daily workout or a fun diversion it is very workable.

I’m sure all that heat and sweat will be hard on equipment. But I figure if I’m willing to sweat all over my road bike, my smart trainer, my phone and my earbuds already to run Zwift and Peloton, it’s not a big deal to sweat all over a $199 Oculus Go headset with a replaceable facemask. 

I do think that long-term the best VR cycling solution will involved some sort of augmented reality headset that looks more like a Microsoft Hololens. But since this is the only viable option on the market I’m ok with a little sweat.

The best parts

VirZOOM offers some really unique and innovative ideas that users will love. Because the company comes from a video gaming background rather than a fitness background they bring some fresh ideas to the indoor cycling space that I have not seen on other platforms. For example:

  • High quality VR motion. The VirZOOM team spent a lot of time and energy perfecting a smooth, reliable in-ride VR experience that doesn’t lead to the motion-sickness so common in high-intensity VR. This could end up being the most important technological contribution of this product.
  • Bike-agnostic setup. There is a reason Zwift flourished while the Compu-Trainer has died – bike-agnostic setup. To capture the mass market an indoor cycling platform needs to adapt to riders’ existing equipment. The use of simple sensors and the new consumer-grade Oculus Go and Quest VR platforms will make this system available to many more people.
  • Steering and controls. Did I mention steering? This is something that has really been lacking from Zwift, BKool, Rouvvy and other virtual ride platforms. The sensor kit coupled with Oculus Rift motion sensors allow you to be much more interactive within the 3D space compared to the straight-road, linear model of other platforms.
  • Gamification. Look, it’s not Trainer Road, it’s just fun. What can I say. I may not want to ride a flying horse or race car on every ride, but the change of pace makes for a nice distraction from your ride.
  • Real-time mapping. With their VRExplorer platform you can map cycling routes anywhere in the world and ride them in full 360 using Google Streetview images. This is an incredibly creative use of public data and I can see lots of interesting applications – for example, previewing race courses.

Opportunities for future development

Like any new platform there are some opportunities for improvement. Here is my wish-list of features for the VirZOOM development team.

  • Greater sensor compatibility, particularly speed & power – This is the top of my list and probably yours, too. The cadence sensor model is fine for a quick launch and keeps the price point low. However to provide any fitness value the product needs to incorporate resistance or power as well. I would like to see the developers make it possible to pair the device with after-market sensors like the Wahoo Speed & Cadence Meter, the output from wired spin bikes like the Keiser M3i and Smart Trainers like the CycleOps Hammer. This would also allow riders to have some fair basis for comparison in social rides or interactive gaming.
  • Smart trainer support – Presumably for liability reasons, VirZOOM is quite clear that they do not endorse the use of standard bike trainers with their platform. Since there is some leaning involved in game-play there are concerns about stability and tipping over. Fair enough and I can see how this could be an issue on a lightweight trainer stand. However, I can also see how a heavyweight trainer like a Wahoo Kicker should be perfectly safe to ride. In addition, the use of a front-fork brace (think of a roller front stand) rather than a front tire could make the experience safer. It would be really interesting to try this on a trainer that is designed to sway, like the Kinetic Rock n’ Roll. In any case, I don’t see how you can fail to endorse a quality bike trainer with a heavyweight flywheel when you’re endorsing this sad piece of… stuff…

For me, the many positives of the VirZOOM system far outweight the negatives, and I look forward to continuing to use this system as they grow and develop over time. For those of us who remember Zwift when it was only Jarvis Island, you can imagine what VirZOOM could look like in 3 years. They key will be finding a viable core market for the product and the ability of the developers to respond to user feedback.

Please take my money!

The VZfit sensor kit will be commercially available to ship March 25, 2019. Pre-orders are now being accepted at https://www.virzoom.com/. I hope you’ll try it and share your feedback with the indoor cycling community. With Zwift, Peloton and many other platforms, the online user community has been critical to providing customer feedback, influencing developer priorities and orienting and supporting new users. Let’s start the conversation about the future of VR cycling.

Nate Pepper has ridden thousands of miles on spin bikes and indoor trainers in basements, garages, closets and hotel gyms across the U.S. I am not an employee or investor in VirZOOM, but did receive a promotional sensor kit for review purposes. 

One thought on “Virtual Reality Cycling is Finally Here and It Is Amazing

  1. Looks like a good solution for now, although I think the $14.99/mo hardware license is nuts. Seems like the $99 for the system should cover the hardware, especially for non-commercial use.

    Like

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