Twenty-twenty has either taught you that home workouts are the secret to fitness you never knew you needed or that you simply cannot stomach another bodyweight workout in the living room. But regardless of which camp you fit into, after six months spent primarily in the house you might be thinking, “How can I zhuzh this up a little?”
Whereas YouTube workouts and fitness apps can offer you guides to swapping up your supersets, and companies such as Fiit can offer you workout plans for months to come, sometimes the biggest thing you need is something to look at other than a PT doing burpees at three times your current pace. Even home spin bikes such as Peloton, Technogym or Echelon can offer some new visual stimulation, but nothing on the experience of stepping out of your house and life to relish the mind-body connection at the gym. And while gyms and boutique fitness offerings are back, there are plenty of reasons to feel anxious depending on where you go and who else is in attendance. Enter, FitXR: the best way to be taken away from your usual surroundings without the risk of the person before you not wiping down the equipment.
FitXR, formerly known as Box XR, is an offering on Oculus, Steam and Playstation which provides a virtual reality workout. Put your headset on, set up the technical side and within minutes you are whisked into an immersive, pastoral health retreat, and once FitXR is started up you’re taken from luxe gym to do what amounts to a boxercise Guitar Hero. In front of you, a series of cues will appear not unlike the arrows on a Dance Dance Revolution mat or the chords of the aforementioned guitar game. Hit them in the right way – jabs, crosses, guards – and you score points; dodge the sweeping blockades that fly at you for even more points, levelling up and ranking on a scoreboard of the other people who have taken this class before you. It might not be the most accessible new development in home workouts, but it’s certainly one of the most all encompassing: after a few sessions you’ll forget that there’s a world outside your headset.
When I tried FitXR, it was on an Oculus Quest headset, a relatively recent innovation in making VR as easy to use as it was exciting to experience a few years ago. Sam Cole, the CEO and cofounder of FitXR, was one of the people to get excited about virtual and augmented reality when they had a boom last decade and has been working on FitXR for the past four years. “People got really excited about its potential in the beginning and then forgot that VR was still in its early stages,” he explains. The big change for him, he says, is that in a few years VR has gone from a big, gangly setup to something you can, literally, send in the post.
“Up until the release of this headset, the technology was really early stage and quite clunky,” explains Cole. “I certainly couldn’t ship a headset to my mum and expect that she would be able to set up all the sensors and cables.” Now, with the Oculus Quest, setup is minimal: when it arrived in a box to my house it contained one headset and two handheld devices and a couple of charging wires. The setup was largely intuitive: you set the sensors on the Oculus to where your floor is and draw the diagram of how much space you have to move around in. What is slightly less comfortable is having to enter your Wi-Fi details: if you’re still relying on the password on the back of the router, it’s a bit disorienting having to check it before slipping back into the world on the Quest.
Once this is done, however, everything is incredibly slick. The consoles in your hands allow you to point and click and sense the direction of your movements well, and after a quick tutorial the different types of punch and positioning make a lot of sense. What I had not been expecting, perhaps, was how enjoyable the classes were when they began. Available in different lengths, each class features several songs – albeit none I recognised – where you punch and dodge to the beat, following the cues FitXR’s fitness instructors have devised for a good workout. Even after 15 minutes I had a good sweat on and was far from bored, enjoying the rhythmic nature and beginning to understand how the cues might mirror the music. My boyfriend came back from a chiropractor’s appointment to find me so lost in the game that I almost jumped out of my skin when he said hello to me.
This is where FitXR differentiates itself from the rest of the “exergaming” market, such as Wii Fit or the Switch’s Ring Fit Adventure. Where these games can absolutely work you out and teach you good form and technique, they are inevitably holding you at arm’s length. The sensory immersion of FitXR is what gives it the feeling of escapism the way, say, going to a boujie spin class might have done in 2019. “It’s fun and immersive and therefore it’s going to be easier to come back to because it doesn’t feel like a chore,” explains Cole. “And there’s a physical experience and it’s extremely gratifying. So you’re engaging with the content in a way you could never do on a 2-D screen. The closest equivalent would be Wii Fit Boxing, but there was always that disconnect because you weren’t actually colliding with the object.”
It’s also, undeniably, a very pleasant way to add a bit of boxing into your workout regime (even though, let’s be honest, buying an Oculus Quest just for a couple of exercise classes a week counts as a bit more than an impulse buy). Whereas a lot of boxing-adjacent fitness classes often feel like professional athletes trying to bring office workers up to a semi-professional level (or maybe that’s just me), here you are your own instructor, and the only competition is with the phantom participants who have come before, who are incredibly easy to ignore if that’s your preference.
While the boxing offering is stellar, FitXR wants to move into other types of workout too: “We really want FitXR to be thought of as a virtual gym where you can experience a range of different activities,” explains Cole. More will be added in the future, he says, but currently boxing is the central focus.
Virtual reality is nothing new – and the move to home workouts has only been amplified, rather than created, by the pandemic – but the combination of the two together still feels incredibly fresh. Four years ago, Cole wasn’t convinced the two could work together at all – “There were cables everywhere and it wasn’t immediately conducive to a good environment to work out in” – but now FitXR shows an example of what could happen more down the line. But what Cole really sees as the future, more than virtual reality workouts, is augmented reality.
“We really believe that the next computing platform after the smartphone is going to be some kind of mixed reality headset,” says Cole. Imagine instead of our smartphones we are all reliant on a Google Glass or whatever equivalent other companies put out into the market, showing us “something up in front of our vision at all times”. That’s what Cole believes will come next, and “when you believe that like we do, you can imagine fitness everywhere being transformed”. While a world in which you attend a boxercise class with FitXR-ready Oculus Quests handed out to each customer might not be on the cards, the idea of working out in a world where every class, either at home or at the gym, has “a content layer that was immersive and guided” provided on your augmented reality headset is one they think is both possible and positive for the future of working out.
Until then, VR workouts remain a serious joy and achieve what many other home-workout tech companies simply can’t do with tablets, video streams and CGI: it actually makes you feel like you’re back at the gym (with much fewer Covid-19 risks). An Oculus Quest headset will set you back £399, so it’s much pricier than most home fitness options at the moment, but that’s not to besmirch any part of what FitXR brings to the table. If you’re in need of 45 minutes – even in your own house – where you’re looking at something other than the rest of your living room, you could do a lot worse than entering the virtual world.