Virtual reality, the new gym

Virtual reality, the new gym



While waiting for the hypothetical emergence of the metaverse, VR has already been able to develop beyond the “simple” video game to reach another area: fitness. Many users have made their immersive headset the companion of their daily physical exercise.

According to the most fervent preachers of the famous metaverse, it is only a matter of time: virtual reality will emancipate itself from its current uses, very largely centered on “traditional” video games, and take its place in everyone’s life thanks to extraordinarily varied usage scenarios. Helmets could thus instantly project us into a classroom, meeting room, show, stadium… But while waiting for the materialization of these promises which still seem very hypothetical today, there is a type of place in which virtual reality (VR) has already interfered with some success: sports halls.

This is also one of the answers we hear most often when we ask a new purchaser of a VR headset about the reasons for their investment: to motivate themselves to move a little, to practice a strict minimum of daily or weekly physical activity. After all, it wasn’t yesterday that we discovered how fitness is a perfectly organic extension of “video gaming in motion” — or movement gameas we got used to calling it in English in the text. We remember of course the dazzling success, between 2006 and 2010, of Nintendo’s Wii: its Wii Sports and other Wii Fit were the main architects of this trend. Exactly ten years later, the situation is repeated with the advent of immersive headsets and their motion-sensing controllers, and games as physical as beat the saber and Whip Gunrequiring extremely fast and lively movements, very quickly ranked among the essentials of the medium.

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Oculus Quest 2

Introductory price €349



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How the pricing table works

But as we have said, the extension of the use of VR to physical activity already goes well beyond traditional video games, and the developers themselves are not mistaken. This can be seen by consulting the ranking of the most used applications on Quest 2, the standalone virtual reality headset from Meta (ex-Facebook/Oculus). Two examples stand out: Fit XR and Supernatural — the developer of the latter, Within, was moreover very recently acquired by Meta — prancing at the top of the “outside” category video game“, with download figures worthy of the most popular games on the platform. In both cases, these are light physical training programs operating on the principle of paid subscription, with virtual coach, personalized objectives, etc. .

Screenshot of FitXR app on Meta (Oculus) Quest 2

Fit XR on Quest 2

© Fit XR


More focus, less pain

A question remains all the same unanswered: why bother to put on a helmet to follow the said sessions? So what makes virtual reality such an attractive gym? At first glance, the answer paradoxically begins with one of the traits that usually earns it the most criticism when it comes to social acceptance: sensory confinement. Since it deprives us (in part) of the perception of the outside world, VR promotes concentration, and eliminates distractions that could constitute so many temptations to stop the session before its end.

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Distractions that can be replaced by a visual and sound environment carefully designed to stimulate motivation, sometimes even approaching a certain form of relaxation and meditation. It is also one of the trademarks of the service Supernaturalwhich offers its subscribers the opportunity to carry out their exercises in immersion in carefully chosen natural settings, which are both grandiose and reassuring. Among these, the Galapagos, the ruins of Machu Picchu, or even… the surface of Mars. In a similar genre, we can also cite the initiative of the French company Fit Immersion, which proposes to transform its indoor cycling or elliptical sessions into a virtual hike on various tourist routes.

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Supernatural application interface on Meta (Oculus) Quest 2

Training in heavenly settings: the whole principle of Supernatural.

© In Unlimited

And the effects of such virtual immersion could be much deeper than one might think, sometimes even activating psychosomatic springs. This is shown, for example, by a study carried out in 2019 by researchers from the kinesiology department of the University of Georgia (United States). The study focuses on subjects practicing a session consisting of several successive sprints on an exercise bike – the kind of interval exercises constituting a “classic” cardio training. She concludes that adding a component of immersion in virtual reality measurably, stable and significantly reduces the pain felt in the quadriceps by the subjects performing the exercise.

From gaming to fitness, then back to gaming

Finally, it goes without saying that even when the coating of the experience is not that of a video game, the playful dimension is never far away. How could it be otherwise in the age of all-connectedness, where the notion of “gamification” (better known by its English name of gamification) is on everyone’s lips? It is not necessary to prove to what extent a well-placed visual and/or sound stimuli, rewarding the achievement of any objective, can be a powerful generator of dopamine, and therefore of motivation to continue one’s effort. The precision of the motion tracking of virtual reality systems, both at the level of the hands (controllers) and the head (helmet itself), also plays in favor of this medium: it allows relatively precise continuous activity tracking. , significantly more than any other non-specialized consumer device currently offers. An invitation to provide the user with statistics of all kinds, and to feed rankings allowing said user to indulge in healthy competition with his contacts.

Oculus Move interface on Meta Quest 2

Oculus Move on Quest 2

© Meta

This is something that Meta has understood, as evidenced by the launch at the end of 2020 of the Oculus Move application, now included directly in the OS of all Quest and Quest 2 headsets. The latter even makes the journey the opposite of the fitness applications mentioned above: it proposes to bring together in a single follow-up the physical exercise carried out by the user not only within the applications dedicated to fitness, but also in his “traditional” games. We can thus see the number of calories that we have burned by managing to reach the end of a particularly tough piece of beat the saber : hard to do more rewarding. Beyond this aspect, the Quest 2 affirms more than ever its intention to be part of the daily digital life of its users; this is in any case what seems to indicate the integration, no later than at the beginning of June, of Oculus Move monitoring into Apple’s health ecosystem on iPhone and Apple Watch. Either we are in tune with the times or we are not.

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