Video games – we all know the stereotypes. Acne’d and awkward, sitting in a basement with a crumb covered shirt. Games have achieved incredible levels of graphics and realistic gameplay, along with thorough saturation into American homes (two thirds of homes have game consoles, and the average age of a gamer is 35 years old), but still retain these stereotypes. ‘Esports,’ professional gaming, now generates millions of dollars and attracts millions of streaming viewers. However, with all of games’ progress, they’re still largely for idle entertainment – they don’t confer and promote real world skills or abilities. And many would argue that they have negative effects on the population’s health as a whole.
Virtual reality technology has reached thoroughly impressive levels, but its mainstream usefulness remains elusive. Plenty of games are available for those willing to invest in the hardware. There’s been some headway on using it for storytelling and journalism. There have been some promising advancements made in using VR for job training and other simulations. But VR still is largely is something you try and say “Oh, that’s really cool,” rather than “I need this in my life.”
Black Box VR is a new Boise-based startup asking the question: ‘Can we use the addictiveness of video games, and the immersiveness of VR, to help you get swole?’Can we use the addictiveness of video games, and the immersiveness of VR, to help you get swole? Click To Tweet
They’ve created a fitness platform which combines virtual reality, gaming, and real resistance weight training. Their system immerses the user in a digital world, where every motion they make corresponds to an action in the game. But they aren’t just frivolous motions in the real world — you’re connected to a cable resistance machine which is dynamically adjusted to your ability, to time, or to events in the game.
In the live demo they had at CES, you’re doing cable chest presses, but instead of just doing cable chest presses, you’re firing flaming rocks with your hands at terradactyls sent by the evil Rezzer to try to steal your base, while an arena of spectators cheer you on. Over time, the cables get ‘heavier,’ but you must keep going so your base is not overtaken.
As they build more complex games and introduce multiplayer action, it’s easy to see how powerful the platform could be.
Founded by the guys who made Bodybuilding.com, it’s an ingenious way to harness the fun, addictive qualities of video games and virtual worlds, while providing tangible real world benefits.
“Video games have these addictive qualities,” says Black Box CEO Ryan DeLuca. “You can’t stop playing. Video game manufacturers have figured out the psychology of addiction—how to get you to come back, to click a little bit more, and to do what they want you to do. Whereas fitness gives you the benefit of good habits, and you get in better shape, but it’s boring, and it’s the worst way to create a habit. It hurts, and you don’t see the benefits until later. So how can we put those two things together? With virtual reality, it’s possible for the first time, because you can go inside the game.”
“[After leaving Bodybuilding.com], we still had the same passion for changing lives,” says DeLuca’s cofounder and Black Box Chief Creative Officer Preston Lewis. “We both tried VR, and said, ‘This could be it!’ People are unhealthily addicted to games, and people hate working out. If we can pair those game mechanics, with fitness, we could really have a winning combination.”People are unhealthily addicted to games, and people hate working out. Click To Tweet
They ran into problems with the existing equipment on both sides of the combination – normal cable machines require too much user adjustment to lend themselves to the immersion required by VR.
“The traditional cable machine at the gym–you’ve gotta pull the pin out, move it up, change the weight manually. But virtual reality is all about immersion. So every time you have to pull the mask up, you’re breaking the immersion, and breaking the power of VR.”
So their answer was to completely automate the weight changing with a dynamic resistance machine.
The other problem was existing VR hardware options, which all use handheld controllers to allow you to see your hands in the system. In order to free up your hands to do other things, they developed “the world’s first hands-free virtual reality system.” The same technology normally found in the hand-held controllers is instead embedded in a wrist strap.
Going to market
At first, their plan is to open a chain of boutique gyms, where members could come and use the machines, while they continue to build out their machines’ capabilities and different game formats. Then they plan to license the machines to other gyms, for use as a premium membership perk. And eventually, they envision a home model within three years.
While the simulation at CES was single-player, they will soon be rolling out multi-player offerings, to harness the power of competition and/or teamwork. Because of the adaptive nature of the weight changing, players of different strengths can compete on a level playing field. And later, they envision the possibility of more serious competitions.
“Eventually we want to create our own virtual sport,” says Lewis. “Sports are really fun –they have that time dilation. You know, with a buzzer beater, you’re not thinking ‘Oh, my arm’s tired;’ you’re saying ‘I’m gonna make this shot!’. . . We think, once we get this locked in, we could have full competitions, where we have athletes, actually competing in real life, kind of like the Crossfit Games, but with a digital aspect as well.”
That would truly bring the industry full circle. “Traditional sports” folks (including myself) have often scoffed at the term “esports” being used for video games, since they seem so much different than “real” sports. While they may require tons of practice at their highest level, as well as incredible hand-eye coordination, quick thinking, and performance under pressure, they still can’t shake the ‘gamer’ stereotypes even while attracting international crowds rivaling some of traditional sports’ largest functions. Could games such as the ones Lewis describes be the answer for that? We shall see, but it will be a fun time.
Fitting into an industry
Combining so many different things, Black Box brings elements of a number of different industries. But they don’t identify as a part of any one specific industry.
“I feel like we’re combining the industries of E-sports, with fitness, and VR. It really is a new thing,” says DeLuca. “Fitness people don’t really know technology. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s kind of true. You go to fitness conventions, and you see their “high tech” stuff, it’s not very high tech. But on the other side, you go to a gaming convention and they don’t understand the fitness side. So it’s kind of a powerful place to be.
“If we can hire the best people from the e-sports industry–and we already have a bunch of them on our team—along with people who are implementing real fitness—the top exercise researchers, the top personal trainers; with a business model and a team that we’re confident in; that’s the intersection we’re going for.”
Building a team
The company is based in Boise, Idaho, not what you might think of as a traditional tech hotbed. “Idaho is great,” says DeLuca, an Idaho native. “It’s a little bit of a secret, but the secret is getting out. There are some great tech companies based there, and a lot of great startups.”
Having run both companies there, they’ve found more of a loyal attitude in the Boise work culture relative to elsewhere. “You go to some places, there’s talent, but they jump around a lot. [Turnover] is very detrimental to a business. In Boise, people are like, ‘Look, I’m here because I want to do something good, I want to be part of a mission-based company, and I want to stay a part of the team.’ And as we grow, we think that’s going to be powerful.”
What do they look for as their building their startup team?
“If someone is passionate about what you’re working on, they’re more likely to give all of who they are… We will only hire people that want to work as a team and help people reach their health and fitness goals.
“At Bodybuilding.com, that was also my goal—a very mission-based culture. But once you get to 800 people, not every single new one is going to be completely aligned. It’s difficult, and I think we did better than most. But in a startup, it’s critical to hire only the right type of people. And if you mess up, fire quickly [laughs].”
As they scale and grow, they’ll be looking for game designers and developers, artists, mechanical and electrical engineers, as well as business development, marketing, and HR roles. Aside from these, they’ll need staffmembers, trainers, and ‘hero-coaches’ at the gyms they plan to open.
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