Hacking Virtual Reality Cycling

Category: 
Hacking Virtual Reality Cycling
May 7, 2017

For most of us, true virtual reality cycling is still out of reach. Here’s a low-cost Zwift hack for Samsung Gear VR that you can try at home

 

When Zwift, the popular indoor cycling MMOG launched, it was notable for being easy and inexpensive. Unlike established brands (ie – Computrainer, Peloton) Zwift allows you to use a wide variety of after-market trainer and sensor configurations to play the game at lower cost of entry.

 

In this same spirit, I’ve recently been playing with a simple hack that allows you to get a taste of true immersive VR cycling.

 

VR cycling is part of the official Zwift product development roadmap and many people have tried demos at trade shows and events. If “real” Zwift VR is as good as everything else Zwift has done, it will be a great experience. For now there isn’t an official Zwift VR option for everyday users, which is where this idea comes in.

 

In my initial tests I found this homemade Zwift VR hack to work surprisingly well. This method does have a number of shortcomings and isn’t something you would use every ride. But for novelty and a glimpse of the future it’s an interesting experiment.

 

What You Need

 

This hack can be accomplished with gear you likely already have at home, along with some free software. My kit includes:

  • Existing Zwift setup – computer, bike, trainer, Ant+ sensor and high speed internet
  • Your Pain Cave Fan – essential for user and VR cooling
  • Free Streaming Software on your Zwift computer – I use Open Brodcaster Software (OBS)
  • Live Streaming Account such as Twitch.tv, Facebook Live or YouTubeLive – I use tv
  • Samsung Gear VR Headset with Oculus Internet Browser installed

 

If you’re not a Samsung user, this hack would probably work equally well with a Google Cardboard setup. I have not tried this yet.

 

Lucky enough to have a top-end VR system like an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift? I’d be interested to hear your first-hand experiences with streaming Zwift – I imagine the results would be better.

 

The Setup

 

The setup is a simple as it gets. Essentially you’re going to live stream a Zwift session from your computer to an online video streaming service. At the same time, you’ are going to watch your live Zwift session via the internet browser of your VR headset while riding your bike. By putting your VR browser in 360 mode you’re going to view your Zwift session in true VR with head tracking and full field of vision.

 

Practically, these are the steps to take:

  • Start your Zwift session on the PC, wake up your trainer and turn on that fan! No, really, you’re going to need the fan…
  • Configure your streaming software and enter the streaming key for your live video hosting service. For Twitch TV the full configuration instructions are here: https://www.twitch.tv/broadcast

 

Note that there is significant trade-off between video quality and video smoothness depending on your internet speed. The higher resolution you broadcast, the better the 360 image will look in the headset, but the feed will be more likely to freeze and buffer. Lower resolution video will provide a smoother sense of motion, but the details of the image will be blurry. More on resolution limitations under “Opportunities” below.

 

  • Confirm that your stream is live and then hop on your bike and spin up. Once carefully seated on the bike (no lawsuits please…) put on your VR headset.
  • Open the Oculus Internet browser, navigate to your streaming site and find your live stream. Confirm that it’s live and playing.
  • Expand your live video window to “fullscreen”. Then, under VR options, view the video in 360 mode.
  • BAM! You’re riding in full VR! Enjoy the ride, look around, see Watopia as never before.
  • Important! Remove your VR headset and get your bearings before dismounting the bike!

 

Observations

 

My first impression was that this hack worked better than expected. Setup was easy. The first-person experience of riding in 3D was surprisingly immersive. The sensation of motion was much more realistic than riding with a TV or projector screen.

 

The first comment about VR cycling is always, “Riding in a headset will be too hot, how do you deal with all that sweat?” I found the headset to be surprisingly comfortable and was able to ride for nearly a half-hour before sweat became an issue. Clearly headset design and comfort will be a factor in everyday VR cycling, but for novelty tests like this it is not a show stopper. Using your pain cave fan is important for headset comfort and to delay overheating, which is a common problem for the Samsung Gear VR. The better the fan, the longer you’ll be able to ride.

 

After 30 minutes of riding in VR I took off my headset and was a little surprised to be in my basement. There is no question that high quality VR, properly executed, will add a lot to the indoor cycling experience, and Zwift is probably the company that will do it. 

 

Opportunities for Improvement

 

At first glance there are some serious shortcomings to this setup. Some of the biggest are:

 

Video resolution: Even at the highest bitrate and resolution I could run on my streaming software, the 360 Zwift image is notably blurry. You can see other riders, pick out trees on the roadside, etc. but you can’t read logos on jerseys. But even with lower resolution the sensation of motion and being “in” the ride is very realistic.

 

Heads up display: One of the things we love about Zwift is watching our power numbers, cadence and heart rate via the heads up display. Once you switch the video to 360 mode these areas of the screen wrap out of view. While I missed having access to my dashboard view, the feeling of being on a “real” ride was better. In an official Zwift VR release I’m sure the heads up display will be available in the VR view.

 

Delay: Because you are streaming via a remote server and buffering, there is some delay between your actual Zwift gameplay and the VR headset. At some points the delay can be as much as 20 seconds. This makes it difficult to respond to changing terrain on a smart trainer (I ride a Kickr) or to really participate in group riding. I’m going to continue to experiment with different streaming software and hosting sites to see how much I can cut down this delay. Realistically in this type of setup you may never get to true real-time riding. Once you get rolling, it’s easy to forget the delay, particularly on the flats.

 

Bandwidth: Bandwidth is going to be an issue for most users, since you’re broadcasting and watching a high resolution video at the same time on one Wi-Fi network. I used 50Mbps FiOS network and still had issues with buffering. To speed things up you might consider reducing or eliminating the audio channel  and reducing the frame refresh rate in addition to reducing video resolution.

 

Overheating: Let’s face it, VR headsets were not designed to stand up to the heat and sweat of indoor cycling. The headset gets hot, lenses start to fog up, phones overheat and lock up. These are problems future VR sports designers are going to have to overcome. The killer VR app for indoor cycling in the future will probably resemble some type of sunglass or visor shield design which will be more breathable. That said, the standard VR headset is much more comfortable than I thought it would be, and OK for a short casual ride.

 

For a first test I give this setup a solid C+. I’m going to continue to tweak settings and try different services in search of the best possible riding experience. You’ll see me on Watopia sporting the username “N. Pepper VR TEST” – ride-ons welcome!

 

As Zwift continues their VR product development I’m hoping they’ll build options into that platform that will improve the home VR experience and lower barriers to entry. In the long-run, making a Zwift Oculus App similar to the IOS app will be the simplest, most seamless solution.

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