More than a year into the pandemic, indoor fitness classes remain risky.
While vaccine adoption, capacity limits, mask requirements and enhanced cleaning may make the activity safer, you can't get around the fact that people are exhaling rapidly in enclosed spaces, potentially spewing respiratory droplets all over the place.
The situation partially explains the accelerated adoption of at-home fitness tech, where digital leaderboards on mirrors and virtual high-fives on stationary bikes provide a proxy for actual group workouts. Digital fitness startup FitXR wants to push the boundaries further with a VR workout class designed to more closely feel like real life.
Imagine wearing a VR headset, and being transported into a glitzy wellness club with a sunroof and funky lighting. The class starts and you rapidly throw punches at virtual objects hurled your way to a synchronized tempo. Your heart rate climbs. The sweat is real. And you can see other people in your peripheral vision doing the same thing, only it's their avatars.
That's what the next level of FitXR is all about. On Thursday, the London-based company rolled out a slew of updates to its app on Facebook's Oculus headsets to make boxing and dancing in VR more engaging. The startup, formally BoxVR, says it wants to become the "virtual fitness destination" of the future, and unlocking new features might be one step toward getting it there.
"Anyone who's attended a great group class knows that exercising with others, synchronously to the music in a nightclub environment with an instructor, is a powerfully motivating experience," said Sam Cole, cofounder at FitXR. "Our entire vision is about delivering a virtual fitness club, and, and therefore providing people with the most fun way to workout at home."
Part of that mission requires optional monthly memberships, which is a new addition to the app. FitXR is among the first group of companies to embrace the payment structure, which Facebook enabled for Oculus games this week.
FitXR also added multiplayer mode, a highly-requested feature designed to allow people to talk to each other virtually as if they're in an actual fitness class. Multiplayer allows up to seven members to exercise in a virtual room together in real-time. I tried it out, and it's entertaining to experience. There's still room for growth, however. All you see is your friend's digital head and fists in the corner of your eye while you focus on burning calories.
It's also easy to work out by accident. You might sign on just to game, and find yourself drenched in sweat.
Be warned: The platform can be challenging if you don't select the right intensity.
A large leaderboard calculates points as you exercise. The more moves you perform correctly, the higher the score. Users can also choose to compete against leaderboards from past recorded sessions.
VR workouts aren't for everyone. You need a $299 Oculus headset, cheap by virtual reality headset standards but still expensive if you aren't convinced it's worth it. You also need enough free space to move around if you want to play without bumping into things around the house.
FitXR's classes are $9.99 per month and give users access to an ever-evolving library of workouts.
Other new features include daily workouts, high-intensity interval training and additional environments to perform in. FitXR also promises a better soundtrack experience through a partnership with Warner Music. People paid $29.99 to sign up before the new rollout will still be able to use the old content they paid for. And they'll get all the new content including multiplayer capabilities for the next 90 days.
FitXR and other fitness apps got a big boost amid the ongoing coronavirus health crisis as gyms temporarily shuttered or curbed offerings while more people spent more time at home. Facebook says FiTXR was one of the top non-gaming apps on Oculus and has one of the highest retention rates.
The app's sales spiked 535 percent in the last quarter of 2020 compared to the same period around the holidays the year before, Oculus says.
It's unclear how prepared the world is to continue to work out at home, and how many more people will welcome sweating with a VR headset covering half their face. But with many spending big bucks for on-demand spinning classes and high-tech gym equipment, the trend seems poised to outlast the pandemic.