Welcome to the latest episode of the VR Fitness Insider Podcast!

Today, we’re excited to chat with FitXR Co-Founder and CEO, Sam Cole. Listen to how he and his Co-Founder (Sameer Baroova) built one of the most popular VR Fitness titles. Sam shares some of the behind-the-scenes early days of building the product and some valuable tips for other VR Fitness application creators. Sam and Sameer are true pioneers of VR fitness and we’re excited to have Sam on the show to share many insights with you all.

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Episode 9 – FitXR

Preston Lewis: [00:00:00] Welcome to the VR Fitness Insiders podcast, for the creators who are building the future of the VR and AR sports and fitness industries that will revolutionize the way the world will play sports, work out and get fit with your hosts. Preston Lewis and Ryan DeLuca, the founders of Black Box VR, who are building the world’s first full fitness VR gym and bring decades of experience from creating some of the largest fitness technology companies in the world.

They’re bringing together the best and brightest minds to help you and your company succeed in the VR fitness revolution.

Alrighty, welcome to the VR Fitness Insider podcast. Today we have a very special guest, a VR fitness pioneer, here with us today, Sam Cole. Sam’s the co-founder and CEO of FitXR, one of the most popular VR fitness games on the market. Sam, thanks so much for being here.

Sam Cole: Thanks a lot Preston and Ryan. Great to be here. Um, yeah, like we were talking about before, I followed you guys and I feel like we’ve been around the industry, you know, for a long time together, so it’s nice…

Ryan DeLuca: Too long.

Sam Cole: Nice to come on the podcast today. Love what you guys are doing.[00:01:00]

Preston Lewis: Why don’t we start off by, uh, just having you tell our audience a little bit about your background and how you first got into VR.

Sam Cole: Yeah, I suppose I think I have a little bit of an atypical background for what we do now. So I used to work in the finance industry. I was working for a private equity fund, immediately before sitting up FitXR. But I think for me, I had spent a lot of time thinking about exercise and about what got me into that flow-like state. I personally, you know, was a pretty active kid, played a lot of sport growing up. And so being active was never challenging, until I stopped playing sport and I had to try and find something else to keep me occupied. And I went through this journey of trying to figure out, basically what felt easy, right? Or, like, what felt engaging, what experiences would get me lost. Not thinking about the day-to-day of what I was actually doing in the moment. And I think that personal journey that I went on, um, kind of collided with another belief that I had where I was really passionate about VR and AR technology.

I kind of believe that the next computing platform after the smartphone would be [00:02:00] AR and VR, and was really excited about what was happening in that space. And so I started playing around with an Oculus DK2 headset and a spin bike. And I was just intrigued to see whether I could add, kind of, a visual layer to a spin concept, or like a fairly standard spin choreography. And to see whether that would get me into a state where I got lost in the experience and forgot what I was doing.

And pretty quickly I confirmed that belief, and then I was just thinking, like, “yeah, fitness everywhere I could imagine being transformed by this.” And I think one of the real catalysts for me actually taking the plunge and, you know, working on this full-time was, I remember being in a weights room of a, kind of, budget 24/7 gym. I remember walking around and seeing everyone with, um, headphones on. And I just thought to myself, like, “this is a pretty dull and uninspiring place.” And I could just imagine a world where instead of having, like, augmenting our audio experience, which is what I saw everyone doing in that environment. We wouldn’t call it that, right? We’d call it listening to music. But I could just [00:03:00] imagine a world whereby we had AI glasses, they were in market, and you could add a rich, personalized visual elevated experience. And I could just see that whole space, inside that gym, being transformed.

And I think that was a massive catalyst for me in taking the plunge, and setting up FitXR and looking to explore more in this space.

Ryan DeLuca: It’s interesting, um, on that note, it’s like thinking about how we grow up playing games, you know, as kids, right? So we get all the exercise. At least we used to, you know? Before social media.

But, uh, you know, we would be playing games outside, and having fun and that would be our exercise. And then you’re right. Then we got into like, you know, school and it was sports, and competition, and teams and fun. Then we were supposed to transition into just a solo treadmill, lifting weights, repetitive.

No-fun-at-all kind of experience. And it’s no wonder, like I always say, eighty seven percent of people are not able to stick to a program over the long term.

Sam Cole: Yeah. I think it’s one of those things, right? Where you can often look at young children and see, like, how they behave and how, like, we get conditioned away from certain things. Whether that’s creativity or bad posture. But I think at looking at like young [00:04:00] kids and how a lot of young kids will just play, without any consideration of time or their own exhaustion levels, you know? They’ll literally just wind themselves right out. I think we lose something, there’s something that gets conditioned out of us.

I think it is therefore quite instructive to look at like how young kids and go, like, how can we bring that back into how people think about exercise?

Preston Lewis: So you came actually from private equity, not, were you a developer in the past? Like an actual coder or you just kinda?

Sam Cole: No. So, I was fortunate. I met my co-founder really early on. He came from the video gaming background. And so Sameer and I both had this shared belief around what AR and VR was gonna do as an underlying technology. He was really keen to move out of the video gaming industry. And loved the idea about being able to work on a mission where we were trying to spread fitness to people who, you know, hadn’t engaged with fitness products before. We partnered really early on and we set this thing up together.

