27 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Health Club Management
2021 issue 7

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Leisure Management - Preston Lewis

HCM People

Preston Lewis

Game designers have figured out how to keep people unhealthily addicted to games. If only you could be the hero in a game that levelled up your life

Preston Lewis believes VR can help people stick to a fitness programme photo: black box vr
Black Box VR has invested millions of dollars in developing the futuristic system photo: black box vr
Black Box VR transports users into another world photo: black box vr
Black Box VR currently has two dedicated locations, plus booths in four EōS Fitness clubs photo: black box vr
photo: black box vr
Users have their own personal booth and get post-workout stats via the app photo: black box vr
photo: black box vr
photo: black box vr
photo: black box vr
Lewis (L) co-founded Black Box VR with Ryan DeLuca photo: black box vr
Black Box VR has partnered with EōS gyms to offer exclusive access to the system via a membership upgrade photo: black box vr

Black Box VR is the world’s first virtual reality gym, combining HIIT and resistance training with immersive gaming. Co-founder Preston Lewis talks about getting people addicted to fitness through VR.

What’s your background?
I’m a fitness fanatic with a love for creative problem-solving. I grew up in a very athletic family with a love for sport and fitness. Throughout my childhood, I was always training and ended up earning a scholarship for pole-vaulting in college.

I started my first business when I was 13, adopting the latest technologies to source products from abroad. I built this into a seven-figure creative agency that I ran while studying international business and finance and then sold it before joining Bodybuilding.com.

There I met my Black Box VR co-founder, Ryan DeLuca, who had started the company and together with an amazing team, we ran the most-visited fitness website in the world.

Our love of innovative tech, combined with expertise in exercise, sports psychology, nutrition and supplements helped the company grow to nearly US$500m in annual revenue.

Where did the idea for Black Box VR come from?
We saw an opportunity to make fitness ‘sticky’ by combining HIIT and resistance training with VR and game design mechanics. The majority of people struggle with long-term adherence to fitness programmes – it’s literally hindering billions from living the lives of their dreams – and we thought that was a problem worth solving!

Our bodies need to be tricked into sticking to a fitness programme, they literally fight against it and are programmed to be efficient with calories and to induce pain when we’re pushing too hard. On top of that, working out is immediate effort and delayed reward; it lacks the feedback loops that are needed to encourage follow-through. Not to mention the boredom!

You stand in the traditional gym, looking in the mirror, doing rep after rep, bored out of your mind. Contrast that with game design – where designers have figured out how to keep people unhealthily addicted: they’re effectively levelling up their game characters but levelling down their actual lives, as they remain glued to the couch.

If only you could be the hero in a game that levelled up your life... Enter virtual reality and our Black Box VR Virtual Sports Training Centers.

After trying VR for the first time, Ryan and I knew this powerful technology, when paired with science-backed resistance training principles and the right game mechanics, would be a game-changer and we decided to found Black Box VR. We vowed to create a company that would help customers transform their lives through addictive fitness experiences that harness the power of immersive technologies.

How did you develop the idea?
We knew we wanted to have a VR experience that paired with resistance training, but it was pretty obvious to us that dumbbells weren’t going to do the trick. Instead, we decided to develop a special cable resistance machine. The idea came from a machine I‘d trained on for pole vaulting in college. It was rudimentary, but it could change weight and reps ranges automatically and track each rep.

We started to envision building something similar that would work in VR and be safe and effective. We worked with an engineering company and our team to develop four prototypes to get us to where we are today.

There were months where the machine was interfering with the VR and we couldn’t find a solution – it was driving us nuts! Finally, we discovered a way to use a metallic ‘doughnut’ to fix the problem. I joked that we should put out a press release titled: “doughnut saves fitness company!”

Describe the experience
Our patent-pending Dynamic Resistance Machine provides up to 220 lbs of resistance and also acts as a controller in the VR workout. When players first step into a Black Box VR booth, they see the machine. The two handles move to allow for different movements to be made, such as squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, chest press, back row and lat pulldown.

Before players interact with the machine, they put on arm tracking pucks and a VR headset that transports them into our immersive Black Box VR Battle Arenas. In each Arena, they can see the crowd cheering them on and their opponent across the field. They can also see our machine mapped in the virtual experience and when they reach out for the virtual handles, they can feel the real handles on the machine.

After the workout battle begins, players can choose different exercises and the resistance automatically calibrates to their strength, adapting if the weights are too heavy or light, based on their rep ranges.

Each exercise movement corresponds to an in-game attack. For example, as users complete shoulder presses, they’re hurling meteors at enemy units in the virtual world. The stronger the players get, the more reps and resistance they can handle, giving them a better chance at winning each virtual workout battle and taking home virtual trophies and other status items.

After each battle, the AI crunches the numbers and delivers their performance to our mobile app, where they can see their increased strength charts, body measurements, champion upgrades, leaderboard rankings and other ‘addicting’ game elements that keep them coming back, getting stronger, burning serious calories and having a ton of fun while doing it.

How did you work around the issues of wearing a bulky VR headset?
We’ve been through multiple prototypes in the last five years and have learned a lot along the way. We tested different VR sweatbands, cable management systems, ideal room temperatures, sweat-wicking fabrics and VR headset manufacturers and this has paid off.

