VirZoom is one of my favourite virtual reality controllers so far — an exercise bike VR controller aiming to bring fitness into VR. The team at VirZoom have put some really strong work into getting this done right. Eric Malafeew, the CTO and co-founder of VirZoom, took the time to share how they went about building a VR exercise bike and lessons others looking to make VR controllers might find handy.

The VirZoom VR exercise bike

The VirZoom VR exercise bike

What inspired the idea of VirZoom? What was the spark that motivated you guys to make it a reality?

My business partner Eric Janszen (who we call EJ) and I came to it from very different angles. He’s an investor with executive and analytics experience. He had been thinking about a VR exercise bike for years while watching previous generations of VR go bust. I’d been developing games and simulations using new controller technologies for all that time, and knew after trying the Oculus DK1 that I wanted to make something great for VR.

EJ and I got to talking after a motorcycle ride about how fun that would be in VR, and how pedalling it could help solve the VR locomotion problem. I built a prototype in a weekend that confirmed how natural it felt, and showed that wearing an HMD is fine with heavy exercise. But it also showed we had to go a lot further to solve VR locomotion which would put my background in dynamics and controls to work.

As early trailblazers for this concept of a VR exercise bike, you surely had plenty of unique challenges to overcome! How did you overcome them?

“We came, we saw, we kicked it’s ass”
– Bill Murray, Ghostbusters

I’ll start with a non-technical one. We’ve all seen investment money go into new VR hardware, but hardware is only half the solution, so you’re starting to see investment in the games now. Our proposition of hardware and software was even harder to grasp in 2014, but EJ’s investment group staked us after seeing our early solutions to VR locomotion and plans for selling the hardware to create a VR fitness market. Without them we could never have converted to full time or hired a team to make the games and production hardware in time for the launch of commercial VR headsets a few months from now.

Our technical challenges were to solve VR locomotion, to create a new form of entertainment and exercise in VR, and to create the ideal bike controller that was affordable, compact, quiet, and stable.

We discovered lots of things can trigger discomfort in VR. The biggest one is lack of correlation between accelerations your inner ear feels of your actual self sitting still, and the visuals you are seeing of your virtual self moving around. We solve that with a patent-pending set of special controls and physics, developed after months of figuring out how to keep those in sync while providing motion freedom.

Two other VR discomfort triggers are not feeling in control and plain old vertigo, which we solve carefully by avatar and level design. Note that some people’s VR fears are other people’s VR thrills so we have a variety of games to suit all tastes.

Our game design and fitness framework was challenging because people see 3D video and think we’ll just do virtual tourism. The problem is you can’t control your motion in 3D video, and with all the power of VR and our natural locomotion we wanted to soar, dive, shoot, race, and catch in ways that are larger than life. So we set about to make arcade-style games that you play repeatedly to earn powerups and other upgrades, with ghost competitions, weekly leaderboards, and head-to-head multiplayer to keep things interesting.

The biggest course correction we made was from regular bikes with steerable handlebars on trainers, which we could control safely in VR but many people couldn’t, to fixed stationary bikes with steering-by-leaning that works for everyone. EJ proceeded to discover the xbike design and find us the perfect manufacturing partner, willing and able to make all our sensor and stability modifications.

Do you have any advice for developers and entrepreneurs considering getting into the VR space with their own unique VR controller?

My advice is to respect VR as an entirely new medium. A lot of your intuition based on previous games will be wrong, so playtest frequently and evaluate without ego. From the beginning we used every family member and friend, and later every show-goer and press critic to test our games and controllers as they were being developed, to hear what we weren’t thinking or feeling ourselves. We also formed an alpha group of experienced developer and industry friends that have provided long-term testing and invaluable feedback on what keeps them motivated.

People need as low friction as possible to enjoy your experience, as VR already demands a lot of wires and setup. We became adamant about VirZoom being designed to just get on, place the HMD over your head, and go. Having to suit up, plug things in, and recharge things are a drag if you have to do them every time. Also respect how much room a user has to operate, and how to deal with the tether of desktop/console VR. VirZoom allows you to be active without these being an issue.

Does the VirZoom have an SDK or any way for developers to start to build for the platform in anticipation of its launch? Will there be a developer ecosystem of VirZoom apps?

It’s in our roadmap for 2016! But we know you cannot just build new controllers and expect devs to come and are on a mission to show people what’s possible with it first. As the VirZoom market grows we definitely want other developers to join in, and in building our games we are very mindfully separating out the SDK for future devs. It will not only expose our bike controls but our motion tech, menu systems, and fitness ecosystem. We haven’t yet figured out terms but encourage interested developers to contact us. We could see games being developed exclusively for VirZoom or just incorporate VirZoom controls and tech.

Note that we are committed to delivering our content to all major VR platforms that support HMD position tracking, including the Rift, the Vive, and PSVR. Using Unity helps greatly to bridge these experiences, but each one has unique storefront requirements and capabilities that devs will have to manage to reach our full market.

Is there a developer edition or any program for developers looking to get their hands on a VirZoom?

We are currently accepting pre-orders for VirZoom bikes that for a limited time will include a lifetime membership to all our games and fitness and multiplayer ecosystem. Such early adopters will join our long-term alpha testers who have guided the shape of our games and tech for many months, and will most influence our plans for developer support.

What was the weirdest bug your team experienced in any of the VR apps you put together?

Once we were playing with the scale of our horse avatar and shrunk it to the size of a fly. Our physics was designed to work with such scaling, and luckily so was the Oculus SDK which correspondingly shrunk the range of your head movement in game. Combined they truly gave the feeling of being that small, so like many good bugs we plan to feature it with a bug-sized game in the future!

Any final thoughts or words of advice for eager VR developers out there?

Start small and be different! We believe people will want VR for the visceral feelings of happiness and excitement it can bring, and we’re not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom that you cannot move around large worlds in VR without getting sick. But making something new takes a lot of time, not just to create but to socialize and find a market, so we’ve developed very much inward-out and managed scope and priorities to keep to our big picture goals and timelines.

Finally I’d like to thank our amazing team, without whom VirZoom would still be on the drawing board. Each one of them has world class game, hardware, and business talents but most important is how everyone works together. Cheesy but true!

So many thanks to Eric for taking the time to share his knowledge and experience with us, especially during the ever so busy time of CES 2016! To find out more about VirZoom and pre-order one for yourself, head over to the VirZoom website.

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