Preston Lewis: Very cool. That’s a quick quote for a lot of our listeners, there’s this aspect of this almost hacker [00:05:00] mentality of “I think I can do it, I’m not intimidated by it and actually I’m solving a real problem, uh, for myself.” And I think the other piece that you were really smart to do, um, that we’ve seen as well with some companies is, being able to find that business partner to where you could share your knowledge and move faster in a rapidly changing industry. So, very cool.

Sam Cole: Even in those early days, right? The really early days where we were playing around with spin concepts, it wasn’t even about making, like, content that was specifically tailored towards the spin class. It was just really about getting that feel inside VR. And it was so uncharted, right?

We were just playing rollercoaster experiences in the very beginning and going like, “hey, if I cycle on this spin bike in this garage, and I’m cycling and I’m looking at a rollercoaster experience, how does that feel? Do I get lost in that experience in any way? Is it additive in any way?” And so I think you’re right, I think you can deploy a very kind of scrappy hacker mindset to this, because I think so much of this space is still ripe. So nascent and so uncharted, and there’s some big [00:06:00] hardware shifts that are coming. That are again, gonna completely reshuffle these things. I think you can still deploy that strategy and be successful today.

Ryan DeLuca: I think you’re onto something. Spin bike. Oculus DK2 days. Rollercoaster. Like, you’re gonna throw up, that’s, like, a weight loss plan right there.

Preston Lewis: Exactly.

Ryan DeLuca: Eat a pizza, do that experience and, like, somehow you’re gonna be losing weight.

Preston Lewis: No more, yeah. You don’t keep the pizza down.

Sam Cole: I do say that Sameer, my co-founder, I say that he’s, like, out of everyone I’ve met, he can do, like, any experience inside virtual reality. Like, nothing gives him nausea. And I’m sure he’s so conditioned from those early days, um, that yeah, he’s like got a very strong stomach as a result.

Preston Lewis: That’s funny. Yeah, you start with roller coasters, you’re good from there, for sure. We always tell anyone listening, that’s not necessarily a creator that might be a consumer that stumbles upon this, that was one of the challenges in the beginning, right? Was, everyone thought that VR, no matter what you’re gonna get sick with, because those early experiences were the Google Cardboard. It was, you know, the locomotion [00:07:00] without you actually moving and stuff like that. It’s awesome to see that a lot of the game developers and designers have fixed that for the general masses, to give it a better name.

Sam Cole: I think it’s still a bit of a problem, right? I still encounter people today who, you know, I try and demo the experience to, and they’ll say things like, “hey, I tried VR four years ago and I got motion sickness.”

Preston Lewis: Mm-hmm.

Sam Cole: And they haven’t, they haven’t realized, they don’t have the knowledge that the space has evolved so significantly from a content and also from a hardware perspective, that a lot of those problems aren’t really problems today. And I think, actually, you know, things like google Cardboard did a lot of great things for the industry. But I’ve also think held us back in many ways as well, because you’ve got a whole lot of people excited about an underlying technology, probably before it was really ready for that kind of mass consumption.

Ryan DeLuca: So true.

Preston Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. Well, speaking of the early days, so you were one of the OGs of VR Fitness, right? With BOXVR, for sure. Which we loved. I mean, we actually used it as cardio in our first Black Box VR office. And posted some fun [00:08:00] time lapses out there. It was a great workout. But what inspired you to start BOXVR, specifically? And what was the first version like? What did you learn during that time?

Sam Cole: Yeah. So post the rollercoaster spin bike stage, we then went and started working around a number of different experiences. So we were, like, “let’s look at boxing, let’s look at spin, let’s look at rowing as well.” So we really wanted to take concepts that we liked from a group fitness perspective, and try and translate those underlying concepts and underlying fitness structures into virtual reality. Very quickly, boxing at a very early stage, something just clicked. It felt super intuitive, it felt really fun. We had, like, the most bare bones prototype working and you could find yourself literally getting lost in the experience. Boxing to the beat of the music was a big unlock.

And so we decided to try and ship that really, really early. And, I think back to those days it was, you know, 2017 and we were so uncomfortable about how early and rough around the edges of the product was. And when we shipped it on Steam, in early [00:09:00] access, as a PC VR build and, you know, we debated a bit like, “hey, should we charge for this thing? We don’t think it’s worth much.” But we decided to slap twenty dollars on it. Which was kind of normal back in those times, because content in virtual reality was so limited in those days. And we were just blown away by the early customer reception.

I think a lot of people created this doubt in our minds that the early audience of people who had VR hardware, which was predominantly PC gamers, would be interested in a fitness product. And I think that the people in the early community that we formed around BOXVR just completely blew that out of the water. I think for many of those people, you know, they were searching for a fitness product that felt like BOXVR. And I think now, like, how we’ve tried to position FitXR as something that is an underlying fitness product, it has all the efficacy and the robustness that you would expect from a fitness product, but it has the engagement and fun of a game. And so, yeah I think we were really fortunate and an early community around BOXVR formed really naturally, [00:10:00] and we were just able to ride that wave by listening really intensely to what they wanted and trying to build those features as quickly as possible.

Ryan DeLuca: We have a lot of stories also of those early days when, like you said, anything about VR fitness on, you know, Reddit or any forums, immediately you’d get that vocal, probably minority looks like now, which was like, “no one’s ever gonna work out in VR, it’s the dumbest thing ever.” And, you know? But I think we all saw the same thing where people now, it’s like a very normal thing and they get it. But there was that kind of those early days where people were just like, “I’m telling you as like a founder, this is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard”, you know?

