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Interview: Preston Lewis, 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 speaks to Steph Eaves about getting people addicted to fitness through VR

Published in Fit Tech 2021 issue 1

What’s your background?
I consider myself a fitness fanatic with a love for creative problem solving. I grew up in a very athletic family and so I’ve always had a love for sports and fitness. Throughout my childhood, I was always training for one sport or another and ended up earning a full-ride scholarship for pole-vaulting in college, which furthered my love for health, fitness and competition.

On the career side, 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 throughout college while studying International Business and Finance and then later sold it before joining Bodybuilding.com.

At Bodybuilding.com, I met my co-founder, Ryan DeLuca, who had started the Bodybuilding.com company and together – with an amazing team – we ran the largest and most-visited fitness website in the world.

Our love of innovative new technology combined with our 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 more ‘sticky’ by combining the modern exercise science of HIIT and resistance training with the innovative tech of virtual reality and game design mechanics. The majority of people struggle with long-term adherence to their fitness programmes – it’s literally hindering billions of people 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 they are programmed to be efficient with calories and to induce pain when we are pushing too hard. On top of that, working out is immediate pain and delayed reward; it lacks the feedback loops that are needed to encourage follow-through. Not to mention the boredom!

You stand there in the traditional gym, looking in the mirror, doing rep after rep, bored out of your mind. Contrast that with game design – game designers have figured out how to keep people unhealthily addicted to games where they are effectively levelling up their game characters but levelling down their actual lives, as they remain glued to the couch with Cheetos dust on their shirts. If only you could actually 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 virtual reality for the first time, Ryan and I were blown away. We knew that this powerful technology, when elegantly paired with science-backed resistance training principles and the right game mechanics, would be a game-changer for the industry. It was with this realisation that we decided to found Black Box VR. We vowed to create a company that would help our customers transform their lives through addictive fitness experiences that harness the power of immersive technologies.

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

We started to envision how we might be able to build something similar that would work in VR that would be safe and effective for users. We worked with a local engineering company and talented members of our team to develop four different prototypes to get us to where we are today.

There were months where the machine was interfering with the VR technology and we simply 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 doughnut saves fitness company!”

What is the Black Box VR experience?
Our patent-pending Dynamic Resistance Machine provides over 220 lbs of resistance and also acts as a controller in the VR workout experience. When players first step into a Black Box VR booth, they see this machine. The two handles move up and down on the machine to allow for different fitness movements to be performed while holding the handles like squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, chest press, back row, lat pulldown and more.

Before players interact with the machine, they put on arm tracking pucks and a VR headset that transports them to our fully immersive Black Box VR Battle Arenas. In each epic Arena, they can see the crowd cheering them on and their opponent across the field. Players can 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 to perform with the machine and the resistance will automatically calibrate to their strength levels, adapting if the weights are too heavy or too light based on their rep ranges.

Each exercise movement completed with the machine corresponds to an in-game attack. For example, as users push the handles in the air, completing shoulder presses with their customised weights, they are hurling meteors in the virtual world at enemy units and at the opponent’s gates. The stronger players get, the more reps and resistance they can handle, giving them a better chance at winning each competitive virtual sport workout battle and taking home virtual trophies and other status items.

After each epic battle, the artificial intelligence (AI) crunches all the numbers and delivers their performance to our companion mobile app, where players 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 with wearing a bulky VR headset during exercise?
We have 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 VR headset is now an afterthought. Many players come out of the experience forgetting they were even wearing them – it’s a trip and a testament to the team’s dedication to solving these very issues through incessant iteration.

What other potential issues did you have to think about and solve that are specific to working out with VR?
Because we are pioneers in the VR fitness space, we have had to create a lot of new user interfaces and user experience patterns that just 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 simple Google search and find your solution.

The industry and VR community is growing rapidly and so it is getting easier to find insight but it’s still a lot of trial and error. For example, we didn’t want players running into walls in the VR experience 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 players 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 actually 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 insanely fun to be able to work with our amazingly smart team members and solve these new and challenging problems on a daily basis. The best reward is seeing a player’s face light up when all of the pieces come together.

Tell us more about the game itself
As the player slides the VR headset on, they are transported to the Black Box VR world and 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 specific 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 harder and harder 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 you can build Champions with your punching and slicing, the better chance you have at winning. This keeps the heart rate elevated when players aren’t using the machine for the resistance movements and provides for an overall killer workout.

