From Guitar Hero to fitness: How VR is improving home gyms

VR fitness Virzoom VZfit

Can virtual reality make your home gym less boring and improve your workouts?

I’ve been using Beat Saber to get a bit of a workout at home in VR. But the chief architect of Guitar Hero has a new game that he says can make home workouts more fun and maybe even better … longer … more intense.

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier we chat with the founder of VirZoom, who was also one of the top people at smash hit Guitar Hero. His name is Eric Malafeew, and his app is VZfit. You bike on your stationary bike and, thanks to VR, you go anywhere in the world … fight tanks … drive Formula 1 … or face off at the OK Corral.

Listen: from Guitar Hero to VR fitness

Don’t forget to subscribe to TechFirst with John Koetsier wherever podcasts are published:

Watch: from Guitar Hero to VR fitness

Subscribe to my YouTube channel so you’ll get notified when I go live with future guests, or see the videos later.

Full transcript: from Guitar Hero to VR fitness

John Koetsier: Can virtual reality make your home gym less boring? And maybe improve your workouts? 

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. I’ve been using Beat Saber a little bit to get a bit of a workout at home in VR when I can’t go outside or can’t go to the gym. But the former chief architect of Guitar Hero has a new game, he says it can make home workouts more fun, maybe even better, maybe longer, more intense, without you even noticing it.

The app is VZfit, you bike on your stationary bike and thanks to VR, you go anywhere in the world. You could fight with a tank, you could drive Formula 1, you can even face off at the OK Corral and much more.

To chat, I’d like to introduce Eric Malafeew. Eric, how are you?

Eric Malafeew: I’m doing great. Thanks, John. 

John Koetsier: Awesome. Thank you for joining. Let’s start with Guitar Hero, obviously a massive hit, a cultural phenomenon. What did you learn about making games from Guitar Hero

Eric Malafeew: Well, first thing I’ll say is our whole team at VirZOOM worked on Guitar Hero. There’s about five senior members and what we learned was that a really simple idea can become groundbreaking. And Guitar Hero was this thing that in retrospect seems obvious, but when people first saw it they thought, well is this like a music puzzle?

We actually made a couple games and released a couple games before we got connected to a guitar, and that’s when it really connected for people that it was like a performance. And it’s that kind of direct connection, you know, between your body and the virtual game, that we’re trying to do with VZfit. 

John Koetsier: Nice. Let’s talk about VZfit then. What is it in your own words? 

Eric Malafeew: Well, it’s a collection of games designed to keep your body moving in VR, which sounds kind of dry, but then you realize VR is literally anything you can imagine. So like the things you said at the beginning of the segment, we just thought what would be things that you would want to do that could keep you peddling, if peddling was just your means of going forward, and leaning was your means of steering, you know, so a tank and a battlefield.

I used to work on military trainers, so we of course have tanks and helicopters. But things nobody’s ever done, like ride a Pegasus and fly over a canyon, lasso a cowboy. So, those were the kinds of games we made at first and then we kind of cracked the nut of cycling around the world using street view. So street view shows you millions of miles of roads that you can go. So you can visit your old neighborhoods, any place you’ve wanted to visit. If you have a favorite loop that you do outside but it’s raining or dark, you can do that inside, and it really feels like you are moving along those roads. 

John Koetsier: Talk about that a little bit. We chatted earlier about it that you said it’s a very different experience having a screen in front of your face, like an everyday computer or maybe a screen in front of the home gym or whatever, versus actually the immersive experience of VR.

Eric Malafeew: Yeah. We think screens are the current technology that are trying to keep you from thinking about the fact that you’re just spinning on a bike. But virtual reality surrounds you completely, so you feel like you’re in a different world and it’s a world that we can create. So when people talk about first-person video games and then try VR, they can no longer call those things first-person, because VR is really the thing that surrounds you and immerses you. And it’s moving through those worlds that really motivated us to make VZfit, you know, because if we could make games and things that your pedaling is what got you up a hill, or around the bend, or to hide, or to race, then I think just the act of spinning on a bike becomes a thousand times more interesting. 

John Koetsier: It’s interesting, and I mentioned to you earlier that I think it was CES like literally four years ago — CES seems so weird right now, Consumer Electronics Show, a hundred thousand, two hundred/three hundred thousand people in Vegas all at once, it seems so weird in Coronavirus times, but — I peddled on a bike and I had like four or five screens around me and I was driving something through some loops or whatever, and I was sweating for the rest of the day at CES because it was fun, but it wasn’t as immersive because I could see and hear everything else around me at the conference.