Sam Cole: I think the first comment we got on our Steam page was, or it might have been before we launched BOXVR, we had like, pre announced it. And someone just wrote “VR…”, it wasn’t even a critique of VR Fitness, it was like VR in general, they were like, “VR is dead as dead.” And we were like, this is what we’re moving into.

Ryan DeLuca: Yep. So obviously that was a big success and, you know, everybody knew about BOXVR and we all use it, like we said. Then you pivoted over to FitXR, and adding, you know, new classes, new types of concepts and exercise.

Tell us about that pivot and what [00:11:00] type of experiences is out there right now. Obviously, everybody can go look online and see more about it, but just kinda what’s the high level?

Sam Cole: Kind of going back to that early thinking, we always wanted to be broader than just a single vertical or single modality. We loved experiences like Class Pass in the real world, because we loved the variety that would afford us. And so, we wanted to try and really bring that into our product experience. And be pretty broad and varied in terms of the modalities that we’d be able to support. The move to FitXR from BOXVR was really a signal about us going, “hey, we wanna be more than just a boxing application, and we’re gonna start adding modalities and continue to add modalities.” So we now have boxing, dance, high intensity interval training. And in January of this year we also launched sculpt and combat. And so yeah, we feel like we’re on this path, we’re really proud of the width and variety that is available in the product experience. And just, excited to keep on adding more for our customers as well.

Ryan DeLuca: It is one of those things, a lot of VR experiences, you know, not just fitness, are very one dimensional. [00:12:00] So having that variety of classes and concepts and, you know, some people will like certain ones more than others, and just having that there is such a big deal. What type of things have you learned from the different type of concepts?

Like, what made you do a combat concept and the sculpt concept? Like, what type of feedback were you getting or what were you trying to accomplish with some of those newer things?

Sam Cole: We wanna try and serve the widest user base possible, in a number of different ways of looking at that. So, like, one is just in terms of fitness ability. So we love the fact that, you know, almost a third of our audience are sedentary or inactive prior to using FitXR. Whilst at the other end of the extreme, we have almost a third of our customers who report that they’re exercising five times a week before coming into FitXR. We love, like, the gender split as well. You know, in the early days it was much more male dominated and a much younger audience, because those were the people that had headsets. But I think as VR Fitness started to become more known about, you started to see a more spread demographic, both in terms of age and gender coming in and using the product [00:13:00] experience.

And I think with that, that gave us opportunities to kind of lean into different cohorts of customers and really seek to understand what they wanted to see in a fitness product. And so you can see quite big differences in approach here. Low impact aerobics classes are extremely different to our combat classes, which are modeled off MMA-style, boxer-style classes. They’re like worlds apart, and we are really happy with the fact that we see a lot of people who will do all of our studios and love all content inside FitXR. But we’re also really happy to see people who come in and just have their vertical, or multiple verticals that they love, and that’s enough for them. And I think that’s a core part of what we wanna try and do, is continue to provide that width, so we can cater to the widest audience possible.

Preston Lewis: Well, I think the cool thing about that, too, just speaking for myself, using your app… that very, like, low friction way to try new fitness experiences is a key part, that I think is really cool about the experience you guys have built.

Back in the day, you know, high school days, I was a break dancer and stuff like that. Not saying I’m like [00:14:00] an amazing dancer, but I was like, “okay, I’m gonna try the dance ones that you guys had.” And I’ll just say that I’m glad that there was, like, no one watching, it was just me in VR, right? Because it is, like, something I wouldn’t go, like, I wouldn’t go to personally, I wouldn’t go to a dance class in a gym. For a lot of the same reason probably newbies wouldn’t wanna take a fitness class at a gym, is because you just feel uncomfortable. And so that’s one nice thing about your platform, you can be as social as you want, but there’s also this anonymity in a low risk way, to try these new experiences in fitness, which is really cool as well.

Sam Cole: That’s something that’s been really interesting for us in the dance format. And I definitely was not a break dancer at school, I consider myself someone who has two left feet. And so whenever we’re doing dance stuff inside the team, I’m always saying, like, “I’m the lowest common denominator”, and I’m proud to say that. But what’s been interesting is just the widespread appeal that we see from both genders. You know? Like, I think if you were to go to a dance studio, in say London, or New York or wherever, you would see this as generally pretty dominated by female attendees. But what we see is just broad [00:15:00] interest for our dance classes across the board. And I think it’s interesting, because I think it touches that notion that you’re talking about, Preston, where I personally would never feel the confidence to go to a dance studio. And the thought of having been invited by some of our instructors to come join them in Manhattan, still kind of scares me to this day.

Um, but to be able to do that in like the privacy of my own home, whilst still feeling that presence of being surrounded by other people, I think that’s one of the things that we think is pretty powerful around VR fitness.

Preston Lewis: Hundred percent.

Ryan DeLuca: It’s funny, because, um, your co-founder actually sent us a video of you doing the dance class. So I think Preston, do you wanna press play on that?

Preston Lewis: Yeah, push play. Cut to that.

Ryan DeLuca: You know, you mentioned something very interesting is that, you know, a third of the people that are using FitXR never were really exercisers. And what’s really interesting that we’ve all seen is just how much that type of group has really adopted this type of thing. When you get to see the people that are using these experiences, you know, not in VR, but you see them on Facebook groups, for example. It’s such a wide variety of people that’s [00:16:00] different than what you might see at a gym. And just how excited people get about having something that they feel is for them and, you know, they still want that social experience and they join together. I mean, what else has surprised you about the type of audience that has really gone towards FitXR?

