By Matt Hill
That's me above, warping the very nature of time, space, reality and fitness fashion fleeing zombies at a hidden away EasyGym up the top of that weird mini-shopping centre thing on London's Oxford Street. It's a tight squeeze of a fitness centre, frequented for its convenience to commuters rather than its vast expanses or plush features, so I was more than happy to be somewhere else, mentally. Even in a zombie apocalypse.
Enter Widerun, the reason I was there, a much-talked-about VR fitness concept from Italy that's been prototyped over the past year and hits Kickstarter today for some honest to goodness crowd-funding. The concept: the traditional cycle trainer that turns any road bicycle into an exercise bike, but connected to a custom communicator, a steering compass and your choice of VR headset, for unfettered access to wherever you fancy cycling today.
It's a compelling concept and before I have much time to acquaint myself with the gears I've got a Rift DK2 strapped on, headphones in, and I'm thrust into a Game of Thrones-style wintery medieval area that, if not quite Skyrim in scale, does a passable impression of its feel.
I cycle freely in a straight line, meandering a little to check that the handlebars do indeed guide your avatar (they do), a virtual bike beneath me, and take in the scenery. The DK2 isn't the cutting edge of Oculus's advancements anymore, but it still does more than enough to create a sense of wonder. You do feel like you're in another place, transported even, and I felt perfectly comfortable peddling without any balance issues, with latency minimal.
As I have done a fair bit of VR, there was no disorientation at all really, just eye-opening possibilities, although the developers talked of a variety of responses. As ever with VR, it's a very personal thing.
But disorientation then came in the next demo, a more familiar rural scene, trees, cherry blossom and all that jazz, with rolling hills that, well, didn't roll. Faced with a steep incline or a sharp drop, the VR is doing its job brilliantly in giving you a sense of apprehension, but there's no physical feedback to match.
Sure, you can change your bike gears to replicate the conditions you're seeing, but there needs to be a physical prompt as well as a visual one. When you realise you can just cycle the same strength and just float over the incline, without penalty, you're knocked out of the moment.
It's an issue the developers themselves acknowledge needs addressing. Indeed, it's stated on the Kickstarter page as something in the final version that it's pledging to ship next spring, with the aim to regulate the rear wheel's resistance to match the rigours of the VR world.
The finale is, of course, zombies – when is it ever not? But cycling through a dystopian undead wasteland was actually pretty great. It's doubling down on the Zombies, Run! trick of getting you fit with scares, but instead of audio-only, this is all around you. A Silent Hill-style mist fills the air, cars are abandoned on the roadside, lighting crackles, it's deliciously hammy. Soon enough grave-dodgers give chase to stop you dawdling.
And this is where the next issue arises: steering. Some of the corners are too sharp for you be able to turn naturally at the moment, so you inevitably have to do a kind of stop-go virtual bunny-hop, which isn't great when a zombie is on your tail. I take a wrong turn to try and avoid him and end up in a dead end so begin to take the headset off to end the demo, asking the developers some questions. As I turn round, I notice that a mutilated corpse had been gnawing lovingly at my shoulder the whole time.
Headset sweaty, I see that my 10-minute demo, if not flawless just yet in terms of execution, certainly got my heart going as a concept (gratuitous Microsoft Band shot):
The plan is to have an app store with Widerun's own software, but also to open it to the development community, and the idea of a suite of virtual experiences to cycle around seems appealing. Not just for gamifying fitness, either – although Daytona USA-style six-person cycling multiplayer would sure as hell spur me on. Cycling the Great Wall of China, for me, would be a pretty stellar advert for virtual tourism, too.
At £275 for Kickstarter early birds, who already need to have a VR headset, PC and a road bike don't forget, the target consumer market seems fairly niche in the short term. Sure, it is aiming to output to smart TVs for the non-VR crowd, too, but that's nowhere near as exciting. Yet with a hopefully consumer-ready Rift out by its April 2016 ship date, maybe we'll all be VR-ing ourselves silly by then. Who knows? It's going to be interesting to watch it develop.
The most obvious future for Widerun, though, would appear to be in gyms such as the one we're in, as a public head-turner and added value extra as part of a fitness membership. If my gym had one, I'd be on it tomorrow. The commitment to getting Widerun on Samsung's smartphone-powered Gear VR headset is very telling, too – how much easier it would be for everyone if the VR cycling was wireless and self-contained.
Maybe if enough people see it at gyms, they'll be inspired to take one home like exercise bikes and weight systems. In fact, Samsung could do a lot worse than co-opting them as a VR fitness partner, as it makes as mean a demo for the tech as swivelling around in an office chair. You can have that one for free, guys...
This article originally appeared on Gizmodo UK, the tech site which is equally fascinated with design, architecture, and science.