Eric Malafeew: Right. You know, in VR we can not only do these kind of fantastic things, but just simple things. Like the time of day, you can be riding at midnight and it can be the sunset going over, like Arizona Canyon, and you’re literally surprised when you take the headset off. So it can be just a great mood improver, and exercise as we all know, helps healthy thinking and healthy eating. And so we just think a little exercise every day in a place you want to be is the motivation. 

John Koetsier: So talk about some research. Have you looked into it, do people exercise more? Do they exercise harder? Do they spend more time on the bike if they’re enjoying it? I mean, you’ve got the game version obviously, which somebody can play and maybe get lost in. And you’ve also got the experience, the just going-through-the-world-somewhere version. What happens to your intensity of exercise and the longevity of your exercise, and maybe even the retention, like how many times you come back to the exercise on a weekly basis with that? 

Eric Malafeew: Yeah, we do have some numbers. We’ve been at this for five years and you know, the reason we got into it of course, we perceived that all of those things were true, but then subsequently we’ve had studies done. So Brunel University is in London, they just performed a study and published it that said, they looked at different types of motivations for exercise — so music and virtual reality are the two I’m going to talk about — and they found that while music by itself everyone knows, added about 8% enjoyment, but virtual reality which they measured using VirZOOM, added 26% enjoyment.

And so that translates into longer rides and wanting to get back on it more. We had a partnership with Life Fitness who makes a lot of bikes and our stats were about two times the length of activity on a stationary bike using VirZOOM compared to without. So these are all just things that back up what our customers tell us and our numbers tell us, which is people are happy to get on VirZOOM and VZfit and try it, you know, week after week, day after day. 

John Koetsier: So that’s super interesting because before Coronavirus, I was in the gym five or six days a week. You know, sometimes cardio but more often lifting, and for cardio I’d often run stairs or something like that at a local stadium here that’s open, you can go run the stairs. It’s great, it’s low impact. Sometimes you’d forget your ear buds, and that was a big difference in a workout and how much perceived energy and willpower it took to finish a workout without the music, right? And so what you’re telling me is that being in a virtual environment, whether you’re playing a game or you’re exploring some amazing place, is much more intense than that even in getting you and keeping you into the workout without requiring so much more motivation. 

Eric Malafeew: Yeah. We don’t even think of it as requiring it, our customers tell us that they don’t even realize they’ve gotten a workout. You know, so it goes beyond a distraction even, because you feel like you’re fighting for your life or you’re flying, and there’s some games that we make that are really exciting that way for the thrill seekers. And then there’s other games where people just want to meditate and, you know, they get that runner’s high from exercising. And that translates into the enjoyment they get out of the VR.

And so it just feels like you are doing the same kind of thing you would outside, but x10 because you can do all these fantastic things. And then on top of it, we like to add gameplay so that your brain is doing something else while your body is doing it. So you get that okay, to move forward you’ve got to pedal, but there’s more than just the scenery, like there’s strategy in a lot of these games. We came from game development so we can’t get rid of that entirely. 

John Koetsier: Well it’s really interesting, and when I first saw this I thought, wow, that’s a perfect thing for COVID-19 right? You get the home gym, you don’t have to go into the gym, but there’s a long history here actually. You’ve been doing this for a while. You mentioned about five years and there’s actually kind of a long history that you have in terms of taking a game out of the machine and putting it in the real world. So you did that with Guitar Hero. It reminds me a little bit of a Wii Sports or the Nintendo Wii, right, where you got your body involved in the game. Microsoft had something like that for a while as well, I think they’ve deprecated it…

Eric Malafeew: Yeah exactly, which we worked on as well. We made dance games for that. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yes, exactly. That’s just a really, really interesting way of involving the body in what otherwise is a very sedentary, you know, here-are-my-thumbs-moving type of game. But you’ve been doing this for a while, it wasn’t something you came out with oh, hey COVID-19 is here, we need to create some kind of game so people can exercise. You’ve been doing it for a while. 

Eric Malafeew: Yeah, it’s been five years. We got started right when the excitement over consumer VR was starting. So, and our first games were on the RIFT and the Vive and the PlayStation VR. And we actually made our own bikes because there weren’t the same kind of smart bikes that you can get now that have that built in. So what happened, you know, COVID is a tragedy, but a year ago we made a new product called VZfit that is based on these new all-in-one headsets. So first of all, they’re cheaper, have no wires, easier to use. And we got out of making bikes, we made sensors, and now we’re working with all sorts of third party fitness sensors and devices. So that definitely benefits people stuck at home and really wanting to get out. 