Sam Cole: That group is really interesting, because the more we’ve dug deeper into this, the more convinced I am the fitness industry as a whole, although it’s seen a lot of transformation in the past ten years, particularly with the arrival of connected fitness and all of the hype around that. I do just feel though that as an industry we’re kind of largely serving the same chunk of people that were previously served by gyms and fitness clubs. And there was this movement to at home, and now there’s this movement to omni channel. But I don’t really think the industry’s done a great job of expanding the audience.

And you know, Ryan, when you talk about that stat before about just the sheer number of people in America, and in most western countries, that are sedentary or inactive, that number’s getting significantly worse, not better. It’s, like, a part of the obesity epidemic as well, and again, [00:17:00] that number is getting worse, not better. And so I think when we talk to customers who are coming from a sedentary base, who have been inactive prior to using FitXR, I think it’s really interesting. Just, again, going back to this idea of, like, the conditioning. They have this notion that fitness wasn’t for them, or exercise wasn’t for them. I would blame a lot of that around how the industry presents itself. You know, there’s so much talk about optimized routines and there’s so much complexity, that you feel like as an outsider, you can understand why people go like, “okay, this whole thing isn’t for me.”

And I think what we need more in this space is more simplicity. Just this notion of like, “sweat every day” I think is such a powerful mantra. I love it, because it just removes everything from it, right? Sure, if you’re a top one percent athlete, then you should have a highly optimized nutrition plan and workout regime. But for most of us, it’s just about getting active every single day, whether that’s for seven minutes, whether that’s for fifteen minutes, whether that’s for forty five minutes. And again, I think that when you talk to these customers, you often hear this notion that exercise isn’t for me. And you go back [00:18:00] to that statement early on about when you look at young kids, it’s, like, all exercise at the end of the day is, is just structured movement. It’s, like, movement with a goal, right? And so I think by default, you know, movement should be for everyone. I think that’s been one of our big learnings having started this thing, I suppose with a fuzzy view of what it might become.

You know, going like, “hey, we really believe in the power of immersive technologies to be able to make exercise as a whole more engaging.” It’s been really fascinating for us to dig more into, like, “hey, where is this segment of customers where we can have a massive impact, because we’re able to present fitness in a way that has never been presented to them before.”

Ryan DeLuca: I saw one of your interviews saying that same kind of thing about ability to have a massive impact. Because you’re right, if you go after people that are already exercising, like that’s great and this is a new thing and it’s exciting and all that, but for them it might just be an addition or something they do for a while that adds on. But for certain people, FitXR will have a massive impact on their overall health, and life and happiness.

Sam Cole: That’s why, like, I fully subscribe to the view [00:19:00] that you guys have. Which is that, “hey, you know, at this early stage of this industry, I think that anyone working in this space is welcome to be able to spread the news and to be able to provide even more opportunities for customers to engage with what we’re doing here.”

Because, I think about, like, our competition at FitXR, and we think about how our competition as being the couch rather than Supernatural, rather than Peloton, rather than anyone else. And I think that just speaks to the size of the opportunity, right? To be able to go out and serve, not only people who are currently active and who have the Equinox subscription, who have the Peloton bike at home. But also the group of customers who have never been able to form a habit around fitness before.

Ryan DeLuca: We talk about that all the time. I mean, just the idea, you know, the fitness industry focuses so much on the people you can see, right? You know, our previous company BodyBuilding.com, of course, when you go to expos or you go to gyms, like, you’re saying, “this is the people we’re going after.” And they’re in your face, like, by definition as humans, like, we don’t think about things you’re not seeing. You know? And there’s this massive group of people that are at home on the couch that aren’t there. Where if you saw the two groups next to each other, somehow you’re like, “man, [00:20:00] that’s the big group that we want to go after.” But instead, because these ones are visible at the gym or at a competitor, we want to go and try to get those ones to switch.

Preston Lewis: The other cool thing is, as we know, fitness, nutrition, the whole journey is such a highly emotional thing. Right? And so a lot of people come to fitness in different stages of readiness. Some people aren’t ready at all, because they don’t know how to start. Some people, their doctor just told ’em that they have to start no matter what, otherwise they’re in big trouble, life or death type situations. And so I think that is the other cool thing, specifically about what you brought up and what you guys are creating, is that it is one of those things where it’s low friction and low risk, again for people to get in.

And we believe this same thing, that VR Fitness has the potential to activate the masses of people that have never even touched fitness, just because there have been way too many barriers. And so, it is kind of this nice flywheel across the industry and that’s why we appreciate companies like FitXR, because for us, with Black Box VR, we see it as an omnichannel [00:21:00] as well. With being able to have the at-home workouts, but then also being able to go in and do more advanced tracked workouts in a physical brick-and-mortar space. And so, rather than just switching customers from Orange Theory to Planet Fitness and kind of just passing the baton, it’s actually activating this entirely new market. And like we always say as well, and you see it on the fitness quotes out there, like, “the best workout is the one that you actually do”, right? And so the less friction, the more fun, the less intimidation, the more likely they are not only to start, but to keep going and keep adhering to the workout. So that’s awesome.

Sam Cole: Hundred percent.

