Johannes Scholl is betting virtual reality can keep people excited about working out.
Scholl’s startup, Munich-based Icaros GmbH, has developed a VR exercise machine that delivers a core workout by making it seem like users are flying and deep-ocean diving. About 200 gyms and entertainment centers from London to Tokyo have installed the machines, which cost about $10,000 after including shipping and other costs. A cheaper home version for about $2,000 is under development and could be unveiled around the start of next year.
Icaros GmbH’s Icaros virtual reality (VR) fitness machine.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
“There’s no comparable thing you can do at a gym,” says Scholl, who co-founded Icaros in 2015 with fellow industrial designer Michael Schmidt.
The fitness industry has been trying for decades to make exercise less boring — from TVs embedded in treadmills to apps nudging users to stay on schedule — but technology has yet to find a cure for the monotony of working out. Scholl is part of nascent community that believes the addictive pull of video games combined with the immersive power of VR will do the trick.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based VirZOOM Inc. transforms bike machines into VR controllers that let gamers fly horses and drive Formula 1 cars. A Helsinki augmented reality startup overlays digital images onto rock-climbing walls, letting climbers play games or battle each other while ascending. More low-key solutions include home workouts built around VR archery, shooting and boxing games which enthusiasts say help people build upper-body strength and lose weight.
Proponents point to Pokemon Go as an example of technology spurring exercise. Less than a week after the app’s release last July, gamers were zig-zagging through neighborhoods and parks around the world and organizing massive Pokemon-catching walking-tours in cities from Sydney to New York. The game persuaded the most enthusiastic users to walk 25 percent more than usual, according to researchers at Stanford University and Microsoft Corp.
Fitness experts are skeptical that high-tech gadgets can get people to exercise more — or stick with it. Innovations such as underwater earphones and running shoes that automatically adjust tightness have largely failed to motivate the masses. “A lot of this technology is being adopted by people who exercise already and not that much by people who are new to the game,” says Remco Polman, head of exercise and nutritional studies at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.
A screen showing the flying game used for the Icaros fitness machine.
Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
While Pokemon Go should be lauded for getting more people out and about, he says, gamifying exercise won’t necessarily trick the brain into doing something the body resists. Rather than layering on gimmicks, he says finding a way to enjoy exercising itself — outdoors, for example — is key to sticking with it for a meaningful period of time.
“The problem with extrinsic motivation is that you only do it until the reward has been taken away,” Polman says. “Once you collect all your Pokemons, then what’s the reason to do anything more?”
Icaros’s Scholl doesn’t disagree and says some activities, like traditional sports, won’t work well in the virtual realm and should be done outdoors. But he thinks VR fitness can take people where they otherwise can’t go.
“I love road-biking and snowboarding, but I love to do that outside,” said Scholl. “In VR, I love to do stuff which I always dreamed of but that I can’t do in reality.”
Icaros promotes a core workout, which improves balance and stability. Users place their knees, elbows and forearms into foam-padded cups, then don a VR headset and grab a handle with each hand. They mostly use the abdomen, back and leg muscles to tilt the device to navigate while flying or diving; a hand controller lets them fire at targets during the game. A Bloomberg reporter managed to work up a sweat after about 10 minutes on the medium setting, with the rigorousness roughly equivalent to a plank exercise.
Personal trainer Shuhei Miyajima helps a model demonstrate the Icaros VR fitness machine.