A typical group exercise class is lead by an instructor in a studio or gym. However one Milwaukee start up has partnered with a local gym to bring participants an immersive virtual reality experience that does not require a instructor to lead the class.
Participants at Balance Fitness in Whitefish Bay can choose from a variety of immersive experiences available on a touch screen. Their choice is then projected on a large curved screen using technology developed by Surround Fit and Wellness.
"Immersive fitness is like regular fitness, just kind of going an extra step," says John DiLisa, Surround Fit and Wellness’s chief innovation officer. "So instead of running a cycling class in February, you'll be riding through a Hawaiian roadside synchronized with an instructor."
"The images are provided to help guide (the participants)," says Garret Stangel, health and performance coach and owner of Balance Fitness. Images filmed in locations such as a beach front or a forest add "another layer of connection" for the participants related to the exercise.
The content ranges from cycling, kickboxing, yoga, to tai chi, and it emerged from the virtual reality lab at Marquette University. Members of the school’s employee wellness community have used it for more than two years.
"Since (the program) was pretty costly for us to build and maintain, we started thinking about what else could we do in here that could have an impact? And one of the things that came out through our employee wellness program that I was taking classes in was immersive fitness. It started with cycling and then it snowballed into these additional offerings," says DeLisa.
Stangel says bringing this feature to the gym can help him serve a bigger population.
"The partnership with Surround Fit and Wellness gives us the opportunity to offer another 25 hours each week to bring not just more content, but even different content than what I am trained to provide."
He also notes that a traditional gym environment is not for everyone, but by having a solitary workout accessible, more people can integrate fitness comfortably into their lives.
"We can access some of those users who might prefer a more solitary workout...by offering them something that just isn't available in that home setting," says Stangel.
The programs utilize local instructors to film the sessions, but they are not identifiable and remain a shadowed silhouette in order to not only respect the instructor's product, but to help the participate focus on their experience.
"Everyone's on a different path in their fitness journey and so by having the silhouette on the screen rather than the instructor - whatever he or she may look like - it's more introspective than that," says LaDisa.
Stangel hopes that this technology can be used to not only gain people's interest, but build something beyond the screen.
"I hope that we see more people come through and find the immersive technology as an interesting hook for them to come in and do it, and then to build community with the people their sharing that space with," he says.