Ryan DeLuca: You know, kinda on that note, you know, you have so many different features in FitXR now, obviously all the different classes and licensed music, multiplayer. Which type of features have you noticed that if people engage with that feature, they’re more likely to retain, to become adherent to their fitness program?

I’m sure it all adds up. Like, is there anything specific? Like, “man, if people do this type of thing, whether it’s engage with streaks, or try different classes, or add friends, or [00:22:00] leaderboards or hit the milestones or stats, or more in the mobile app.” Like, is there certain things you’ve seen that has shown that that helps increase adherence and retention?

Sam Cole: Yeah, that’s a good question. Like you said before, it kind of all adds up. I think that the multiplayer part is quite interesting to zoom in on, because I feel like that’s still at a relatively early stage in terms of its power. Just because so many people might have a VR headset themselves, and I think we’re just moving into a world now where, at least for me personally, like more of my friends and family have headsets as well. And I think, multiplayer for us, we really wanted to do in a way where every experience inside FitXR has the feeling, if you want it, you can have the feeling of presence around you of other people. And we did that, because we felt like when you’re in a group fitness studio, it’s such a massive motivational boost to be able to exercise often synchronously to the beat of the music with other people as well as having, like, a great coach there. And so for us, we really wanted to bring that experience in both our on demand and our live multi-player classes.

[00:23:00] I believe that the social loop that is created and the accountability that is created by enabling, you know, me to work out with a friend and be able to talk to a friend and be present in that same virtual space together that multiplayer affords, I think is gonna be a massive driver for us as we look for the next two or three years as the headsets start to become increasingly common and widespread.

Ryan DeLuca: Very true. People have this misperception that video games in general, but VR is this “why’d you have this lonely experience? You’re inside this headset.” Where it’s, like, has a potential to be the most social experience, you know?

And just, like, from wherever you are, bringing your friends and family there for all these different activities. So what are some of the challenges that you’ve had building FitXR? So specifically around, like, the intersection of the fitness exercise in a VR experience. Like, what are some of those bigger challenges that maybe you’re surprised about or you had to overcome?

Sam Cole: I think for us, we were really intentional around the fact that we wanted to be a fitness company not a gaming studio. And for us, that meant we wanted to build the most fun and engaging way for people to work out, but we wanted it to be a [00:24:00] robust fitness product first and foremost.

We felt like when you looked at a lot of other fitness games on previous consoles, whether that was, like, Wii, or whether that was Kinect or whatever that was, often built by gaming studios, they felt like ninety nine percent game and one percent fitness product and we didn’t want to do that. I think that was really helpful, in hindsight, to be that purposeful that early on, because if you look at the space now, there’s a clear divide between deliberate fitness experiences and incidental fitness experiences. And I think they’re both amazing and both great, but I think it’s hard to straddle both worlds. And so, we were fortunate where we said like, “hey, we wanna be a deliberate fitness application” not knowing that that’s what the term was gonna be about how to describe it.

I think there is that challenge from a design perspective, especially because we have a lot of people on the team that have come from a video gaming background. You know, we often spend a lot of time debating like, “hey, does this have the fitness integrity that we’re [00:25:00] looking for?” And we have amazing debates frequently inside the organization around different groups of people saying like, “hey, does this reach our threshold, or are we prioritizing fun and engagement more than fitness efficacy?”

Ryan DeLuca: And we actually have a video of that, too, where you guys were having an amazing debate, and this had the combat came about. You guys, after one of those meetings, uh, you figured out, “hey, we need this combat in here, we’re gonna solve this right now.” I mean, we talk about the same thing, it’s uh, any of our games really. If you weren’t gonna do it for fitness, it’s just the game side of it, then there’s probably other games that you might wanna play instead. You know, where it’s like, it’s gotta have both, but it can’t just be fitness can’t just be game. It’s gotta have that match mix, which is very difficult to get. You know, like, to balance correctly.

Sam Cole: For sure. For sure.

Ryan DeLuca: Is there anything else, Sam, when it comes to the actual interface, like, the UX and the UI in the classes, things that you had to overcome and learn? Obviously people have different perceptions and different abilities, you know, some people can’t do certain things, or the proprioception inside VR without a mirror type [00:26:00] of stuff. How did you overcome some of that in the UX and the UI?

Sam Cole: I think this is like a work in progress for us as well. It’s really easy from a design perspective to, kind of, overload players with information inside virtual reality. Because you’ve gone from designing in a world where you just have, like, a mobile screen, for example, and suddenly you’ve got, like, endless amounts of space. Right? And even from a UI perspective, you can put things everywhere, you can have a whole of different types of interactions. From an in-game experience, you can have stuff coming everywhere at all times. And I think, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can make experiences as intuitive as possible. I think it’s really easy to overload a player. I think it’s been also interesting for us to think about gamification techniques, and whether those are appropriate in a fitness context or whether we don’t wanna bring them into a fitness context. It’s things like negative scoring, for example. For people who are really competitive, then that will be great and they’ll love those quirks of the gameplay. But again, if you’re [00:27:00] thinking about like, “hey, our ambition here is to be able to serve, like, a really wide audience and a big chunk of people are coming here for the first time, having not engaged with fitness before”, then those kind of techniques probably aren’t appropriate to try and appeal to this wider audience.

Yeah. So, like, I think overload, like, visual overload, and just thinking really long and hard about all of the gamification techniques that we bring into the product experience has been a big source of ongoing debate and discussion inside the organization.

