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Review of BitGym and Virtual Active for iOS and Android – Virtual Reality Video for your Exercise Bike, Elliptical, or Treadmill

Back in 2013, I reviewed a game for the Wii U called Wii Street U. This was a game where you could “walk” on your Balance Board, and on your TV screen you could “walk” anywhere in the world that Google Maps’ cameras had gone. It was relatively groundbreaking at the time; until then you were relegated to watching DVDs or screens on very, very expensive treadmills to get any kind of “virtual tour” that responded to your movements. But as you can see from the gameplay video in my review, the experience was choppy and more a curiosity than anything else.

bitgym-iconThat same year Active Theory Inc. released an app called BitGym, available at the iTunes Store and Google Play Store. In the early years they had a few kinks to work out but three years later the app is pretty polished and has powered over a million workouts.

If you have an indoor cardio machine–an exercise bike, an elliptical, a stair stepper, a rowing machine, or a treadmill, there’s a good chance your machine has been collecting dust or has been used as a very expensive coat rack. It’s tough to keep from being bored to tears on cardio equipment. Sure, you can try reading a book or watching TV, but if my experience is anything like yours even that’s tough because your brain is trying to do two different things at the same time–partake in an activity usually associated with relaxation, and doing extreme physical exertion.

The idea behind the app is simple yet brilliant. You get on your indoor cardio machine and place your tablet or phone in front of you. You can optionally purchase a Bluetooth heart rate monitor (they recommend the Wahoo Tickr or 60beat Blue) which integrates with the program.

You select your machine type: a bike, a treadmill, an elliptical, or an ergometer (rowing machine). You then experience from a first person perspective a high-resolution video tour of a bike trail, hiking path, or running trail from around the world. All together there are more than 100 HD video tours to choose from in some of the world’s most beautiful locations (the first demo is a gorgeous trail that runs through the mountains of Northern Italy).

bitgym northern italy run

Unlike passively watching a DVD, the video speeds up and slows down based on your own workout. The result is the very definition of virtual reality–you really feel like you’re there. Instead of your brain getting mixed signals–am I watching TV or am I biking–your brain just accepts that yes, you’re in Northern Italy biking happily along a trail. Your brain becomes less aware on your physical effort as you focus more on your surroundings in the video. Adding to the realism, you can turn on “nature sounds” to give you a truly immersive experience.

Amazingly there’s nothing to connect–the way this app works, it’ll use your smartphone’s front-facing camera to detect your video image, and then it’ll use the subtle movements of your face and body while exercising to gauge the cadence and intensity of your workout. The faster you’re moving in real life, the faster you’ll move in the scene. Stop in real life, and the video image will stop.

The motion detection is uncannily precise, especially considering that it’s just gauging your motion based on your video image and your phone is not hooked up to your machine. As long as your room is fairly well lit (but not too much so) and your phone is placed right in front of you, it’s work near perfectly. And it’s not easy to “fake”, as if it were worth your time to even attempt to do that.

The locales you choose from are real, from Buenos Aires, to all the islands of Hawaii, to the streets of Paris, to the Canadian Rockies, to the jungles of Costa Rica, to the islands of New Zealand, to a number of National Parks. The videos are spectacular in their clarity, and you can choose to view the moving image on your phone or cast it to your high definition TV using HDMI, Chromecast, or Apple TV.

Here’s a screen grab of me running through the streets of Venice on that same tour.

running through venice

And here I am biking through the wild streets of Chicago.

chicago tour bitgym

You can choose to have a number of overlays to give you all kinds of information about your workout.

bit gym options
You can overlay a continually running estimate of your steps per minute on the bottom of the screen, and your elapsed time on the top. You can also choose to have “Trail Facts” pop up from time to time that tell you the details of the path you’re running. From an audio perspective, you can choose to play nature sounds by themselves or a playlist from your phone or both. Personally, I prefer to shut off all overlays and turn on nature sounds, which lets me experience the maximum realism.

The only way I can think of to improve this is with a virtual reality headset like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PSVR to give you the ultimate virtual reality experience where you can actually look around as you run. Something tells me they’re probably working on that as we speak.

You can download the app for free to try out the Northern Italy run, and if you remain a free user you’ll be limited to a selection of locations and checkpoints, as well as a maximum of 10 minutes. In order to access the other 100+ trails, as well as guided tours and coaching videos, you’ll need to sign up as a member and pay an annual fee of about $95. It might seem pricey compared to other smartphone apps, but on the other hand if you think about it $2 a week is a small price to pay to breathe new life into your workout, and a lot less than a gym.

Another option is to download another app called Virtual Active for iOS. Virtual Active is a company that produces video tour DVDs for home use, as well as for high-end cardio machines.  It appears that they’ve partnered with Active Theory to develop an app that features their videos and makes them interactive through BitGym technology. The interface isn’t quite as polished as BitGym and the tours don’t seem quite as interactive, but you do have the option of purchasing videos for $7.99 a pop and it’s yours to keep.

virtual active run

virtual active workouts

virtual active hiking

Can BitGym and Virtual Active be considered “games”? The criteria on this blog has always been that I’ll review games that are “so fun you forget you’re exercising”. In the case of these apps, you don’t forget you’re exercising, but you certainly forget you’re in your boring den or home gym as you travel the world virtually.

Game: BitGym
Publisher: Active Theory, Inc.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Treadmill Walking and Running, Elliptical, ERG Rowing, Stationary Biking (indoors)
Watch Support? No
Price: Free
Download links: iOS and Android.

Game: Virtual Active
Publisher: Active Theory, Inc.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Exercise supported: Treadmill Walking and Running, Elliptical, Stationary Biking (indoors)
Watch Support? No
Price: Free
Download links: iOS

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