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

One of the most exciting parts of the experience comes after the battle, when players open up the mobile app and see all of 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 the system track people’s form and also their 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 that through innovative engagement mechanics, user personalisation, real-time form tracking, coaching AI, game mechanics, deep data analysis and artificial intelligence, we will be able to reach a diverse demographic of people. Our core age group focuses on 25-40 year olds that want to improve their health and fitness, and have an affinity for gaming.

We’ve seen people that enjoy gaming and competitive sports really fall in love with our product. They love that it scratches both the itch to compete and have fun in a gaming environment while reaping the health benefits.

Why do you think VR is such a powerful tool in helping people work out?
Virtual reality is the most immersive technology that exists. It has the power to trick the mind into thinking it has been transported to another place. It has the ability to give the viewer an embodied presence that 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 study, burn victims that were normally given morphine to manage the pain of routine skin-stretching were instead put in a simulated VR environment without morphine. The study showed that the VR game was just as powerful at pain management as morphine.

Other studies have shown VR’s ability to dilate time and make longer, more boring experiences feel short. 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 also takes the monotony out of the traditional gym routine and can make a 30-minute workout feel like just 10 minutes. 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.

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

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

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

What are your plans for Black Box VR?
We just announced a partnership with EōS Fitness where we are doing a four-gym pilot. We will have private booths inside their 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 nation in 2021!

Sign up here to get Fit Tech's weekly ezine and every issue of Fit Tech magazine free on digital.
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Interview: Preston Lewis, 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 speaks to Steph Eaves about getting people addicted to fitness through VR

Published in Fit Tech 2021 issue 1

What’s your background?
I consider myself a fitness fanatic with a love for creative problem solving. I grew up in a very athletic family and so I’ve always had a love for sports and fitness. Throughout my childhood, I was always training for one sport or another and ended up earning a full-ride scholarship for pole-vaulting in college, which furthered my love for health, fitness and competition.

On the career side, 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 throughout college while studying International Business and Finance and then later sold it before joining Bodybuilding.com.

At Bodybuilding.com, I met my co-founder, Ryan DeLuca, who had started the Bodybuilding.com company and together – with an amazing team – we ran the largest and most-visited fitness website in the world.

Our love of innovative new technology combined with our 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 more ‘sticky’ by combining the modern exercise science of HIIT and resistance training with the innovative tech of virtual reality and game design mechanics. The majority of people struggle with long-term adherence to their fitness programmes – it’s literally hindering billions of people 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 they are programmed to be efficient with calories and to induce pain when we are pushing too hard. On top of that, working out is immediate pain and delayed reward; it lacks the feedback loops that are needed to encourage follow-through. Not to mention the boredom!

You stand there in the traditional gym, looking in the mirror, doing rep after rep, bored out of your mind. Contrast that with game design – game designers have figured out how to keep people unhealthily addicted to games where they are effectively levelling up their game characters but levelling down their actual lives, as they remain glued to the couch with Cheetos dust on their shirts. If only you could actually 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 virtual reality for the first time, Ryan and I were blown away. We knew that this powerful technology, when elegantly paired with science-backed resistance training principles and the right game mechanics, would be a game-changer for the industry. It was with this realisation that we decided to found Black Box VR. We vowed to create a company that would help our customers transform their lives through addictive fitness experiences that harness the power of immersive technologies.

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

We started to envision how we might be able to build something similar that would work in VR that would be safe and effective for users. We worked with a local engineering company and talented members of our team to develop four different prototypes to get us to where we are today.

There were months where the machine was interfering with the VR technology and we simply 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 doughnut saves fitness company!”

What is the Black Box VR experience?
Our patent-pending Dynamic Resistance Machine provides over 220 lbs of resistance and also acts as a controller in the VR workout experience. When players first step into a Black Box VR booth, they see this machine. The two handles move up and down on the machine to allow for different fitness movements to be performed while holding the handles like squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, chest press, back row, lat pulldown and more.

Before players interact with the machine, they put on arm tracking pucks and a VR headset that transports them to our fully immersive Black Box VR Battle Arenas. In each epic Arena, they can see the crowd cheering them on and their opponent across the field. Players can 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 to perform with the machine and the resistance will automatically calibrate to their strength levels, adapting if the weights are too heavy or too light based on their rep ranges.

