Photo: Fudo Jahic, Courtesy Black Box VR
Black Box VR, the world's first immersive virtual reality gym, opens on Market Street in San Francisco in April. SFGATE staff writer Michelle Robertson wrote down some questions she had ahead of the experience. Click through the gallery to read them.
Like electric scooters and vapes, virtual reality is a technological innovation that is incredibly easy to make fun of.
I associate VR — an interactive experience that transports the user to an artificial world — with gamers, the porn industry and people who ride Boosted Boards in the bike lane. This is why, when I noticed Black Box VRpop up on Market Street across from the headquarters of Twitter and Uber, it felt like the punchline to a joke only a San Franciscan could make.
Black Box is the world's first VR gym. Founded in 2016 by Ryan DeLuca and Preston Lewis, the company plans to transform — OK, "disrupt" — the boutique fitness industry by combining two things Americans love: trendy fitness and video games. I don't like either of these things, so I decided to try it.
I visited Black Box, at 1390 Market Street, a few days before its planned soft opening on Wednesday. It looks like most boutique gyms in San Francisco: sleek, modern and minimalist, including neon signs with motivational phrases like "Level up your life." The decor wasn't tacky, as I expected, nor did the scenery look like a "Bladerunner" soundstage, as I feared. Rather, design touches were subtle, in muted tones of pink and blue, and the branding, though influenced by gaming imagery, was restrained.
Lewis, the founder and my tour guide for the day, led me to a private room the size of a small San Francisco bedroom. It was sparse, save for a cable resistance machine mounted to the wall, a fan, a screen and the centerpiece of it all: a VR headset. When not in use, the headset is wiped down manually then cleansed in a Cleanbox, an apparatus that dries and kills bacteria with ultraviolet light.
Photo: Michelle Robertson/SFGATE
"The most common question we get is, 'Won't the headset be sweaty?'" Lewis said, chuckling.
Lewis set me up with an account on the Black Box app, which tracks fitness stats like rep intensity and weight, then velcroed two hands-free controllers onto my forearms. The comfortable headset didn't weigh down my neck or shoulders, but put some pressure on my cheeks and forehead. It connects to a cable from the ceiling, ostensibly to prevent exercisers from dropping and breaking the device — or stealing it.
Photo: Courtesy: Preston Lewis/Black Box VR
With the headset on, I was transported to a virtual waiting room and then catapulted into the first of 10 virtual "battle arenas." I started in the base-level arena, which looked like a warmer version of Planet Krypton.
The high-quality graphics made the environment appear as real as an animated game could hope to look, while the detail and vastness of my virtual surroundings helped distract from some of the discomfort of the headset — and the awareness of being alone in a room with a stranger, squatting and punching with no vision of my real-world surroundings.
The game dropped me onto a field with two pink crystals, placed on opposite ends, the goal being to destroy the opponent's crystal before he destroys mine. Here's where the exercise comes in. To fire off an attack or defense, I had to complete a series of traditional exercises. There are six to choose from — chest press, overhead press, row, lat pulldown, squat and deadlift — with each corresponding to a different weapon. A chest press, for example, shoots off a fire beam; a shoulder press emits a meteor strike. The more reps I completed, the more damage I inflicted on the enemy.
To build an army of helpers, I had to complete a set of cardio exercises, composed of punches and chopping motions. For every series completed, I gained a "unit," a character that helps fight the opponent on the field. A standard session consists of a brief tutorial and warmup, and at least three eight-minute rounds on the field.
Photo: Courtesy: Preston Lewis/Black Box VR
The more you play, the more units, arenas and trophies you unlock, while an algorithm tracks your progress, adjusting resistance levels and rep ranges automatically.
"We wanted this to be a real workout — not Wii Fit — that would also track everything you're doing and react in real-time to a game environment," Lewis said. He claims that three, 30-minute Black Box workouts a week "gives you the science-backed dosage of fitness intensity needed to build your strength and burn serious calories."
It took me a few minutes to adjust to the game play and exercises, though prompts on the screen told me where to place my feet and hands for each move. After 15 minutes, my arms felt sore and sweat started pooling on my forehead. According to the company, I could expect to burn 250 to 400 calories per 30- to 35-minute session.
Besides the tiredness in my muscles, my cognition had barely registered that I had just exercised. I was too distracted — in a good way — by the game. "30 minutes feels like 10," a Black Box brochure claims. It actually did.
The workout could be recreated on any resistance machine, or simply with weights in your living room. What you're paying for — and at $199 a month for unlimited access, it's not cheap — is the experience.
The appeal of a concept like BlackBox VR is novelty and exclusivity; there's nothing like it on the consumer market yet. I can see it catching on with early adopters of AirPods and Teslas, or those who proudly wore Google Glass in public.
The inaugural outpost of the Boise-based company is well-positioned on Market Street — a bustling hub of tech workers, who tend to be open to trying novel, tech-forward concepts (and have cash to spare).
"This is such a new thing, we need to have people who resonate with new technologies," Lewis said, citing Millennials as an age group of interest.
Though the concept seems predominantly marketed toward gamer, tech-savvy men, the self-conscious folks will appreciate the privacy afforded by a 10-by-10-foot room with a closing, opaque door. As a woman, I'm sensitive to people looking at me while I exercise in public — a setting that can make one the target of catcallers and voyeurs. Immersed in the Black Box universe, I got the experience of a group workout — competition, instruction, feedback — without the stress of leering eyeballs.
Lewis hopes the immersive, game-based technology provides a solution to one of the fitness industry's long-standing pain points: long feedback loops.
"People want abs in two weeks, and at the end of that period, they look in the mirror, tired and sore, and ask, 'Where are my abs?'" Lewis said. "They want the magic pill."
"With VR and behavioral psychology, we can pull multiple levers at once that get you itching to come back to the gym." Instead of thinking about the ache in your muscles, you're "thinking about the next epic arena or character you'll unlock."
"Besides that," Lewis continued, the app "can show strength gains on a very small scale," down to the number and intensity of reps. This closes the so-called feedback loop, he said, "and compels you to keep coming back."
Leaving the gym that afternoon, I noticed my cynical attitude toward VR shifting. Black Box harnessed trendy technology in an intelligent way. Unlike other au courant Silicon Valley products — robot-made lattes, OneWheels, e-scooters — BlackBox devised an exciting solution to a problem that actually exists: motivating people to exercise. Try as I might, at the end of the workout — my limbs sore and sweaty — I couldn't muster the energy to poke fun.