The fitness app seemed perfect for virtual reality. Stitching together 3-D vistas of scenic streets and byways around the globe and combining it with a low-impact exercise routine, “VZfit,” from VirZoom Inc. held a ton of promise for someone who has been cooped up at home. It likewise appealed to someone who runs only when chased and abhors going outside in the winter. I am that someone.
The app, which can be used with just the Oculus Quest headset or in conjunction with an exercise bike, utilizes street view photography from Google Maps and allows users to exercise their way down California’s Highway 1, climb the Alps a la riders of the Tour de France or even “walk” down memory lane by revisiting the roadways of their youth. The concept is terrific, and at its best, could provide a top-shelf VR experience. The current execution however, falls short, careening into some of the biggest pitfalls of virtual reality.
“VZfit’s” shortcomings are best illustrated by my first “ride” (as the app labels the workouts), when I charted a route from my childhood home in rural Southwest Connecticut to my parents’ old office downtown. As soon as I confirmed the course, I was teleported to a kind of twisted, 3-D reflection of my youth. The VR-mapped scenery rolling past me along my childhood street looked vaguely familiar, but its warped nature felt like someone was extracting my memories through some sort of neural jack, transmitting them somewhere via a 14.4 modem and reassembling them around me. I feel like this must be what the world looks like once you’ve been assimilated into the Borg.
The best example of the problem is probably when I was standing right outside my old house and I could not see my house. Instead, I saw a fluctuating mass of cubed and polygonal greenery and pavement obscuring the place my house should have been. I moved one way, and the sharp-edged blob of boxes shifted. I still couldn’t see my home. I moved the other way, and ran into the same issue. It was like “Minecraft’s” Steve was building obstacles to prevent me from laying eyes on my old homestead. You win this round, Steve.
That experience highlights the app’s limitations. The developers can only do so much with the 2-D images from Google. And some rides render better than others. The ones highlighted and recommended by the app look much cleaner and crisper, but the user-generated rides (created by me and other app users, which you can access) were consistently warped. The autonomy to choose your route feels useless when the experience makes you want to take off the headset.
On the rides that I created, the world repeatedly tore itself apart and then reassembled itself around me with objects dramatically and unnaturally shifting in relative location and scale. Houses disappeared, only for a portion of the building to reappear closer to the road, shrunken or engorged. In areas where two images have clearly been stitched together, canyons often appeared, covered with a 2-D wallpaper reflecting the world beyond. Some trees lay flat on the ground, sprawling horizontally, while others soared upward to nearly block the sky.
The app’s suggested rides fare much better, though they never really rise to the point of enjoyability.
While I have not yet tested the app with the attachment to use an exercise bike (the review will be updated when we do), a freelancer for The Washington Post had a glowing experience with that device and the app earlier this year. So, maybe that’s where the app’s true beauty resides. But without the bike, there’s not much joy in the experience for me.
Many of the exercises used to make your avatar move in the app are no joy either. Mimicking the VR trainer “riding” on the wheeled platform in front of me, I propelled myself forward by performing some kind of weird cross-country skiing motion, squatting and swinging my arms forward and back. The trainer’s incessant reminders to “swing the arms, bend the knees!” also grated.
One exercise prompted me to fold my arms with my elbows out, like chicken wings, and rotate them while I walked in place. Cross-punches felt more normal, but it just feels strange to move like that when you can’t see what your body is doing. Even the default movement – the squat/arm-swing combo move – gets old. It’s a great workout, but doing seven miles worth of squats seems a little masochistic. Fortunately, you can still move by swinging your arms back and forth, an alternative I employed liberally after my knees started aching.
It would be better if users could select their preferred movements, but right now, you can’t. According to Virzoom, adding that functionality is one of their priorities as they continue development.
Then it came time to turn – and I swear the real world moved beneath my feet. The undulating landscape disoriented me from the start, but it was made worse by the app’s turning mechanic. To turn, you need to tilt your head left or right. Combined with VR’s disorienting effects and my body’s repeated movements, I had to balance check myself several times. After I was done with a 15-minute ride, I fought off a touch of motion sickness. (Users can utilize an option to ride on a kind of rail that requires no head-tilt turning. If you decide to use the app, I recommend this, but I still felt disoriented when the ride required a 90-degree turn.)
Since getting the Quest 2, I’ve been a big fan of “Wander,” the app that renders Google Map Street View data into VR. I checked out Paris, Giza, Dubrovnik and my aforementioned home in Connecticut. In every instance, standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, the Mediterranean Sea or my old house inspired some measure of awe. They were clear, they were majestic (yes, even my old house). My one gripe was that I had to click around to predetermined points on the ground.
What I wanted was to be able to move myself physically somehow. “VZfit” seemed to provide exactly that possibility. For now, it remains only a possibility.
During the winter months of the pandemic I’d been using my Quest 2 to help stay in shape. I’ve used a boxing app (“The Thrill of the Fight”) and aerobic/boxing workout app (“Fit XR”) and found both to be a better alternative to dragging myself out into the cold for a walk or run. Both provided engaging, gamified experiences that paid dividends in pounds shed. “VZfit,” which also requires a monthly subscription of $9.99, will not be slotting into my VR workout regiment. Hopefully improved map data and some smoothing will provide more appeal with a future update, because the concept has tons of merit. For now though, my only consistent exercise with “VZfit” is one of futility.
The Washington Post