“These were people who were buying a headset to use it as a piece of fitness equipment, rather than a gaming console,” Cole said.
The shift in Cole’s customer base is something big tech companies are desperate to emulate as they race to grow the niche virtual and augmented reality-powered app market into one with mainstream appeal.
Virtual reality, or VR, has long attracted a young, male audience with its immersive video games. But lately, in hopes of expanding the pool of customers, device-makers have been touting new use cases for virtual reality such as work, fitness and entertainment.
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To brand the devices for a broader audience, companies are partnering with corporations outside gaming and buying their own non-gaming app makers, creating a path for developers to make new programs. When Apple announced in June its plans to start selling its new mixed-reality headset Vision Pro for nearly $3,500, the company barely mentioned gaming. Instead, Apple touted how users will be able to have more immersive conversations with co-workers and loved ones, capture more dynamic photos and videos of memorable moments in their life and amplify their entertainment routines.
The industry’s top evangelists say VR-powered fitness apps have the power to lure people who may be intimidated or unable to attend traditional workout classes in person. The apps often get experts to design intensive exercise routines that would be taught in a gym, set in extravagant environments. Inside a VR app, users can punch flying objects that appear to be hurtling toward them in a kickboxing class, row across a picturesque lake or cycle in a scene that resembles a far-flung international city.
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“The immersive quality of VR is a far better medium for motivating people to exercise than anything you can do on the flat screen,” said Eric Janszen, the CEO and co-founder of VirZoom, a fitness app that is on the Oculus Quest store.
“You’re not staring into the screen and kind of projecting yourself into the scene. You’re actually in it, and you are reacting to the world, and the world is reacting to you.”
Virtual reality has long attracted young men, gamers who spend hours wielding lightsabers in a “Star Wars”-themed app or trekking through the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse in New Orleans. In December 2019, less than 10 percent of Quest headset users were women, one Meta executive testified last year in federal court. The “majority of VR users out there [are] skewed males, skewed towards youth, skewed towards gaming,” said Ramon Llamas, a research director at marketing analytics firm International Data Corporation.
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But apps like Cole’s that push beyond gaming have been introducing women to VR — and they’re getting hooked.
Kaleah Wilson, 25, bought a VR headset two years ago to try to lose the weight she gained during the beginning of the pandemic. While she has enjoyed going to the gym and playing basketball, she has found that exercising through VR app FitXR is more fun and convenient. “Sometimes you don’t notice you’re working out,” Wilson said of the experience. After her mother, sister and friends saw that she lost 30 pounds while exercising in the app, they purchased headsets and began experimenting.
The “selling point” was “that I was having fun but also I was losing weight,” she said. “That was a big shock. They weren’t expecting it.”
Companies like Apple appear to be diving into the VR fitness sector. Apple is reportedly planning to incorporate Apple Fitness+, which tracks users’ fitness goals and offers them access to thousands of video and audio workouts, into another version of its headset, according to Bloomberg News. Last year, ByteDance’s Pico said its new VR headset would include a plethora of sports and fitness apps along with an internal tracker that tells wearers how much time they have exercised and how many calories they have burned.
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Meta, the dominant maker of VR headsets, has also eyed fitness as a key strategy. In 2021 Meta announced it was buying Within, the studio behind popular VR fitness app Supernatural. The app pairs daily exercise routines with popular songs from stars like Bob Marley and Dua Lipa. Last year, the renowned fitness class company Les Mills partnered with Odders Lab to turn its martial arts exercise game Bodycombat into a VR experience on Meta’s Quest headsets.
When the Federal Trade Commission challenged the Within acquisition in court, Meta executives testified that they saw fitness as a key way to appeal to women and older customers. Fitness apps could also help the company encourage users to incorporate the device into their everyday routines, helping to reverse the trend of Quest users picking up the device only to use a particular app for a few weeks before forgetting about it. And fitness apps offer a recurring revenue stream because they tend to charge for subscriptions, the executives said. (Meta usually takes a cut from app purchases and subscriptions.)
Still, there are challenges to widespread adoption. Many people report the devices are uncomfortable and can cause dizziness, making it difficult to exercise. Apple’s Vision Pro uses a cord to connect the pricey headset to a battery pack that could further restrict users’ physical movements.
“I have my reservations on this one,” Llamas said. “I go to the gym five days a week … I don’t see myself doing that with a headset on.”
But enthusiasts are betting Apple’s device will end up demonstrating the value of mixed-reality headsets, which could help Meta lure customers who want a cheaper alternative. Meta’s most expensive VR headset sells for nearly $1,000 — less than a third of what Apple’s device costs.
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Cole said his company is already planning to adapt the FitXR app for Apple’s device. He thinks that when Apple’s device hits stores, customers will be reintroduced to the allure of VR.
“They are going to try the experience, [and] they’re going to be blown away,” he said.