John Koetsier: I think that all-in-one headset is unbelievably critical. I’m pretty sure I spent around a thousand dollars on a PSVR, the PlayStation VR headset, which I think has been out of the box about three or four times, honestly, maybe five or six. But the Oculus Quest, for me, is the first headset that I feel like I can throw it on, I can immerse myself, I can play a game for five minutes, a half an hour or something like that — it’s not as quick as pulling out your phone and doing a quick mobile game, a hyper casual game, it’s more engaged than that, and engaging — but it’s the first headset for me that really enabled that. 

Eric Malafeew: It’s absolutely the right blend of price, performance and capability. The user factor is the thing that the industry just didn’t get for so long. We know a lot of people who were involved in the creation of those first headsets and it was all about solving the problems of the past, which were like a slow reaction and poor resolution, and it didn’t feel like you were looking around the world. So suddenly you had these headsets that could do that, but you’re right, they’re attached to PCs and computers, and had wires and they were expensive.

So, all the things we wanted to exercise with it at home, the price difference was like just kind of out of league. And there were thankfully early adopters who did use it and helped us make our games better and gave us a base. But yeah, I mean, I think the Quest is the first thing to just hit it at the right price point. It’s basically a console, you don’t even have to plug a phone in and out, you just need the Quest and you need a little room. So we love it and we love where it’s going. 

John Koetsier: Yes, absolutely. There’s a new version rumored to come out in six months or something like that. I’ll be looking forward to that, maybe a little better resolution and a few other things there. It’s really interesting that you’ve been in consumer VR for as long as you have been. So you mentioned you came in at sort of the peak of interest. You’ve obviously gone through the trough of disillusionment which has been very, very real.

I was a hundred percent there as I’m struggling with this thousand dollar PSVR, by the time you got all the pieces and components in the PlayStation itself, which is actually a cheaper way than, you know, I’m a Mac person, so I wasn’t going to buy a PC and go RIFT or something like that. But, you might be right on the backup swing here with this product. Very, very interesting. Talk about some of the sensor components. So I don’t have the proper sensor, there’s some sort of cadence sensor that you need to work, but you’re also getting rid of that requirement. Is that correct? 

Eric Malafeew: Yeah, we’re heading that direction. So, right now we work on two Oculus headsets, the Quest, we’re talking about which is great for us and for lots of games, and we also work on the Go, which is even less price and is a great thing if you’re just going to VZfit with it. The other thing you need is a bike, and you need a bike that can talk to the game that can tell the headset how fast you’re pedaling. The headset itself tells you how you’re leaning, so your steering is taken care of there.

The controller has a button, so you can shoot things and pick things up, but we want your pedaling to be the exercise that’s driving all our games. So the kind of easiest way to get into that is with a $30 cadence sensor, it’s about this big and it sticks on the crank of any bike and when it spins it tells over Bluetooth how fast you’re gone, simple as that. But we’re also getting to work now on smart bikes. You know, almost anything you buy now has electronics and Bluetooth built into it. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Eric Malafeew: So bikes are no exception and these things can tell you the speed, they can also let you control the resistance, and they can tell you other things like what kind of power you’re putting in. So you can get more and better workout stats and more realism, like when you’re going up a hill you’ll feel it. So the last point is where we’re headed. So, we think VR workouts are so tremendous that we want them to be available to anybody just with a VR headset. So we’re looking into ways that you just with your own body, you know, doing like full body workouts could drive you around these different places. And we love the prototypes we’ve made so far and can’t wait to share them. 

John Koetsier: Wonderful. I’m looking forward to that. Obviously one thing that comes to mind when you’re talking about home gyms, bikes and fitness, is Peloton.  And they’ve had an interesting past few months as well, a boom, some controversy around some advertising. Talk about that as competition, or is that just a different option? 

Eric Malafeew:  Well, we think of Peloton is where the state of the art is now, like in terms of everybody’s awareness, they’ve done a great job marketing to high end households and they brought something that’s familiar to you already, spin classes, home. And so VZfit is more of a leap, you know, it’s going into a different kind of exercise that you didn’t even know existed. And so it’s taken us a little while to kind of build recognition and understanding of what that is, but fortunately smart bikes and VR headsets are coming along. What we love to say about Peloton is you can upgrade it to VZfit for a quarter of the price, and if there’s people in their family who might not enjoy spin classes, but they will love peddling a Pegasus and riding around the world.

