Virtual Worlds Move into Cyclist’s Basements

An app called Zwift is dominating the cyber cycling world. Most of my non-cyclist friends and colleagues are surprised to learn about this strange new land of virtual cycling, so here’s an intro for newcomers and then we can muse about future developments.

How Zwift Works

  • Put your bike on a trainer
  • Sensors read the pedalling power you generate. The sensors can be in your pedals, crank, rear axil or the trainer.
  • Other sensors read your cadence (how fast you are pedalling) and heart rate
  • An app on your computer collects the sensor data and connects you to a virtual world where you are joined by thousands of other so-equipped cyclists. Here you can race, group-train, socialize or just do your own thing.
bike-on-trainer2

Riding

Zwift computes your virtual speed based on your (honestly-entered) weight, power, slope and the wind resistance. Your wind resistance is affected by the other virtual riders around you. So, like in the real world, you can go much faster in a peloton. No steering is necessary. Zwift keeps you on the road and pops up turn-buttons a little before your reach an intersection.

Training with Data, the Functional Power Threshold (FTP)

Cycling is heartlessly numeric in both the real and virtual worlds. Your speed is mostly determined by your watts (power) per kilogram (how much you weigh). Your legs and cardio vascular system can generate only so much power. The average amount of power you can sustain for 1 hour is your FTP. You can work above your FTP for short periods of time and doing so is a typical ingredient of a training program. Your power is also affected by many other things, such as temperature (your system puts resources into generating sweat at the expense of your legs when it’s hot), fatigue, and available blood sugar.

To test your FTP, go as hard as you can for 20 minutes.  The first 3 or 4 minutes feels fine, the next 37.9 minutes are awful. Take your average power for that 20 minutes and divide by 105. The resulting number is your FTP.

Guided Training

Zwift uses your FTP to guide you through various training protocols. For example, high intensity intervals where you go FTP*1.3 for a few minutes and then recover. Or a steady FTP * 0.8 for training in an easier, less injury-prone zone. When in guided training, a little display appears in front of your avatar so other riders know you’re in your doing your own thing and your own display shows your current power and warns if your out of the target range.

Races and Group Rides

This is the fun part. After you sign up for a race, a few minutes before the start you are teleported to a start line. Your virtual bike is on a virtual trainer so you can keep your legs warm while you wait for the start.

Virtual bikes on a virtual trainer at the start linestarting-line

Some group rides are training, some are races. I’ve found virtual races remarkably like the real thing. In both the virtual and the real world, I’ll try to hand on to the back of a stronger group, but inevitably, I get dropped. I’ll spend a bit of time in “no man’s land” before getting swept up by a peloton behind me. This group is more my speed and we work together taking turns and the front, sometimes we drop riders on hills, sometimes I get dropped. Then as the race nears the end, vicious competitions heat up as people duke it out for finish position. This competition tends to drive you to work harder than you might have, if you were alone.

In this screen shot, I’ve been dropped from the faster riders (which I can see are 2:54 seconds ahead) and I am working with a smaller group. The other riders shown slightly ahead are not in the same race event so do not show up in the list of riders on right hand side of the screen.smaller-group

And for good measure, here is the real-world Google Street map of the exact same position.smaller-group-real-world

Social Virtual Riding

Your display shows you the names and countries of the riders around you. There’s a chat feature and you can wave, thumbs up or ring your bell at riders around you. However, most of the social aspects are delivered by another product, the very popular Strava. Think of Strava as Facebook for cyclists, however, people post their riding activity instead of their political views and pictures of kittens.

Cyclists (and runners, hikers and swimmers) record their activity with a GPS device (which can be your phone, a watch or cycling computer). Users create segments by marking a start and an end (think bottom and top of a hill or mountain) and this process creates leader boards. You can see your ranking for every segment so that you can feel triumphant over all the people who are slower and roll your eyes at the amount of time the faster people must waste training. Zwift leaves a fake GPS trail (in a Pacific Island, Richmond Virginia and London, England). This enables all the Strava features to work for your virtual rides as well. In fact, the most populous Strava segments are the virtual segments.

