May 25, 2022


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Naked and Unafraid to Exercise in Virtual Reality

I can without bashfulness say that I have logged hundreds of hours on Beat Saber as naked as the day I was born. It was neither fetish nor high-concept performance art; it grew from simple need.

In the spring of 2018, I was trying to keep a VR startup afloat, navigating a never-ending flurry of emails, Slack messages, video calls, and tweets from the confines of my efficiency in San Mateo, California. Though typically an active person, I’d deluded myself into believing that I just didn’t have the time for luxuries like the gym and “mental health.” I did, however, make a special dispensation for staying abreast of industry happenings, and ever since a video of my friend SwanVR had gone viral, I’d been itching to play Beat Saber.

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Once I started, I couldn’t stop. It quickly became habit; any time I got stressed, I’d shove my chair away from my desk and fire it up—sometimes for 90 minutes or more. In a time when I was sure I didn’t have the time for fitness, I began to establish a daily routine. My story is one of many—with folks from all over the world losing as much as 138 pounds by turning titles like Audioshield, Audio Trip, BOXVR, Creed: Rise to Glory, Holopoint, OhShape, Racket: NX, Synth Riders, Soundboxing, and Thrill of the Fight into formal exercise routines.

Re: the nudity, the laundry machines in the basement were coin-operated, and I just didn’t want to deal with sopping clothes stinking up my small apartment. I’d often muse, though, how bizarre it might have looked if anybody had witnessed it: some gangly white guy strapped into a VR headset, unselfconsciously flailing around a cramped space.

Somewhat in juxtaposition to VR’s oft-touted capacities to build empathy through embodiment, my TMI anecdote points to the power of disembodiment. So much of the modern fitness experience is wrapped up in appearance, which in turn opens the doors for insecurity and shame. It’s not just when we feel embarrassed about our out-of-shape bodies—though of course many are deterred from going to the gym because of self-esteem issues—it’s a whole host of other factors. Some are social. Am I sweating too much? Am I wearing the right clothes? Am I being laughed at? Some have to do with our sense of identity. Will I look incompetent? What if I use a machine incorrectly? I used to be able to do x at y ability—how did I let myself go? Others can be even more practical, like how often we trust ourselves to actually do laundry.

Peloton, of course, has capitalized on these concerns, building a lifestyle community around its $2,300 stationary bike (plus $40 per month subscription service). The $1,500 Mirror, a literal mirror with built-in text and video overlay functionality, is seeking to expand the trend to categories like yoga, dance, boxing, and other cardio classes. It’s easy to see how private machinery addresses many of the obstacles that keep folks from hitting the gym. Where Peloton or Mirror might offer ongoing streams of new classes, though, they are fixed physical platforms; VR fitness differentiates itself in letting users step outside the existing reality paradigm. Any mix of features can be included in an immersive game environment—and that includes how bodies are represented. In Beat Saber, the only visual correlation of your body are the two sabers, which are not “in” your hands so much as they are your hands.