Cool at first, in case you can cope with the nausea [REVIEW]

The top three VR headsets – Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR – are finally arriving this year as finished, consumer-grade products. VR headsets will no longer just be prototypes. VR is finally really happening.

But as spectacular and haunting as virtual worlds are when you put these headsets on, there is one more question that VR has not yet answered: How will you control things in the virtual world in a convincing and realistic way?

Oculus Rift relies on its Oculus Touch controllers that mimic the movements of your hands. The Vive has its own pair of wand-like controllers, and Sony will likely stick with a traditional PlayStation 4 gamepad or use the PlayStation Move motion controllers as they have seen in demo units.

Wilder controller ideas include VR treadmills (a terrible idea if you ask me), motion tracking gloves, and exercise bikes. One such special feature is the VirZoom VR bicycle controller. I tried it out at E3 last year when there were still a couple of sensors attached to a real bike. Now I’ve played with an almost definitive version and I’ve got mixed feelings.

The VR fitness bike from Virzoom works with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

The VR fitness bike from Virzoom works with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

Image: Noah Throop / Mashable

For now, let me just say that I rarely exercise. I have a fast metabolism and have been thin all my life. I live in New York City and am used to walking around everywhere. Every week I walk to a specific grocery store for 20 minutes and then go back with my hands full of bags. I go up the stairs via the elevator whenever I can and rarely spend time driving in a car.

I’m the last person who needs an excuse to get up and be more active. Being active is already my life, not a New Years resolution.

Because of this, the training aspect of the VirZoom wasn’t as important to me as the entertainment part. I wanted to find out whether or not there would be a place in the future of VR for pedaling to control a video game.

Set up

Let’s start with the VirZoom bike. Unfortunately, the VirZoom isn’t a slim piece of hardware that looks like it was from the future – it’s a generic looking exercise bike. (I found one on Amazon that looks exactly the same.) It’s ugly, but functional.

I tested the alpha build of the bike which is missing a couple of buttons on the handlebars and a pair of triggers that will be in the final version. The Alpha bike only had one green and one red button – one on each handlebar. The buttons felt great, like the A and B buttons on a NES controller, but I can’t say for sure if they will be the same on the final model.

Image: Noah Throop / Mashable

Since my test device was not the final version, it did not come with an instruction manual. There aren’t many steps to putting it together, but I still had to google a picture of the VirZoom and figure out where the seat, pedals, and handlebars went. An Allen key was included, but it would have taken forever to build the VirZoom with it. I used my own adjustable wrench instead.

After building the bike, all I had to do was plug it into a VR headset. I used an Oculus Rift DK2 (Developer Kit 2), but the VirZoom also works with the PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive. After installing the Virzoom software on an old, updated Alienware X51 gaming PC, plugging the Rift into it, and plugging in a wireless USB dongle (to communicate with the bike), I jumped ahead and prepared to myself move through VR.

I immediately had calibration issues between the headset and the camera. It was another ten minutes before I started playing games. The entire setup process just reminded you of how cumbersome VR would be for many beginners.

Made me sick very quickly

While the software I tried was far from finished – there is a new build every Friday – I got a feel for what to expect when using the VIrZoom. At E3, I was only allowed to try one demo: Pegaso, a game that made me a jockey on a winged horse.

With my test device, I had time to play two more games: Stampede and Go Fast Car. In Stampede you ride as a cowboy through a town in the Wild West and have to let other cowboys off their horses In Go Fast Car, you are a dog (yes, a dog, ridiculous as it sounds) driving an F1 racing car over a track.

In all games, the faster you pedal, the faster your horse or racing car will go. It might seem strange for you to pedal to simulate a galloping horse or the wheels of a car, but it felt all natural to me. At no point did it feel strange.

Stampede, one of VirZoom's games.

Stampede, one of VirZoom’s games.

The games themselves aren’t exactly in-depth – they’re more like mini-games – and the graphics are terribly dated, but they were still very entertaining to say the least. In a game like Stampede, I could turn my head in all directions and see enemy cowboys on my sides. To tie yourself to a cowboy, press and hold one of the buttons on the handlebar, then release. A couple of times I wanted to swing my hands in the air and have the cowboys use an imaginary rope or shoot them with a finger pistol. Someday we will have Kinect style hand and body tracking for VR and it will be great.

Go Fast Car showed how much more work the games took. It was also the fastest thing that made me sick. The feeling of speed when pedaling and accelerating on the virtual track was so strong that I became dizzy, my stomach ached and my eyes dried out. I lasted no more than two minutes before tearing off the headset and taking a long break on the sofa. Not only did the game make me sick, it was more than flawed. The mashable video producer Rill Causey tried it and somehow stepped off the track and ended up in a bizarre world.

Wait what  Are you a puppy driving an F1 car?!?!?

Wait what Are you a puppy driving an F1 car?!?!?

Pegaso also made me want to fling pretty quickly. As soon as my winged horse took in air and I tried to maneuver up and down, my stomach cramped and my lungs closed. Go Fast Car made me sick when I was grounded, but Pegaso made me dizzy.

The consumer version of the VirZoom comes with these three and two other games (and all of them will support online multiplayer), but the company has yet to confirm what these will look like. I just hope these games are better and the company can figure out how to make them less dizzying. While there is no surefire way to make the VirZoom any less nasty, I think the best bet is to get the player pedaling very slowly. Even users who believe they may be resistant to motion sickness shouldn’t overdo it at first.

There’s an adjustment dial on the bike that you can turn to adjust the tension on the pedals so you can feel more burning in your thighs and legs, but I never felt the need to crank it. Like I said, I’m not a hardcore fitness junkie.

Cycling IRL is better in every way

I have great respect for companies like VirZoom that are trying to combine video games and fitness with new technology. It worked for Nintendo with the Wii Fit (and to a lesser extent the Wii itself) and for Microsoft with Dance Central and Kinect. So why not for VR?

As I said earlier, the model I checked wasn’t the finished version. But even without the final hardware, finished games, heart rate monitor, workout modes, and advanced fitness tracking stats that will be available in the final version, I felt like the VirZoom was little more than a novelty.

Sure, I broke my sweat easily on VirZoom and I’ve had some good times letting cowboys, but I’ve never felt like I was totally overwhelmed by all of this. The games included were great fun, but they weren’t as impressive as simple demos like the 3D painting demo I tried on the HTC Vive.

After packing the VirZoom, I never felt the urge to take it out again. It is the same with a normal exercise bike. It’s great the first time you use it, but then it ends up in your closet and collects dust.

All of this doesn’t even take into account how much it costs to get VirZoom up and running: $ 400 for the bike and another $ 1,500 for the Oculus Rift and compatible PC. We don’t know how much Vive or PlayStation VR will cost, but after my setup it will cost at least $ 2,000.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a big chunk of the money when you feel like you are flying on a horse or driving a racing car as a dog. If you ask me, it’s better to buy a real bike for a lot less and ride a bike in real life. You can explore new places, get some fresh air and still feel the burning sensation in your legs.

VirZoom VR fitness bike

The good

Stampede is fun • • Adjustable voltage regulator

The bad

Expensive • • Generic fitness bike design • • Not the easiest set up process • • Games can make you sick

The bottom line

The VirZoom exercise bike for virtual reality headsets is little more than a novelty.

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