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Training with a Virtual Rocky Has Breakthrough Potential


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It’s Friday night and, against the odds, I’m at the gym. Just me, a few punching bags, a boxing ring — and Sylvester Stallone. he calls me. I’m lost.

I really am? I look down. I’m cracked. A fine specimen, about to make me a champion. In this virtual reality world, Stallone is there to keep me in line.

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In my real life, there are problems. A knock on the door means my dinner has arrived. When I take off the headset, I walk away from my mentor, embarrassed, momentarily disoriented, and when I look down, I have a very different physique.

Experts say getting in shape is about creating good habits. But it’s also about fighting boredom. From the moment I step on a treadmill, all I can think about is how long it will take me to finish. A big part of Peloton’s success has been its ability to bring home the vibe of live class, with motivation and demand for results. Can virtual reality really take this to the next level?

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The game I’m playing, Creed: Rise to Glory, is based on the Rocky franchise and is catching on. Except for a few button commands, there are no controls to learn other than moving my body and hands and swinging against increasingly stronger opponents. After a few weeks, I can feel the difference in my arms, shoulders and belly. My Apple Watch scored a 30-minute boxing session where my average heart rate was approximately 150 bpm.

More substantial data were gathered by the kinesiology department at San Francisco State University, which compared half an hour of VR boxing with 30 minutes of tennis. Research has suggested that Thrill of the Fight, another boxing game, is as good a workout as being on a rowing machine for the same amount of time.

The team, which said it received no funding from any technology company for the work, put players in a lab to measure the effectiveness of VR games as a fitness tool, recording oxygen consumption and heart rate. People didn’t feel like they were exercising really hard, says Marialice Kern, chair of the department and part of the RV Institute of Health and Exercise, an independent research group. “But their level of oxygen consumption and energy expenditure put them at a much higher level than they were realizing,” she explained.

Kern admits that comparisons to the “real” exercise are imprecise. There are many differences between exercise in the real world and in VR, most obviously any resistance, which makes it a less effective method of strength training: in my game there is no feedback when hitting people in the face. (Fortunately, it works both ways.) You also have limited movement, depending on your physical space.

The institute’s staff is also piloting its own game, called Pacebreaker, to adapt play to physical ability, much like a personal trainer. Creating good fitness experiences, however, needs to keep pace with hardware development. My Oculus Quest display set, produced by Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is the cornerstone of Mark Zuckerberg’s strategy to create a “metaverse” where millions of people can exist and collaborate digitally. But some boxing rounds leave me drenched in sweat and steaming, like sunglasses over a Covid mask.

Even in its current form, though, technology has driven me to exercise every night for weeks. And those who want to see the metaverse become a huge success would be smart to focus not only on the benefits in the virtual world, but on how VR can be used to make us feel better in the real world as well.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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