I have seen the future of fitness, and that is walking on the moon.
More like a light trot, to be precise. On a brisk Tuesday afternoon in November, I watched Sid Raman, founder of gym startup Roam149, run where no one had run before—on the rocky surface of the moon. The treadmill beneath his sneakers bobbed up and down to match the jagged slope of the terrain displayed in front of him on the large television screen.
Raman used hand movements not unlike the signals on a bicycle to speed up and slow down the treadmill—similar arm movements shifted his perspective on the screen and allowed him to virtually explore the moon while running in place. At the right angle, you could see the arc of the massive blue sphere—Earth—shining in the distance.
It was peaceful and completely strange and unlike any treadmill exercise I had ever seen.
An avid trail runner, Raman started working on Roam149 in 2020 and has since become a passion project that dominates his waking hours. He holds patents for two components of the company’s treadmill exercise “pods”: a unique treadmill that tilts on a central fulcrum, and the software behind the on-screen environments. Outside the Roam149 concept gym in Chelsea, signs on the street encourage passers-by to experience “VR Workouts” including urban walking, marathon training and, of course, running to the moon. “Enter the Metaverse!” proclaims the website.
Whether pods “count” as part of a metaversion is a matter of semantics for Raman. Critics, even his own engineers, bemoaned him: “There’s no Oculus Rift here. This may be mixed reality, but it’s not VR.”
“Right now, the meta version is like the Wild West,” Raman told The Daily Beast. “You want to claim a piece of land, put a fence around it and call it whatever you want. So we’re a ‘metaverse gym’ and I’m proud to say that we can have a concept that really matches what the metaverse is supposed to be.”
Raman isn’t alone in trying to bring fitness to the metaverse—the epitome of “meta” and “universe,” which means pretty much whatever you want it to mean, but which Mark Zuckerberg and others in tech are aggressively promoting as a digital space of virtual worlds and social interaction. At one end, fitness companies are beginning to experiment with virtual and augmented reality, spurred in part by changes in consumer behavior during the pandemic. On the other hand, digital gaming companies are expanding into health and fitness with big ideas of a connected fitness meta (which includes NFTs, because of course they do).
It’s too early to tell whether there’s enough consumer demand for these technologies to support the entire digital ecosystem—not to mention issues of advertiser interest and funding. But if Roam149 is any indication, the fitness metaverse could engage new users and make the exercise experience more accessible and immersive.
Raman is betting on that future—literally. Started Roam149 with his own savings.
“So far it has been self-financed. Incredibly smart or incredibly stupid – time will tell,” he said with a smile.
“If Roam149 is any indication, the fitness metaverse could engage new users and make the exercise experience more accessible and immersive.“
Lisa Edwards has guided companies through several radical transformations of the technology industry to date. After graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in computer science and computer information systems in the late 1990s, she worked on a team at Motorola tasked with bringing watchable content to mobile phones.
“People thought our team was a little crazy — they thought people would never watch movies on their phones,” she told The Daily Beast. Motorola’s team was fired before iTunes debuted to make media downloads easier and better mobile hardware to enable on-the-go viewing. But Edwards has since continued to work on new technologies.
Now, as director of digital innovation for Les Mills International, a New Zealand-based fitness company, she helped create the VR boxing app that launched in February for Meta Quest 2.
Connecting the worlds Les Mills already inhabited — in-person and on-demand fitness classes — with metaverse and VR technologies was a chance for the company to reach customers looking for a new way to exercise and become an early adopter in a new sector, Edwards said. “Fitness in the virtual reality space has already been done on a small scale, but it’s always been game companies trying to dabble in fitness, never a fitness company working with someone who knew how to make a game for VR,” she said. he said.
Gamified fitness has been a successful game console feature dating back to 2009’s Wii Fit, one of the best-selling video games of all time. But the yoga, strength training, balancing and aerobics in Wii Fit don’t replace traditional exercise. Multiple analyzes showed that the players’ heart rates did not climb as high as recommended for cardiorespiratory fitness, and none of the exercises could be considered high-intensity activities.
