Typing is hard. This is because moving my arms to the appropriate level for the keyboard is deeply challenging. And this is because I rowed the streets of Babylon, rings of Saturn and covered a decent chunk of Antarctica.
Lately, it has come to my notice that I am horrifyingly unfit. By which I mean I can achieve the post-marathon-glow-of-exhaustion in exactly two minutes of sprinting to a good beat on my headphones.
The search for an exercise so entertaining I’d actually stick with it led me to “Fun and Body”; a showroom for VR (virtual reality) exercise near Harujuku in Tokyo. The sunlit studio has space for just four people and for ¥3000 (about $30 / £20), you can try out the equipment for an hour.
Fun and Body has two different types of VR exercise: virtual reality rowing and the ICAROS machine. ICAROS is hard to describe… let’s cheat and steal the advertisement movie from the manufacturer:
ICAROS couples with the main two players in VR technology —the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift— and also the wireless Samsung Gear VR, where the software is run on a Samsung cell phone that slots into the front of the headset. This last set-up was the one used at Fun and Body, and there was a controller on one of the ICAROS handles that let you select options while in VR.
After a brief demonstration on how to manoeuvre on ICAROS, the VR headset was strapped on and I found myself about to jump off a cliff.
I was not onboard with this idea.
Instead, I requested the deep sea dive I had seen on their website. Somehow, this illusion of buoyancy seemed far more secure. In ‘exploration’ mode, this ICAROS game lets you move around the deep sea searching for sea life. Moving on ICAROS is about weight adjustment and it isn’t difficult to understand, but it does require strong stomach muscles.
These, I did not have.
Rather than looking like the graceful figure in the movie above, I strongly suspect I looked like a sack of potatoes with my bottom in the air. I could also only continue for about 5 minutes or so before needing to slide the ICAROS upright for a rest. So appalling was I at chasing down whales that the instructor demo’d the game for me during one of my breaks in case it was the mix of English and Japanese instruction that was confusing me.
I was simply incompetent.
After several rather fun but exhausting attempts, I was offered a chance to try the rowing machines.
“This is just pretty,” one of the Fun and Body assistants told me. There was no doubt she had my measure: I was clearly a coward and a wuss, but I wanted to to pretend I’d travelled somewhere bold and beautiful.
How right she was.
While a simpler idea than ICAROS, this VR rowing was fantastic. The software behind this is the “Holofit” VR fitness package which works with the Vive and (I believe) a regular rowing machine so long as it has a computery-bit to plug into.
I selected the “explorer” option again (as opposed to a pre-fixed workout) and opted to row the streets of Babylon. The scenery for this was beautifully drawn and kept me wanting to row around the next bend to see what was there. I passed elephants, street people and temples. The entire course takes about 40 minutes, but I switched scenes after about 5 minutes to explore the rings of Saturn.
… whereupon by little Babylonian row boat turned into a steam punk spaceship that was strangely still powered by rowing. It also seemed to be open topped, which left me with a few questions about the viability of my voyage. That, and the huge colony of habitation pods I discovered surrounding Saturn. The Cassini mission really should have spotted that.
After 10 minutes of rowing, I passed through a spacegate to end up close to something that resembled the bright disc of material around a black hole. I then lost my space legs and decided it was time for another change.
The Body and Fun assistant kindly suggested Antarctica. Surely this cowardly individual could handle a few penguins?
The answer to this was yes I could. Although I’d like it noted that I passed a body frozen and upside down in the ice. I nonchalantly rowed on by. Not so cowardly now, eh?
While the scenery was pretty, like most VR visualisations, it was not the video quality you get on a 2D screen. Previously, seeing a slightly blurred or pixelated animation had made me feel queasy after a while of using the VR set. However, this time such a sensation was much improved, possibly because the exercise meant that not all my focus was on the surrounding scenery. (I felt very mildly nauseous, but couldn’t tell if it was the VR or the shock of actually rowing.)
After a good half and hour of rowing, I stretched out and drank the water kindly provided for me.
”I rowed on this yesterday,” the assistant told me. “I was so sore afterwards!”
Wearing gym clothes, I could tell this lady was one of the fittest people I had met in recent months. I mentally blanked out the next day for flailing around like a beached whale on the floor of my apartment with limbs unable to support weight.
The Fun and Body studio welcomes people wanting to try the VR exercise experience, but it is primarily a studio for gyms considering investing in this equipment. Sadly, it has not yet caught on in Tokyo and the only gym I could find that had installed it had been forced to close due to lack of staff. There’s the VR gym of my dreams in Fukuoka but a quick look at google maps will rule that out as a regular option.
I was the only person using the equipment during my hour (someone came in after me) which means I had my choice of ICAROS and the rowing machine and the undivided attention of two instructors. An undeniable bargain! I asked at the end if people visited just once or did come back for regular gym sessions. I was told that most people came only once, but some came more often and I was welcome back anytime.
I suspect most people are not as obsessed as me and the assistants were just being extremely nice.
That may not stop me returning. Several times. A month.
I left and wandered into Omotesando to have lunch. By the time I had finished, my chopsticks felt like lead batons. But so so worth it.