Preston Lewis: Interesting. Yeah, I don’t wanna jump ahead too much to the hardware aspect of it, but I remember playing FitXR. One of the hardest things to do was to hit those cross hooks, man. Like in the boxing one. So I gotta imagine you guys have done probably hundreds of hours of fine tuning across those different experiences to make sure that they feel just right.

Also, given the fact that you’ve been developing all this across the different kinda versions of the hardware.

Ryan DeLuca: I’m sure when people miss one of the jabs, half the time they blame themselves, half the time they blame the game.

Preston Lewis: I always blame the software, man. “It was not my fault.”

Ryan DeLuca: They might’ve [00:28:00] done it totally wrong, but they’re like, “I know I hit that one.” And so, you know, making it intuitive is the difficult part there.

Sam Cole: Yeah. And, like, I think the head detection has been something that we’ve, you know, we’ve spent hundreds of hours I think thinking about. And you’re right, Preston, like, it does vary significantly depending on, like, the headset type as well. And if you, kind of, went backwards as well in terms of, like, the earlier hardware, this was even more problematic. Like Quest One, for example, was quite challenging to work with. And then you’re trying to balance extremely different punch speeds, and often punch accuracy levels. And so, that is also challenging as well, because you want to be able to cater for people who are more competitive, more hardcore, really wanna push themselves. Who would feel like, “hey, I actually didn’t hit that one, but you are telling me that I did hit it, and that’s underwhelming and demotivating.” At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got people who are just starting out and you wanna make sure that everyone is able to have a good experience. So yeah, you’re right. The balance on that is challenging.

Preston Lewis: Well, the cool thing about it, too, I will say is that, like, it’s also a [00:29:00] nice aspect of challenge and mastery, you know, so even if it’s not the perfect thing every single time, to me, I chalk that up to just learning the game more. Which is part of the mastery of it, which obviously makes video games fun.

But you know how addictive, to your point about simple mechanics, how addicted people are to streaks, things like streaks. At Black B ox, that’s, like, one of our most addictive features, is people not wanting to miss their workout battles. And so that’s the thing, is like, you see that little streak bar filling up and if you miss one, you’re like, dang it. It’s, like, actually, almost this visceral pain, but at the same time, that’s what distracts you from the actual pain of the squats and the dips and stuff like that. So I think it’s, in my opinion, very well balanced.

Ryan DeLuca: And then when you actually get that streak, you know, when you know you earned it, you know, then…

Preston Lewis: Yeah.

Ryan DeLuca: …that, that feeling of improvement is just very, uh, satisfying.

Preston Lewis: Yeah. Yeah, and you got that competition in there as well. Because, like, anytime I do those workouts and I see the other, um, other people working out, I don’t think they’re working out live? Are they working out live?

Sam Cole: No, they’re not. That’ll be all pre-recorded or asynchronous.

Preston Lewis: Got it. So async, and so [00:30:00] I’m always thinking, like, “who the heck is that person that’s got, like, basically the perfect streak through this insane song?” It definitely has that competitive element as well. But kind of, uh, it wasn’t on the list of our questions, but as you’re talking about this multiplayer aspect and just thinking about our audience as creators, you know, they’re looking to get their product to not only launch, but also succeed and grow. So do you have any quick tips on how you guys have seen the most growth?

Is it mostly the word of mouth, social aspect? Is it nurturing your own community? Paid ads? Like, if you had to, kind of, boil it down a little bit for our users, what would you say is a good place to focus?

Sam Cole: Yeah, I think the single biggest thing for us was launching early and nurturing an early community around the product experience and then kind of being obsessed about their community, and everything they were saying and everything they wanted built. That, like, for us happened on Steam. I think that now happens predominantly on App Lab. And I think you’ve seen, like, a number of really interesting companies come from App Lab who have done exactly the strategy. I think [00:31:00] I’m also, like, from a broader VR sense, I think you’ve seen some companies come through recently, whether that’s, like, Gorilla Tag or Gym Class, who have also, alongside that model, have really invested in creative tools and highly sharable content. And so, they’ve got this great viral social loop going on. And I think, like, trying to bring that into fitness would be pretty killer. Because yeah, the model previously for launching VR titles was release great early trailers that just generate a whole lot of hype before the release of the actual product experience.

I think now, those two names before Gym Class and Gorilla Tag, and the emergence of those as these, like, massively hyped up things, hundreds of millions of views on TikTok before they even move onto the main store, I think they’ve done a lot of things right as a result.

Preston Lewis: So we talked a little bit about the hardware issues, or I guess the hardware landscape you guys have had to deal with, in developing FitXR. But what types of VR hardware or software improvements do you hope to see in the near [00:32:00] future that would allow you to create an even better FitXR experience and to help make VR fitness mainstream?

Sam Cole: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I actually think that the Quest 2 hardware is good enough for true mainstream adoption in many ways for people exercising in virtual reality.

I think the problem stems more from just, like, general awareness about the readiness of VR from both a hardware and content standpoint. And I think there’s many things that we get excited about, I can go into them about, like, what future headsets are gonna bring. But you know, when we’ve done our own awareness campaigns or Meta has done big awareness campaigns featuring FitXR, and then we’ve done, you know, testing around side of that.

