Postcard from Silicon Valley – Will virtual-reality gyms allow us to work out within the pandemic? | 1843 journal
July 8, 2020
IIn the dark my hands glow neon blue. I turn my head and see a button in the air. I press one of them and am taken to a stadium with a crystal spinning in front of me. a similar one rotates in the distance. Lightning bolts of electricity all around me signal that I am about to enter into a wild battle. I grab a few handles and start pressing on my chest.
This is black box VR. It’s the world’s first virtual reality gym and is located in a humble gray building in downtown San Francisco. Aside from the inevitable analog showers, locker rooms, and protein powder dispensers, the experience is almost entirely digital. You enter a private chamber the size of a large walk-in closet equipped with exercise cords and a retractable arm that holds your chest in place while you perform a range of exercise routines. After you strap on a VR headset, you will be whisked into a virtual arena where you fire your weapons through intense reppening to destroy your enemy’s crystal before it destroys yours. Your scores will be placed on a leaderboard where you can compare your achievements with other athletes (you are currently playing against a computer, but Black Box hopes you can take on other cabin occupants soon).
Ryan DeLuca, the company’s founder, wants to encourage the addiction among his gym users that you find among hardcore gamers. Black Box seeks to mimic the success of blockbuster titles like Fortnite and League of Legends, habit-building games that send their players into the imagination and escape. “That level of exploration, immersion, and discovery humans can’t normally do during exercise,” says DeLuca.
I didn’t find the experience entirely intuitive. During a trial run, the headset slid across my face from my crouching, twitching, and wiggling. It was a good balance to adjust the handle so that it was snug without feeling like the blood flow to my brain had been cut off. I slapped my hands to find the handles required, desperately trying to find the correct harness for the exercise required. I definitely felt stimulated, if rather overwhelmed.
Others are true believers. Marco Chiang is a software engineer based in San Francisco. In its heyday, he went to the black box almost every day and moderated their fan channels on social media. He and his friends posted monthly progress photos of their increasingly chiseled bodies. One of them figured out how to hack Black Box’s weight lifting system so he could come back three or four times a day without getting tired just to improve his rank on the leaderboard.
Black Box reconciles two contradicting trends in Silicon Valley. Our atomized culture – currently exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – was developed in this part of the world. It is now possible to live a life that is digitally entangled but completely sedentary: scrolling through social media feeds, conjuring up food with the tap of an app, chatting with friends on a webcam. However, there are few places where exercise and fitness classes are more popular. Yoga, weights, bars, high-intensity interval training, Pilates, boot camp, and other craziness have taken hold in the Bay Area, where until recently hovering herds of people were jumping, flexing, and sweating.
Not all exercise freaks are convinced of the concept behind VR workouts. Jenny Xu, who teaches quarantine-friendly fitness classes online, believes that many people are unwilling to buy an expensive headset. She also believes that intense exercise can aggravate the phenomenon of VR nausea, an effect some people feel when movement in the simulated world is no longer in sync with the body.
Xu is promoting its own fitness game. Her augmented reality app Run To My Heart takes place in an alternate universe in which people on sofas have been transformed into literal potatoes. Joggers get a virtual companion who encourages them and develops the further you go, from running partner to friends to romantic interests. This avatar tells tidbits about sights they pass and gives them updates about other app users they may know.
Black Box was forced to close when a housing order was issued in San Francisco on March 16 in response to the covid-19 outbreak. The company had assured its customers that headsets were sanitized after each use, but in the current climate, the idea of sharing one with a complete stranger is about as attractive as licking a car tire.
Still, VR training may have a better chance of succeeding in this strange new world than traditional gyms and yoga studios. After all, social distancing was already part of the package at Black Box. Silicon Valley keeps millions of people productive, fed, watered, and somewhat healthy in these troubled times. Maybe it can keep us fit too? There is certainly demand. When the lockdown began in China in February, sales of yoga mats and rowing machines in the country rose every two weeks by 250% year-on-year, according to Reuters.
Of course, another solution to the exercise problem could be to stare into our faces – or rather under our feet. As an avid runner, I was amused by headlines proclaiming a running boom due to coronavirus. During my regular jog after a week and a half, I came alone from the green expanse of Golden Gate Park to the sun-drenched promenade of Ocean Beach. It was true, nobody was there then. However, with low barriers to entry, there is tremendous leeway for the growth of running. Amid the proliferation of streamed workouts and Instagram courses, the main beneficiary of gym closures will likely be the most primal exercise of all. What if you really need a technological solution? Xu plans to launch her app towards the end of the year. If you wait that long, you may have turned into a real potato.■
ILLUSTRATION EWELINA KARPOWIAK
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