Now that there is virtual-reality golf, baseball, basketball, hang gliding, Indy Car racing and even spaceship navigation, the virtual-reality market is beginning to suffer from virtual overcrowding. But just when it seemed that the computer gurus could go no further in their quest to recode our mundane lives and transform them into jazzier, more pixilated existences, some software sorcerers have come up with a gimmick that sounds tantalizing to even the most sedentary: virtual-reality exercise.
The very idea conjures up images of paunchy football fans sitting comfortably in front of their TV sets. During halftime these couch potatoes strap on high-tech goggles, and without having to move a muscle, they feel cellulite melt magically from their bodies. But this scenario is not what Tectrix, a fitness-equipment manufacturer based in Irvine, Calif., and CyberGear, Inc., a software company in Cambridge, Mass., teamed up to bring to life. Instead they have just introduced the VR Bike, a recumbent exercise bike that features a 486/66 PC with 8 megs of RAM, a CD-ROM drive and a 20-inch color monitor. All of this enables the stationary cyclist to cruise through the virtually real community of Sweeney Town, which is named after Tectrix's president and vice president, Mike and Jim Sweeney, respectively.
"There are three barriers to fitness," says Tectrix's marketing director, Steve Russell. "Fitness is hard work, fitness takes time, and fitness is boring." The VR Bike's designers addressed each barrier and, Tectrix hopes, eliminated it. "This makes the time fly by so fast that fitness is fun," Russell says.
Although some virtual-reality products are more virtual than real—including many that have been shipped hastily to stores in an attempt to tap a lucrative market driven by the Nintendo mentality—the VR Bike is one techno-toy that creates a satisfyingly realistic experience. Besides, it's safe to say that pedaling through Sweeney Town beats trudging for 20 minutes on a stair climber while devising elaborate schemes to prevent your Walkman from crashing to the floor.
From the moment you sit on the bicycle's seat, you are in the virtual-reality world. As you start to pedal, music composed especially for the VR Bike begins to play softly. The tempo changes as your pace increases, and a fan located just below the color monitor generates a cool breeze that washes over your face. As you speed up, so does the fan.
Once you pass the statue of the town's founder, J. Horatio Sweeney, at the city limits, your aerobic adventure begins. Steering by tilting your seat left or right, you can travel along one of four bike paths. On any of these you can join in a road race with three computer-generated competitors who seem hell-bent on running you off the road. Or you can leave the paths and explore hills, valleys, a lake (sadly, the bike lacks a water spritzer), an old graveyard (where Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, among others, rest in peace) and the Cakes & Ale Tavern.
And that's not all. Besides providing the exercise-machine data that now seems dc rigueur—calories burned, elapsed time, revolutions per minute and miles traveled—the VR Bike can be linked to other VR Bikes so that as many as eight riders can tour the town simultaneously and even draft off each other.
As you might expect, such an adventure doesn't come cheap. Each VR Bike costs $7,495, and the first shipments are due to arrive in health clubs this month. Meanwhile the inventors at Tectrix and CyberGear are convinced that the bike will be a success and already have plans for a virtual-reality stepping machine, although it's undecided whether the stepping motion will simulate hiking, flying or powering a car like that driven by Fred Flintstone. "It's still in the initial phases," says Tony Koselka, CyberGear's vice president of engineering. "We're trying to decide the mechanics of it, like whether it should tilt."
No matter how diverting these visionaries make their machines, don't imagine that their virtual world will ever eclipse the real thing. When Peter Lehman, CyberGear's art director and one who bicycles to work, is asked whether he would rather ride a mountain bike along the Charles River or take the VR Bike on a spin around Sweeney Town, he doesn't hesitate to answer: "Oh, most definitely a mountain bike. But, then again, mid-February in Boston...."
PETER READ MILLER
Mike Sweeney races Denice Robinson through his "home" town.