In contrast, Les Mills’ BODYCOMBAT VR app was designed to simulate workouts and games first, with points added afterward, Edwards said. This means that users must perform a combination of punches and squats to complete the levels, although an accurate punch may yield more points than a well-timed squat.
“We’ve designed our workouts in a very similar way to what we do offline, so it’s not just about what gets you the most points if you hit the hardest, it’s about what actually gets you fitter, stronger and gives you a full body workout bodies,” she said.
The development team needed to tweak several features that would work well in an offline environment, such as creating new types of punches to reduce monotony and removing jumping from training. So far, the app appears to be a commercial success: The company says it has tens of thousands of monthly active users, and BODYCOMBAT launched on a second VR headset platform last month.
What’s most surprising from Edwards’ point of view is that the app’s user base isn’t exclusively Les Mills gamers and superfans, although there are plenty of both. Some of the people downloading BODYCOMBAT bought VR headsets for their kids and co-opted the device once they realized they could use it for home workouts.
“I thought some of the audience at Les Mills would be untouchable because of the friction of having to buy a headset, but when they have it at home because they have teenagers, all of a sudden you just have to buy the game,” Edwards said.
To be clear, the company has no intention of fully migrating to the meta version. Rather, like hybrid workplaces that allowed employees to work from home some days and go to the office on others, Edwards said Les Mills wants to meet consumers where they are. Gym-goers expect fitness at their fingertips, but they also crave personal connection and coaching—and right now, there’s no single solution that meets both desires.
You’d be sorely mistaken if you thought I’d be content to watch Raman on his patented treadmill without trying it out for myself. Once I was “boarded” into the pod and shown the controls, I experimented walking and running through a variety of virtual environments – an outdoor track, a forest, and a grassland trail. The treadmill went up and down faster than any other I’ve tried and I was advised not to drift too far back or the center fulcrum might tip me to extremes. Each environment has unique and adjustable highs and lows – the lunar scene, Raman said proudly, made the treadmill “dance like a bucking bronco.”
Outside, I worked my legs and core on what felt like a cross between a treadmill, a stair climber, and a BOSU ball; internally, it was also different than a typical workout. I didn’t feel immersed in nature like I did when I climbed Mount Everest in VR, but I also didn’t do what I always do in the gym: body-checking.
Mirrors are more than an aesthetic wall for gyms – many forms of exercise, including weightlifting, yoga and dance, require you to assess your body position and adjust it to avoid injury. But for many gym-goers, including University of British Columbia health and exercise researcher Kathleen Martin Ginis, looking in the mirror can be fraught with anxiety.
“I was working out in gyms and sitting there on my bike, running or walking and staring at myself,” Martin Ginis told The Daily Beast. “I realized that the longer I was on the treadmill, the more critical I was of myself.
In 2003, Martin Ginis led a seminal study that linked the presence of mirrors during physical activity to 58 women’s feelings about their bodies. Participants exercised for 20 minutes while sitting in front of either a mirror or a wall. Martin Ginis and her co-authors found that regardless of the women’s initial level of concern about body image, those who exercised in front of a mirror felt significantly worse about themselves than those who did not.
In VR, where you can be embodied by an avatar, or in the treadmill pod metaverse, users don’t have to focus so strongly on their perceived shortcomings.
“Given what we know about exercise gamification and distraction and how it affects people’s responses to exercise, this could be a really positive thing for a segment of the population,” said Martin Ginis.
Still, more work needs to be done to fairly realize these benefits—owning a pair of headphones or paying for a gym membership requires not only disposable income, but also free time.
Raman, unsurprisingly, is full of ideas for expanding the reach of the fitness metaverse. He’s working on adapting the pod experience for wheelchair users and even showed me a prototype warming device that allows users to walk through a virtual supermarket. One day, he imagines, it could function as a real store, so people wouldn’t have to choose between grocery shopping and going to the gym.
I don’t know if that vision sounds more like dystopian science fiction than a benevolent prediction of the future, and neither does Raman. The legacy of Roam149 technology, he told me at the end of my visit, will depend on how and whether people use it.
“I’m a tech geek. I’ve thrown everything at the wall – we’ll see what sticks.’