We’ve put thousands of people through our experience and the headset is now an afterthought for them. Many players come out of the experience forgetting they were even wearing them – that’s a real testament to the team’s dedication to solving these issues through incessant iteration.

What other issues are specific to working out in VR?
Because we’re pioneers in the VR fitness space, we’ve had to create a lot of user interfaces and experience patterns that didn’t exist before. Even issues that seem simple can take a lot of brainpower to solve. Due to the newness of the technology, it’s difficult to do a Google search and find your solution!

The industry and VR community is growing rapidly, so it’s getting easier to find insight, but there’s still a lot of trial and error. For example, we didn’t want players running into walls in VR so we had to design a platform system. We wanted players to always face the field, so we had to create a room-spinning solution that respected VR motion principles. We wanted them to be able to see where an exercise movement starts and where it ends, so we created floating objects mapped to movements.

We have to teach players that they can walk around the virtual space and we’ve had to create novel training experiences that show users how to grab handles in the virtual world that are mapped to our real-world machine.

Each of these issues pushed us to create new interaction patterns that were sometimes spot on in the first prototype and sometimes way off. It’s fun to be able to work with our amazingly smart team and solve these challenging problems on a daily basis. The best reward is seeing players’ faces light up when all the pieces come together.

Tell us more about the game
As the player slides the VR headset on, they can see their opponent as well as ‘Champions’ that they can use strategically in the game. The crowd cheers as the countdown clock chimes 5...4...3...2...1...GO!

The player then has the option to complete cardio movements – much like shadow-boxing – to build Champions, or they can choose to load up exercises on the Dynamic Resistance Machine.

When the machine is in position, the player can grab the real handles and start completing reps, pushing to defeat their opponent’s incoming attacks. Each rep the player completes corresponds to an epic in-game attack.

Players destroy opposing Champions and collect elixir to build additional units with cardio movements. This is where the HIIT aspect comes in. The faster they build Champions with their punching and slicing, the better chance they have of winning. This keeps the heart rate elevated and provides a killer workout.

As opponents trade blows, destroy gates and obliterate crystals within the game, they collect points. The player with the most points after 30 minutes then wins the game and takes home the trophies and the bragging rights!

One of the most exciting parts is after the battle when players open the app and see their stats that were automatically tracked – we track over 50,000 data points per workout – they unlock their rewards and compare themselves with their friends and the overall Black Box VR community on the leaderboards. Then, players start to itch for their next session because they know that with it comes the chance for more prestige, rewards and levelling up, not only their in-game characters but their lives as well.

How does it track form and progress?
We use algorithms that track different points on the body and planes of movement to track each player’s form and to alert them when they are outside the thresholds of the correct form.

Who is Black Box aimed at?
We believe we’ll be able to reach a diverse demographic, but our core age group focus is on 25-40-year-olds who want to improve their fitness, and have an affinity with gaming.

We’ve seen people who enjoy gaming and competitive sports fall in love with our product. They love that it scratches the itch to compete and have fun while giving important health benefits.

Why is VR is such a powerful tool?
VR is the most immersive technology that exists. It has the power to trick the mind into thinking it’s been transported to another place, the ability to give the viewer an embodied presence no other technology can. It puts the player at the centre of the journey and empowers them to feel like a superhero.

There are many compelling scientific studies coming out related to VR in the healthcare field. In one, burn victims who were normally given morphine to manage the pain of skin-stretching were put in a simulated VR environment without morphine. Preliminary studies showed the VR was as powerful in pain management as morphine (www.HCMmag.com/chronicpain).

Other studies have shown VR’s ability to make longer, more boring experiences feel shorter. We think it’s clear that combining VR gaming with fitness has the potential to decrease pain, increase enjoyment, and allow players to push their bodies further than they would normally, creating real fitness gains over time.

VR’s immersive nature can take the monotony out of the gym routine and make a 30-minute workout feel like 10. These are only a few things that make VR and fitness a match made in heaven.

How many VR rooms does each club have?
Typically we have around six booths per location. We have 14 in our San Francisco location.

What are your plans for Black Box VR?
We’re doing a four-gym pilot through a partnership with EōS Fitness. We’ve installed private booths inside the gyms and members can upgrade their memberships to gain access. We’re excited to get many more members into the experience in the pilot and then expand across the US. (www.HCMmag.com/eosVR)

Has COVID-19 affected your operations?
In terms of privacy and social distancing, many people say we’re a perfect fitness option for the age of COVID-19, because our members are in their own private booths for each workout.

We use a third-party company called CleanBox (not affiliated with Black Box) – that uses medical-grade UV-C to sanitise the headsets between use and we’ve increased our cleaning procedures based on government recommendations.

Does the game change?
Absolutely – we have some people on 20-plus week streaks where they haven’t missed a single workout. Sometimes we have to tell them to work out less to ensure they can recover!

© Fit Tech magazine 2021

Fit Tech magazine

Preston Lewis interview courtesy of Fit Tech – the sister magazine of HCM – and managing editor, Steph Eaves

Get more fit tech news: sign up for free digital magazines and news feeds at www.FitTechglobal.com/signup

Originally published in Health Club Management 2021 issue 7

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