Can virtual reality really get you fit?

Like many people, by May I was having a difficult time in lockdown: struggling with homeschooling; stressing about work; tired out by Zoom calls; comfort eating; drinking too much; and feeling nervous about venturing out for short walks, let alone exercise.
And then I strapped a computer to my face and gave thin air a damn good pummelling and everything improved a little. Virtual reality’s role in helping me to clamber out of the lockdown blues has changed the way I think about the technology and its potential to play a meaningful role in day-to-day life.
I’ve written a fair bit about virtual reality (VR) as a medium in the past, testing headsets and apps and interviewing their creators with curiosity and an open mind. Yet my professional interest never ignited the desire to spend my own time using technology that – by necessity in its current iteration – isolates you from the people around you. (Cue the obligatory joke: that’s what smartphones are for, right?)
The shift started in May, with an impulse purchase of an Oculus Quest headset and a fitness app called BoxVR. It’s essentially Guitar Hero meets boxercise: you jab, hook and uppercut glowing orbs and duck or dodge barriers, all of which fly at you in sync with a soundtrack ranging from rock, pop and dance to drum’n’bass.
I’m not a boxer. Less “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and more “pant like a water buffalo, flap like a tired kitten” in truth. But over six weeks, BoxVR became a daily habit and, as good exercise should, provided the spark to go walking, eat healthily and leave the giant crate of cider untouched most nights (also a lockdown impulse purchase).
Other people clearly see something in BoxVR too: in July, the London tech startup behind it, FitXR, announced a funding round of £6m from a group of venture capital investors plus the government’s Innovate UK agency.
The company’s co-founders, Sam Cole and Sameer Baroova, met at business school before founding FitXR in 2016, drawing on Cole’s background in finance and Baroova’s career as a games developer.
“We don’t see ourselves as a gaming studio, but as a fitness company,” says Cole, adding that FitXR was set up in the belief that “the next computing platform after the smartphone was going to be some kind of mixed reality headset” and that “fitness everywhere would be completely transformed”.
Video companies love this kind of talk, but in recent years, the outlook for VR technology has looked distinctly mixed. In 2016, a research firm, IHS Markit, predicted that by 2020 there would be 81m VR headsets in use globally.
And now? In May this year, research firm Omdia, which acquired IHS Markit’s tech division in 2019, estimated that the current base is about 26m units. Sales have been disappointing, certainly compared with the bullish expectations when the Oculus Rift headset kicked off the modern VR hardware generation. Facebook bought its maker for $2bn in 2014 two years after a kickstarter funding campaign and the headset went on commercial sale in 2016.
Sluggish sales tipped VR sharply into what the famous “Hype Cycle” theory from Gartner, a firm of analysts, describes as the “trough of disillusionment”, although 2019 and 2020 have seen it progress to the next stage of that cycle: the “slope of enlightenment” – with fitness one of the app genres doing the lifting.
Facebook’s Oculus Quest, released in May 2019, was hailed as a big step forward. It was a standalone headset – you didn’t have to connect it to a computer or console – and it was priced at a relatively affordable £400 to £500. In its first year, Quest owners bought £80m worth of games and apps from its official store.
“The Oculus Quest really reflected an inflection point in the industry, where suddenly the technology was far more accessible and intuitive than it had ever been before,” says Cole. “I could send a headset back to my mum in New Zealand and she could take it out of the box and operate it.”
The Quest, together with Sony’s PlayStation VR and digital game store Steam (which supplies games for other VR headsets) have created an increasingly healthy market for developers and startups to targe…