Who needs virtual reality biking? (Not me)

Taking a spin on a virtual reality bike experience proved more painful than it first looked...
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What are the best things about riding a bike? Why, it’s being out there, wind in your hair, sniffing the breeze. It’s about nailing a corner, feeling acceleration, dancing up a hill out of the saddle.

It’s the movement of ground under wheels, air brushing past your ears and an ever changing vista all around you. That it typically takes place out in the real world rather than a gym or a stadium or the fake fronts of cyberspace is, to me, the very essence of cycling’s appeal.

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Why then would I want to try virtual reality cycling?

Well, Norwegian start-up, Activetainment, have been working hard at their Ebove project for three years. They are both real bikers and tech wizards, and have enough belief in their idea to have developed a prototype.

It was sitting there at a bike show in front of me.

And the real biking alternative at that moment was dicing with traffic on the central London roads outside.

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Activetainment developed this idea because they saw a gap in the market – particularly at gyms. They reason indoor cycling could be more engaging and more of an all round core workout than other options such as spin classes or turbo sessions in front of race simulation videos.

“In short it’s the world’s most awesome bike simulator,” Jan-Arild Svello, one of the company’s co-founders, told us. “We’re trying to make the indoor exercise experience more like the outdoor by bringing in elements from gaming, virtual reality and combining them with the fitness experience.”

I can’t argue with the core workout. With some exaggeration, the rig leans and vibrates with each corner and obstacle and even rides forward a little bit as you top a hill or drop onto a descent. I mean it doesn’t really feel like real biking –what would?- but it certainly hints towards it.

First I tried a road setting before switching to mountain bike where I could ride far more fearlessly than I would in real life. I jumped some twenty-metre gaps hidden deep in a virtual forest. Even when I stacked the landing, it didn’t hurt one bit. The bike just vibrated a little. It was fun and felt more like a sit-on game in an amusement arcade than some torture device from the gym.

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I can’t say the same, though, when I moved from riding the rig with a flat screen monitor, to the ‘real-deal’ VR set-up with an Oculus Rift headset on.

It is really is quite staggering how a bit of manipulation of your senses sucks you in. The virtual landscape fills your field of vision and corresponds with your head movements. Somewhere in the back of your mind you know you’re in an old sorting office in Holborn. But at the same time you feel deeply present in an extreme bike park that is really just a load of ones and zeros on a hard drive.

Activetainment admit that running the system with the headset still needs some fine-tuning.

I’d suggest unplugging.

Within a couple of pedal strokes, the bike suddenly jolted, threw me to the left and sent a spasm of pain up my back. My real back. Back in virtual reality land I was careering off a cliff. I reminded myself that this wasn’t actually happening as I plummeted towards the jungle floor below and tried to smile about how convincing it all was. But I felt too nauseous. I’m not sure this is the kind of “sick experience” Svello is trying to convey in the video (above).

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I’d probably only been on the machine for 15 seconds when I whipped off the headset and gulped for a huge breath of air. The relief was similar to waking from a bad dream. After taking a moment to compose my thoughts, I put the headset back on convinced I was ready for it.

I wasn’t. I still couldn’t control the bike. I felt sick again. And however much I told myself that it wasn’t real, I felt a genuine sense of alarm as I careered into trees and bashed my virtual head on rocks.

It didn’t take me long to decide to give up on virtual reality biking forever. It had its thrills, the immersion was convincing but the experience overall was a jerky descent into hell.

The subsequent flare up of an old back injury was very real and kept me off the bike for weeks.

Virtual reality biking? I’ll stick to the real thing, thank you.