Future Train Means Racing a VR Ghost From the Previous
Anyone who has tamed Netflix and ESPN’s documentary series The Last Dance about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls knows that the greatest athletes don’t just compete against each other. They compete with the high standards they have set for themselves. However, this is not just reserved for great athletes. The same rationale applies to the average athlete, albeit for very different reasons.
When many of us take up a new form of exercise – be it cycling, running, or rowing – we don’t necessarily want to beat the competition. We just want to know that we are improving and a good way to do this is to try to do our best so far, personally. This is the idea that inspires members of the REal Labs for REal and Virtual Environments (REVEAL) at the British University of Bath.
Under the direction of Christof Lutteroth, a computer science lecturer, researchers at the university have developed a virtual reality system that allows people who play sports to put on a virtual reality headset in the gym and compete against a ghostly version of themselves . Or several of them.
“Athletes love to play against others,” Lutteroth told Digital Trends. “For them the racing experience is really exciting. It can be euphoric and exhilarating with this cocktail of emotions that is really powerful. This is not really accessible to the average person – especially for people who are not motivated to exercise, or who may not be very fit at first. It is really difficult for them to take pleasure in going up against another person. “
Ghosts of exercise over
This is where the VR software developed by Lutteroth and his team comes into play. This allows people to compete against their previous time records in a virtual environment when doing tasks like running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike. By making this a VR race where all of the player’s previous attempts take the form of other avatar racers, the practitioner can see how far they have come on their fitness journey – while being pushed to keep improving. It gives the motivating feeling of competing against more than just an abstract number on a treadmill or stationary bike. However, it does this without the demotivating element of competing against other real people who may be vastly better than you.
In a four-week study conducted on the Bath University campus, participants were assessed while performing high-intensity sessions on a stationary bike. Cyclists who use the VR exergames to compete against ghostly versions of their previous feats doubled their performance compared to solo riders. They also achieved much higher heart rates. While it was better to go up against just one ghost than none, the best results were achieved when players went up against a number of their previous performances.
“People have put a tremendous amount of energy into overhauling their own avatars,” said Lutteroth. “One way to think about this project is for it to manifest your fitness journey in a virtual game. The race you take part in is basically your fitness journey from the start and you are very slow, getting faster and faster to where you are in the present – and even extrapolating that into the future. We can bring another avatar into play that represents what you can possibly achieve. It’s ambitious, but also realistic and within your means. “
Virtual reality is a technology that enthusiasts have looked forward to for decades. Despite some amazing advances over this period, it has still not caught on as a mass market technology, despite some core use cases. The smart fitness equipment market is a rapidly growing market that is projected to be valued at $ 29.4 billion by 2025. If VR-based exercise becomes popular as a vital gym with a large number of people, it could represent a tremendous opportunity for manufacturers of VR headsets and software.
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However, as Lutteroth said, the technology has its limits. “The main limitation when training with VR is safety as you can’t see where you are going,” he said. “For example, you can’t just run [on the street] with a VR headset on. “
Lutteroth sees some potential in technologies like AR glasses that superimpose computer-generated images over the real world. But he said the technology is not yet ready to make this a workable approach to expanding the number of places this type of system could be used. Part of it is that no one has cracked the perfect format for AR wearables yet. There is an additional security aspect, however.
“There are other things that happen on the street, from cars to pedestrians,” he said. “Let’s assume you are really engrossed in your virtual game and are following your other avatars, and one of them is hurtling across the street in front of an oncoming car or a pedestrian. It could be very dangerous. That would probably take a bit more security-side work before it could [be feasible.]”
For now, Lutteroth is happy to be sticking to his virtual reality setup. He said he plans to release the system so people can try it out for themselves. In the age of social distancing and many people still working from home without the daily steps required to commute to the office, this could be the perfect way to get people to exercise.
Is there anything more than the idea of avoiding flesh-and-blood exercise partners in order to cycle alone against the ghost of your less fit past?