A Strava activity feed (just mine to protect the guilty)strava-feed

A Strava Segment in the Zwift virtual world showing that I’m ranked 5,115th of 80,209 ridersstrava-segment

I Want In. What should I Buy?

The best place to learn about the sensors and trainer options that I know is https://www.dcrainmaker.com/.

OK, that was weird. Now what?

Business Success

Zwift has been a great success, so let’s look at it from an entrepreneurial perspective.

  • The opportunity became available as industry standards took hold. (i.e. Bluetooth protocols standardized fitness sensor data.) Riders use any number of different makes and models, but they all work together.
  • Zwift has an excellent user experience that sufficiently addressed all the glitchy aspects of device connectivity. (I previously use a similarly product from Tacx, but it was difficult to make work reliably (at the time) and used proprietary protocols and its adoption is tiny by comparison.)
  • When I look at my Strava feed during with winter, it is dominated by Zwift. It is a great example of leveraging an established social network to promote a product.

What can AR and VR Learn from Zwift

Zwift is exploring an interesting niche in the augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) worlds. Am I augmenting my real-life experience or playing a virtual reality game with my bike as a controller? Is the power meter an IoT device or biometric wearable device? I guess these are pointless questions, but here are some anecdotal learnings from my Zwift experience.

  • Getting physical really enhances the AR/VR experience. A virtual ride in Zwift shares many experiential aspects of a real ride. Your heart rate goes up and your legs bitch and scream just like a real ride.
  • Getting physical also provides the health benefits of physical activity.
  • And talk about health benefits, one could easily argue that Zwift is hugely more healthy than real riding as you will not crash, break bones, get concussions or worse. I’ve lost count of how many friends have been hospitalized due to bike crashes.
  • Social aspects are vital to an A/R and V/R experience.

Keep an eye on thevoid.com. It’s AR/VR experience is also an interesting merger of physical and virtual.

Where to Next?

As a user and technologist, it is easy to imagine further enhancements to the Zwift riding experience:

  • More natural bike feel
    • Most trainers hold the bike in a single rigid position. There are some sprung trainers that naturally tilt like a real bike, but as far as I know this has not been integrated into a AR/VR experience.
    • Tactile feedback. Tacx’s high-end versions will vibrate according to “road” conditions. And it should be noted, that most high-end trainers will increase the resistance to simulate hills. Some models even have motors to spin your back wheel to simulate downhill.
  • Simulated wind
    • With today’s Zwift riding experience, speed is mostly noted by reading the virtual speedometer. The scenery moves quicker too, but it is nothing like the real world. Fans are essential for indoor riders anyways, so it would be (ahem) cool if there was a system that could emulate a 70km/h wind speed to make descents more exciting and cooling. In the real world, when “it’s your turn at the front”, you notice the strengthened wind. It would be a nice touch if the VR/AR world could emulate that too.
  • Steering
    • I have used steering with Tacx VR, but it is just not very convincing. It probably requires tilt integration to be realistic.
  • More immersive
    • A wrap around display, perhaps patched together with multiple monitors, that allowed me to look around would be cool. A helmet, visor or smart glasses would need to be small and light though. (You sweet buckets on a bike and if it was much heavier than a normal bike helmet, it would probably cause a lot of neck pain.)
    • I’m a bit mixed on how much important a more immersive experience would add though. Because so much of the experience is based on your own physiology (heart rate, sweating, leg pain) and social investment (“I beat that guy”), the overall importance of immersion might be less important.
  • Handicapping
    • The leaders of some group training rides, often try to keep control of the group by typing suggestions into the group chat. This is ignored by many riders. It would be cool if the group leader could instead slow down the fast riders with a handicap and boost the slow riders in group training situations.

Conclusion

Technology sometimes develops in ways that is perfectly logical but unexpected. The AR/VR cycling experience is an interesting niche enabled by the confluence of sensors, standardized wireless protocols, the cloud and social technologies.

This opens speculation for all kinds of sports related, augmented reality games. For instance, have a look at http://www.virtuix.com/ that is a virtual 360 degree tread mill and VR system currently targeting commercial customers or http://www.vuetechnologie.com/game-videos/ which is more a consumer device. In the very near future our virtual games might also become our opportunity to exercise and increase our overall health. I hope it happens soon.

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