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Working Out in Virtual Reality, I Vanquish My Limited Self

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Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

I’ve reached a stage of mourning I never thought would happen: longing for the boring four walls of my old gym and aerobic studios with their kicky graffiti. What I wouldn’t give now to be annoyed with their girl-boss propaganda as I fake a push-up. The feeling is half yearning, half anywhere-but-here desperation. Given the limitation of this reality, I took a shortcut to a change of scenery and spent a month working out with Supernatural, a virtual-reality fitness program. The setting is not my cute old gym, but rather a spot at the foothills of the Sierra Mountains or the Atacama Desert, the steeped beauty of Machu Picchu or a glacial deposit in Iceland. “Let’s show the Galápagos how strong our glutes can work, baby!” an instructor’s voice-over commands me.

Supernatural is a subscription service with guided fitness classes designed for Oculus. When the program begins, a trainer appears floating on a platform, high above a real-life natural wonder. Each class starts with a micro-stretch and then you’re off — floating above a volcano, squatting and swinging your arms at a series of obstacles that appear flinging toward you. There’s no forward motion; triangles to squat under and balloons to hit just come at you. Sometimes, because I’m thwacking obstacles timed to the beat of music, I feel that I am both a warrior and an amazing rock god drum soloist.

The landscapes around my squats are the most dramatic, gorgeous vistas in the Earth’s catalogue — but I don’t have time to look at them! I am too busy being nimble and destructive! I’m crouching under triangles, I’m batting off cannonballs. And when I do have a chance to glance, during cooldowns, the background is impressive and vivid. It’s amazing how I can look and see water ripple and nothingness where I know my legs should be.

In this spectacular world, my body doesn’t exist. There are no arms holding onto the bats that I swing toward the approaching bombardments, but I receive a rewarding vibration from the hand controllers when I’ve successfully made contact. I am all movement and animal grace, a genius of muscles, wasting no motion, the most competent physique to ever shift around. Panting at the end of every song — receiving a score report about my accuracy and power — I expect an alien-angel to say that I have vanquished the limited self, transcended the human form.

From inside the headset, it looks like I am battling errant cannonballs from a hoverboard over a Siberian lake. From inside my body, it feels like I am a virtuoso of angelic power and poise. From the outside, I hear from my partner, it looks like someone keeps unpausing me. I look like a nervous symphony conductor up top, and like I’m scared to step onto an escalator on the bottom.

When I take off the headset, I have a suction cup around my face in the shape of snorkeling goggles, often red and soaked with sweat.

Supernatural is one of a small handful of exercise apps created explicitly for a gym-equivalent workout. Box VR is a cardio boxing experience that also throws orbs at you to punch away. O-Shape, based on a Japanese game show, sets up a series of poses (cactus, ice dancer, boy-band member) for you to match. VZfit is made to augment riding a stationary bike; the program lets you imagine things like you’re a leg-powered helicopter, a pegasus, or simply riding a horse through the Old West.

Before this past month, I had only worn a VR headset at film festivals, for some immersive cinematic experience. Using Supernatural, I was unsupervised, though thrilled to be introduced to Oculus’s very basic “guardian” feature — you outline a safe area that you can move around in, and when you start to approach an obstruction, like a wall or a table outside of your perimeter, a blue wall pops up in your vision field. It does not do an acceptable job regarding your rear end, and my second day I butt-bumped a table and spilled an entire bottle of water all over the floor. The dog, who has a tendency to approach me, gets banished when I’m in the zone. 

Rather than what’s happening in the VR, it’s the blindness to the outside world that is the most dramatic thing. It’s totally absorbing, time melts away, and it’s a little impossible to pull me out. Being in the headset removes me from the world; I’m not contactable when I’m in there. It’s equivalent to getting in the shower or seeing a play. I’m jumping in the headset, I announce to my partner. It is similar to snorkeling, which I appear to have just returned from. There is no phone, no dog, no feet. Nothing else is there. Not to get philosophical, but it doesn’t feel like I’m really there either. Was it not Simone Weil who said, Being invisible is very confusing for a person?

After every workout I complete, Supernatural tells me how many points I’ve accomplished, so I know I must be doing something. And the day after two hours in the Supernatural headset, I feel the additive effect of approximately 8,934 squats. There was a study in June of this year that found that VR technology “prevents exercise-related interoceptive cues from entering focal awareness” and “induces a higher perceptual load.” I.e., when we’re in the VR illusion, we don’t notice the real-world pressures happening on our body.

All of my physical realities — I’m sweating cascades in the mask; I’m out of breath; my legs are sore; I get wearier and slower at hitting the balloons as I go — seem to point to the fact that I am doing something inside of this set, but some instinct in my brain wants to deny that what I’m doing is real. And was it not René Descartes who said, It’s not real, but it is, ya know?

Working Out in Virtual Reality, I Vanquish My Limited Self