We’re always shocked by the level of, like, the overall percentage of the society that sees themselves as, like, potentially buying a VR headset in 2023 to exercise for fitness. I think, like, a lot of things are stacked up for this to be ready. But again, I think you are fighting against a lot of the inertia, that we [00:33:00] spoke about in the in earlier on in this call, around people have tried VR before and they got nauseous, they had a bad experience, or they think it’s a fad or they think it’s just for gaming. I think that a lot of that creates inertia that makes it harder for it to truly break through. But I think it’s all coming.

I think in terms of the things that we get excited about, I suppose just, like, slimmer form factor devices will of course be more comfortable, particularly for prolonged use. But that’s, like, the bit where I, kind of, get a little bit stuck on. Is going, like, for most of our customers, they might be spending thirty minutes in a headset. It’s, like, that level of usage, especially when they’re exercising intensely, you often don’t notice the form factor. It doesn’t become a problem. It’s more of a problem, I think the form factor, around more passive experiences, like when you’re watching sport or TV, or participating in a video call. But yeah, decreased form factor, I think, will still drive more adoption. We’d love more, like, better field of view inside the displays.

I think for us, particularly with our HIIT experience, we feel quite constrained by being able to [00:34:00] get people to really move around. Because if it’s outside your fairly limited field of view inside VR, it can be quite distracting and disorienting. And then I think for us, like, mixed reality is gonna be a really interesting transition and I think that’s gonna unlock a huge amount of modalities for FitXR, and I imagine a huge amount of innovation in this space. We’re really excited about that, and I’ve been playing around a lot with the Quest Pro and what that’s gonna bring. And then I think full body tracking, whether that’s done via some kind of external tracking or via the cameras on the headset. I think being able to bring in your full body is gonna be meaningful in a number of ways. And again, I think about this, like, from modality expansion, but also just, like, it will give increased presence for multiplayer mode and you’ll really be able to feel like you are in an experience with others.

We get pretty excited about all of those things on the roadmap. And they all seem, like, you know, we’ve been in this space for long enough, right? Some of these things were a long way off five years ago, but I really feel like we’re at a moment now where the rest of 23 is gonna be pretty interesting. The rest of 24 is gonna [00:35:00] be, well 24 and in its entirety, I think’s gonna be amazing for this space. And so, yeah, we’re really excited from where we stand.

Preston Lewis: I was gonna say, I think it was in the BOXVR days, I would wear a weighted vest, and I always wanted credit for that. I always wanted to be able to, like, select a toggle that said, “wearing weighted vest, yes or no.” Boom. Gimme more points. Um, but no, it’s crazy how intense it can get just with body weight. So that being said, um, what are your overall, assuming some of that hardware does come to pass, because we all feel that it will. What are your thoughts on the overall future of VR, AR sports and fitness? Where do you think it will go over the next three to five years and beyond?

Sam Cole: Yeah. I think VR Fitness has already proven itself to be one of the killer use cases around VR adoption. I think just the sheer visibility that you see, you know, clearly demonstrates that it’s a massive awareness driver, and a massive decision for people in terms of buying headsets. I think that’s great. I think you are just gonna continue to see that progress where, as the industry moves from virtual [00:36:00] reality through to mixed reality, and we have, you know, Pico, Apple, PlayStation and Meta, you know, all competing in the consumer market. I think you’re gonna see even more so fitness being, like, a very dominant use case and driving a lot of usage around that.

I think also with augmented reality, I think, you know we are really excited about what that brings. We haven’t spoken too much about that here, but, you know, we see FitXR as definitely operating across all immersive technologies, and for us that means VR, MR and AR. I think AR has some of its own, like, different hardware issues that need to be solved. But a lot of them, I think, come back to, you know, trying to search for this perfect form factor that’s gonna work as a fashion accessory, as well as deliver a powerful enough experience that the content is meaningful to justify using it in the first case. And I think actually sports and fitness is gonna be, again, a big unlock here, that I don’t know if people are [00:37:00] seeing as clearly as, you know, we think we see it.

You know, I just think about the sort of glasses that people wear when they’re cycling, for example. And I think you’ve got a lot more, you’ve got a lot more ability to be a bit more flexible on the form factor, and to really focus on a specific use case. And so we get really excited about that, right? About AR and fitness being maybe the first, kind of, true consumer use case that we see. And I think, I think that’s gonna be amazing. When we think about that, that just unlocks fitness not only in the home, but also outdoors and in the gym, and I think that, kind of, completes the whole vision from the very beginning about wanting to bring immersive fitness to, kind of, wherever people were. And just be able to, kind of, uplift and provide the most engaging fitness content wherever people were at.

Ryan DeLuca: A lot of what you’re talking about the future, it’s like, we all agree, the hardware, software is going in the right direction. Like, you know, we all predicted Gorilla Tag, but uh, we also thought that we’d have a lot of these features a lot sooner. Of course, you know? If you would’ve told me by 2023 we’d still be complaining about some of that stuff, I would’ve been like, “no, there’s no way.” [00:38:00] You know? But, we do know that it is moving and it is happening. And we’ve been here for the long haul, and we’ve been learning, which is the exciting part. All that research is going into products that are gonna be releasing very soon that we’re really excited about. We’ve kind of always said, like, you know, fitness is one of the killer apps for VR. And at first, you know, the people didn’t really think so and now everyone’s really realizing like, you know, and on accident, I’m sure you hear this quite a lot with FitXR members, where they bought a headset for their kid to play some games and then they said, “oh, lemme try it”, they did like a Beat Saber type of thing and they’re, like, “whoa, I’m actually exercising.” Like, “that’s kind of crazy, what other things are here?” And then, you know, with Zuckerberg getting really excited about fitness and making a whole section of the store for fitness, like, that’s just been such a big deal. And I think it is going to drive adoption, specifically for them, so it’ll continue to be a push. But it’s just one of those things that, you know, I might not feel like I need to put a headset on or play any kind of games, because I need to play a game today. You know, usually, it’s like, you realize you shouldn’t. But, it’s like, you have this feeling, like, I wanna get back into VR every day and it’s good for me. Like, that’s [00:39:00] a really exciting thing.

