The Oculus Rift VR headset will be released in the spring of 2016.
The Oculus Rift VR headset will be released in the spring of 2016. (Photo: Oculus Rift)

Virtual Reality, Coming to a Spin Class Near You. Someday.

Cameras that shoot 360-degree footage could make virtual fitness classes a reality. But the tech’s not quite there yet.

The Oculus Rift VR headset will be released in the spring of 2016.

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Step aside, living room exercise videos and telecast spin classes. The combo of virtual-reality headsets and 360-degree cameras is being heralded as the next big thing in fitness, putting users in the middle of the action, be it at a kickboxing or yoga class.

The concept sounds simple and pretty cool: Don a VR headset that makes it appear as though you’re in a real workout class, complete with the ability to look around at your fellow classmates. “People can feel like they’re in the room,” says Sean Ramsay, the chief innovation officer* of the company behind a 360-degree camera called Bublcam that can film the footage for this type of immersive experience.

Those cameras are a key piece of the VR puzzle. To make immersive videos, you need a camera that can record in all directions, and you need a headset for a hands-free look at that footage. The latter have gotten more accessible and less expensive (Google announced its Cardboard last year, and Facebook-owned Oculus Rift will start selling its headset next spring), but capturing the footage remained expensive. Now, companies like Bublcam (which began shipping product in August), 360fly, and Giroptic 360 are selling cameras to capture 360-degree video for less than $800. That’s still not cheap, but it’s a good deal more affordable than the former pro-caliber setups, which cost thousands of dollars.

Theoretically, cheaper cameras plus cheaper headsets will entice more people to make more videos, including fitness-specific ones, which in turn will get more people watching them. YouTube’s #360video platform, which launched in March before most consumers could get their hands on a camera, already hosts more than 150 videos from companies including Discovery Channel and MTV. But there are still no established 360-degree workout channels online right now. Ramsay says he expects that to change as more 360-degree cameras find their way into the hands of fitness instructors who want to set themselves apart by adopting the new technology.

Some people, like Alan Jamil, a coach at Dewith’s Boxing Studio in Mississauga, Ontario, are already experimenting with the new tech. “It’s a lot of fun to take advantage of the different angles,” says Jamil, who filmed a shadowboxing session with a Bublcam. He believes 360-degree videos are useful for both including people who can’t make it to the studio and critiquing the students who can. “We can play the video back and see what someone’s doing wrong and what someone’s doing right from a lot of angles. I actually used it on myself.”

At the moment, the immersive workout footage can only be pre-recorded, and then uploaded to sites like YouTube’s 360-video platform. “Live-streaming VR is difficult—it costs a lot of money—so it’s probably not going to become mainstream for another year or two,” Ramsay says. By then, he envisions we’ll have fitness classes like those you can stream now, but with real-time video and audio input so you can ask the instructor questions. “We’re also working on two-way versions where you have a headset, but you also have a Bublcam in your home [so] the instructor can see you. We could start seeing that stuff next year,” Ramsay says.

As far as full 3D immersion goes (where you could physically walk through a yoga room), Ramsay doesn’t believe that’ll come for another three or more years. “That’s tricky,” he says. “In order to make it feel like your actual body is inside of an area, you need a 3D scanner to scan your body while you’re exercising, then put your 3D version inside the environment.”

It seems unlikely that yoga studios or spin classes will start emptying out as the technology gains more of a foothold. But we are excited to take our at-home fitness experience to the next level.

*This story has been updated to change Sean Ramsay's title.

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Lead Photo: Oculus Rift