San Francisco State tests benefits of workouts in virtual reality games

[Quantifying the health benefits of different activities in virtual environments could be valuable in promoting presence; the original version of this story from the San Francisco Chronicle includes two more images. –Matthew]

[Image: Aaron Stanton exercises using a virtual reality headset at San Francisco State University on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Photo: James Tensuan, Special to the Chronicle.]

S.F. State tests benefits of workouts in virtual reality games

By Nanette Asimov
September 5, 2017

You enter the boxing ring and face your opponent. He glares at you, his bulging pecs glistening under the arena lights. Pow! You nail him with a right hook to the jaw. He cross punches. You duck. You jab. He reels.

Sweat drips down your face. Your heart races as the crowd roars — only there is no crowd, and you’ve never actually left home or suffered a blow. You’re standing in your living room, maybe your garage, playing a virtual-reality video game.

And getting a great workout.

How great? That’s the question motivating researchers in San Francisco State University’s kinesiology lab who have paired up with a virtual reality entrepreneur to measure — for the first time — the aerobic benefits of specific games more often associated with the slothful obsessions of youth.

“If you’d asked me if virtual reality was something I’d do my master’s thesis on, I would have said that was a complete joke,” said Dulce Gomez, who was a graduate student hunting for a thesis in kinesiology last year just as the entrepreneur came to San Francisco State hunting for a researcher. “I thought of couch potato people playing these video games in the middle of the night.

“But these (virtual reality) video games require a person to be standing and doing whole-body movement,” Gomez said. “They require individuals to complete a task to win, and they have to move their arms and twist and turn.”

In one archery simulation game, “you have to start squatting and moving a lot faster to avoid getting hit. If you’re hit twice, you have to restart the game. And students don’t want to do that,” she laughed.

Using San Francisco State’s $40,000 “metabolic cart” machine, Gomez spent the last academic year testing 40 students’ maximum oxygen consumption and heart rate during strenuous exercise. She then compared the numbers against those achieved by the same people playing three virtual reality games. Her study found that playing the boxing game Thrill of the Fight burns 15 calories a minute, the metabolic equivalent of sprinting. Playing the archery game Holopoint burns 13 to 15 calories a minute, equivalent to swimming. And Audioshield, where players block oncoming orbs in time to music, burns 8 to 10 calories a minute, as does rowing.

Gomez has submitted the study to a peer-reviewed journal and hopes it will be accepted. Her research not only earned her a master’s degree, but also entry into a new and growing slice of the multibillion-dollar VR industry: exercise.

She and kinesiology Professors Marialice Kern and Jimmy Bagley have joined entrepreneur Aaron Stanton at his just-opened Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise, an online, as-yet-unfunded site to showcase the research developed at San Francisco State, list the games’ fitness ratings, and give game makers a place to submit products for the group and student volunteers to review.

“We’ve assessed only three games, and there are millions of them,” said Kern, the department chair. “Let’s say a parent doesn’t want to see their children sitting on a couch doing games. They could look at our website and say, ‘No, I’m not getting you that one. But I think you’ll get some exercise from that one. If you play an hour a day, I’ll get you that one.”

Stanton, who sold text-analyzing company Booklamp to Apple in 2014, thought of rating VR games for fitness after seeing a British Heart Association poster of a glazed-eyed boy on a couch with a game controller.

“He was in a dark room and there was the glow of a TV,” Stanton said, recalling the caption: “Risk an early death. Just do nothing.”

The idea reinforced the stereotype that video games doom you to heart disease and other maladies of inactivity, he said. But Stanton, a former video-game journalist, thought otherwise.

The notion of virtual reality — using technology to fool the brain into believing the body exists in an alternate environment — has been around since the 1930s, and probably earlier in the minds of dreamers. Today, doctors use VR to practice surgical techniques or develop empathy. Patients use it to overcome phobias. Medical students learn dissection without killing animals. Pilots simulate flying. Auto executives examine car designs. And legions of kids play online games.

Headsets and touch controllers have improved in the last year alone, so users don’t have to stand in one spot but can move around in a virtual room — handy if you expect to exercise. And high-definition graphics have also improved from the head-in-a-fishbowl view to 360-degree, three-dimensional simulations, where the user can even turn to look through windows and see birds flying outside.

“In the next three to four years, we think there won’t be a gym without virtual or augmented reality,” said Stanton, whose search for a research team with high-end fitness-testing equipment brought him to San Francisco State in 2016.

As to whether most exercisers will want to enter a virtual universe just to work up a sweat, Tuong Nguyen, who analyzes immersive technologies for Gartner Research, isn’t so sure.

“Like all technology, virtual reality is a tool,” he said, adding that home treadmills, running weights and other gadgets tempt some and bore others. “So I think VR has the potential to help people — but I’m not going to say that once it comes out, everyone’s going to be fit as a fiddle. The most immediate benefit will be for a niche group.”

Students at San Francisco State may be just the niche group the VR exercise industry is seeking.

“A lot of students have heard of the research and are fascinated and constantly want to talk more about it,” said Gomez, who teaches undergraduates there now. “I feel great about it.”

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