Sam Cole: And I think that’s what the platforms realized by, you know, by looking at the underlying data. Which they saw two key things. The first one was fitness applications, like FitXR, were appealing to a wider audience than just, like, the core gaming experiences were. And so they were dragging in an entirely new demographic of people. And the second one was fitness applications were driving more habitual use of the headset, and so it was a reason to keep on coming back and using the device. And in the same way I think, like, productivity is gonna do the same thing. I think sports or, like, entertainment viewership I think is also gonna be interesting. And that would actually, like, I’ll go back to your form factor question.

I think the Quest Pro docking station and just, like, constantly having the device on charge, apps updated. I think that is a big unlock, right? Because suddenly the device is displayed prominently, it’s always good to go. I think more things like that, where it’s just, like, you remove any barriers or any friction that stop me getting into the experience. I think that’s a good thing for fitness. I think that’s a good thing for FitXR. [00:40:00] I think that’s a good thing for the underlying ecosystems as well.

Preston Lewis: Hundred percent. I mean, the good thing, too, is the competition for fitness. We always joke about how most fitness devices are literally torture devices. Right? Like, treadmills were invented in as a punishment for some crime?

Ryan DeLuca: Prison.

Preston Lewis: Yeah. In prison. And so it’s, like, that’s the thing. As people get this, I think, we’re all kind of saying it. As this friction is reduced, as more people get these headsets that are cheaper and cheaper, just getting them in and having that mental model shift from, “that’s the treadmill I gotta just suffer on”, or “holy crap, I just got out of a Beat Saber game, or FitXR session, and that felt like 10 minutes”, you know? So.

Sam Cole: Yeah.

Preston Lewis: Um, it’s getting closer for sure.

Sam Cole: On that as well. I think the holy grail here goes, uh, you have insurance companies or other groups, corporate wellness schemes, where people are going like, “hey, there’s a real societal cost here for obesity and sedentary lifestyles.” Like, I think sedentariness is like the fourth, [00:41:00] um, main mortality driver in the US and it’s, like, a hundred billion dollars a year. And so you go, “okay, there’s a real cost that government or insurers or people are bearing.” And so I think using VR fitness is, like, a preventative measure for all of the health complications that come from sedentary lifestyles and obesity. I think is also really interesting.

So I think there’s a world, also, where you’ve got consumer models, but there’s also a world where, you know, maybe your employer or maybe your insurance company or maybe someone else is paying for your access to the device. And we’ve been doing some interesting pilots around this that show not only the efficacy, but also, like, really strong engagement rates for at risk populations here. So yeah, I think there’s a lot that’s gonna be done in this space going forward as well.

Preston Lewis: So yeah, last question is what’s next for FitXR?

Sam Cole: We kind of hinted at it a little bit before. We’re really excited about mixed reality, and so we’ve been spending a lot of time with the Quest Pro, figuring out what that means. I think the ability to interact with [00:42:00] your surroundings in a meaningful way and incorporate that into your experience, is really exciting for us. And so, yeah, we can’t say much more on that, but later on this year we’ll be rolling out a number of new studios that utilize those features. And I think it brings a new flavor to virtual reality fitness that hasn’t existed before. Yeah, we’re really excited about what it brings.

Ryan DeLuca: I just saw you guys just released, uh, the new concept, FitXR Ape Tag. That’s, uh, that’s gonna be a good one.

The future of FitXR is definitely bright and we are very excited to be working together with you to help to grow this industry. Like we said it many times, “it’s needed.” Like, sometimes you could be creating a product or a service that’s like, “oh, this would be a good thing, just because people kind of want it, or it might be a little bit different than something they already have.” Or it’s like, “oh, you can create a business and it’s a money making opportunity.”

Almost nothing is needed more for society than something that will help people to adhere to an exercise program; sweat every day, help them to, you know, obviously lose fat, feel better, [00:43:00] be healthier, just that overall life confidence and happiness that that brings. You can’t really do much more for society, in general, than help solve that problem. And that’s where we all get to play together.

Sam Cole: Hundred percent. I couldn’t have said it better. Completely agree.

Preston Lewis: Okay. Well that’s all the time. We have. Thanks so much, Sam, for joining us and sharing your team’s story, the insights and passion for creating the future of VR Fitness with our audience. For any of you in the audience, if you’d like to get into contact with Sam and the team, I will put all the info in the show notes, so be sure to go check those out. Uh, thanks again.

Thanks for listening to the VR Fitness Insider podcast. Do you know of anyone that should be on our show or have feedback? Don’t forget to email us at podcast vr fitness insider.com and follow us at VR Fitness Insider on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. You can also join our Discord channel. Until next time, keep creating and dreaming up the next big thing that will revolutionize the world of fitness.[00:44:00]

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