John Koetsier:  I’m going to place myself in that category. I have done precisely one spin class when we did it as a part of a startup that I was consulting with in San Francisco. And yeah, I got out-voted and we went to, I forget what it’s called, one of those spin companies that is probably not in existence anymore because nobody can come in there, and it was a good workout, but yeah, not my idea of super fun. Excellent. 

Eric Malafeew: We, you know, besides the experiences are all about having multiplayer interactions as well. So, while you’re watching an instructor in a class we think being able to interact with your friends and ride around with them, and compete, and cooperate, and just chat, is great exercise in and of itself.

John Koetsier: Agree, agree. Okay, cool. So I want to do the TechFirst 10-in-5. And this is ten questions in five minutes or less about tech that you own, that you wear, or that you’re interested in. So your favorite piece of tech gear in your house? 

Eric Malafeew: I would have to say at the moment it’s a new electric bike. It’s really changed the way that I got to work and just experience the outdoors nowadays… and it’s motorized, so that makes it even more fun.

John Koetsier: Those are huge right now. Very, very interesting, I’ve looked a little bit, interestingly at some of those. So, can’t do without it tech that you wear?

Eric Malafeew: All right, would we consider contacts to be tech, because in a way, you know, they’re of tech. 

John Koetsier: They’re of tech.

Eric Malafeew: I of course have an iWatch and love it to death. I never wore watches without it, and so when I realized it could go under water, it also made it that much more fun for me. 

John Koetsier: Nice, nice. Yeah I got into watches a couple of years before the Apple watch came out and then I’ve never worn any of my watches since. I have the Apple watch because I need it, it’s health oriented, right? Just the other day, there was a farmer who fell 20 feet and he would have died if his watch hadn’t sent out a phone call. So, Android or iOS? 

Eric Malafeew: I’m a split decision there because I use iOS but I develop mainly for Android, because if new technologies like they are, are only on Android right now.

John Koetsier: Yup, interesting. Okay, good. EV or gas? 

Eric Malafeew: We have a hybrid and I definitely think that hybrids are, well, the same as EVs, they’re both producing an electric drive train and… however it gets its electricity that’s definitely the way of the future. 

John Koetsier: I’ve always balked at a hybrid because I thought I have the complexity of both in the car and part of it, we have a Leaf as well as an old gas vehicle, and you know just the simplicity of it, the quietness of it, and the fact that there’s only… there’s like, what is it, 10, 25, 100 moving parts there versus 10,000 or something like that on a gas car. 

Eric Malafeew: Yeah. Well the drivetrain is the big technological leap, driven by motors directly. You know, an engine in a hybrid is basically just a big battery charger. You can take crappy gas, you don’t need maximum efficiency out of it, and gas is hard to beat for energy density. So… 

John Koetsier: Yes, but you only have about 33% efficiency of getting the energy out of it. Anyways this 10-in-5 is not going to be 10-in-5, we’re having all these discussions. It’s great. 

Eric Malafeew: No worries. 

John Koetsier: It’s my fault. Mac or Windows? 

Eric Malafeew: Windows. 

John Koetsier: Okay, no worries. This is the political one, GIF or JIF? 

Eric Malafeew: Oh GIF, for sure. 

John Koetsier: Dude, perfect, everybody has been GIFs so far. That’s wonderful. Your favorite tech news source?

Eric Malafeew: I still read Slashdot. 

John Koetsier: Old school, wow, I like it. Awesome. Self-driving car, or do you want to drive yourself forever? 

Eric Malafeew: I fall into the drive yourself forever camp, as much as I respect and even worked on self-driving tech. Every vacation I look for a motorcycle rental, you know, for me, it’s all about getting out and exploring, so. 

John Koetsier: Wow, okay. Elon Musk offers you a free trip to Mars, all expenses paid. Are you in or you out? 

Eric Malafeew: I’m not in for myself, but it sounds like a good VZfit game. I’ve worked on a Mars Rover before, so I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Mars. I feel like I’ve been there.

John Koetsier: Nice, nice. Okay. I want to go, I’m in for that. And then this will be an interesting one because you’re hybrid in terms of your mobile OS — Alexa, Hey Google, or Hey Siri?

Eric Malafeew: You can probably predict this, all three, it’s a real problem in our house because you have to know what room you’re in, speak directly to it.

John Koetsier: Yup, that’s challenging. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Eric. It’s been a pleasure. 

Eric Malafeew: Same here, John. Thanks. 

John Koetsier: You bet. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst, my name is John Koetsier, appreciate you being along for the ride.

Whatever platform you’re on, hey, like, subscribe, share, comment, all of the above. If you’re on the podcast later on and you like it please rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help. Thank you. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.