Each exercise movement completed with the machine corresponds to an in-game attack. For example, as users push the handles in the air, completing shoulder presses with their customised weights, they are hurling meteors in the virtual world at enemy units and at the opponent’s gates. The stronger players get, the more reps and resistance they can handle, giving them a better chance at winning each competitive virtual sport workout battle and taking home virtual trophies and other status items.

After each epic battle, the artificial intelligence (AI) crunches all the numbers and delivers their performance to our companion mobile app, where players 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 with wearing a bulky VR headset during exercise?
We have 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 VR headset is now an afterthought. Many players come out of the experience forgetting they were even wearing them – it’s a trip and a testament to the team’s dedication to solving these very issues through incessant iteration.

What other potential issues did you have to think about and solve that are specific to working out with VR?
Because we are pioneers in the VR fitness space, we have had to create a lot of new user interfaces and user experience patterns that just 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 simple Google search and find your solution.

The industry and VR community is growing rapidly and so it is getting easier to find insight but it’s still a lot of trial and error. For example, we didn’t want players running into walls in the VR experience 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 players 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 actually 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 insanely fun to be able to work with our amazingly smart team members and solve these new and challenging problems on a daily basis. The best reward is seeing a player’s face light up when all of the pieces come together.

Tell us more about the game itself
As the player slides the VR headset on, they are transported to the Black Box VR world and 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 specific 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 harder and harder 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 you can build Champions with your punching and slicing, the better chance you have at winning. This keeps the heart rate elevated when players aren’t using the machine for the resistance movements and provides for an overall killer workout.

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

One of the most exciting parts of the experience comes after the battle, when players open up the mobile app and see all of 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 the system track people’s form and also their 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 that through innovative engagement mechanics, user personalisation, real-time form tracking, coaching AI, game mechanics, deep data analysis and artificial intelligence, we will be able to reach a diverse demographic of people. Our core age group focuses on 25-40 year olds that want to improve their health and fitness, and have an affinity for gaming.

We’ve seen people that enjoy gaming and competitive sports really fall in love with our product. They love that it scratches both the itch to compete and have fun in a gaming environment while reaping the health benefits.

Why do you think VR is such a powerful tool in helping people work out?
Virtual reality is the most immersive technology that exists. It has the power to trick the mind into thinking it has been transported to another place. It has the ability to give the viewer an embodied presence that 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 study, burn victims that were normally given morphine to manage the pain of routine skin-stretching were instead put in a simulated VR environment without morphine. The study showed that the VR game was just as powerful at pain management as morphine.

Other studies have shown VR’s ability to dilate time and make longer, more boring experiences feel short. 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 also takes the monotony out of the traditional gym routine and can make a 30-minute workout feel like just 10 minutes. 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.

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

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

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

What are your plans for Black Box VR?
We just announced a partnership with EōS Fitness where we are doing a four-gym pilot. We will have private booths inside their 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 nation in 2021!

Sign up here to get Fit Tech's weekly ezine and every issue of Fit Tech magazine free on digital.
Gallery
More features
Editor's letter

Two-way coaching

Content providers have been hugely active in the fit tech market since the start of the pandemic. We expect the industry to move on from delivering these services on a ‘broadcast-only’ basis as two-way coaching becomes the new USP
people

Laurent Petit

Co-founder, Active Giving
The future of sports and fitness are dependent on the climate. Our goal is to positively influence the future of our planet by instilling a global vision of wellbeing and a sense of collective action
people

Adam Zeitsiff

CEO, Intelivideo
We don’t just create the technology and bail – we support our clients’ ongoing hybridisation efforts
people

Anantharaman Pattabiraman

CEO and co-founder, Auro
When you’re undertaking fitness activities, unless you’re on a stationary bike, in most cases it’s not safe or necessary to be tied to a screen, especially a small screen
people

Mike Hansen

Managing partner, Endorphinz
We noticed a big gap in the market – customers needed better insights but also recommendations on what to do, whether that be customer acquisition, content creation, marketing and more
interview

Mathieu Letombe

The new feature ‘Vascular Age’ was developed by cardiologists to provide an easy-to-understand assessment of arterial health – just by stepping on the scale

Refining augmented reality

London boutique The Refinery has created an avatar-led digital fitness offering called ALFI, which utilises augmented reality (AR) to demonstrate movements. Zoe Bertali, one of the co-founders of the gym, tells us more

Jessica Ennis-Hill: founder of Jennis

Jessica Ennis-Hill is on a mission to close the gender data gap in health research. Her app, Jennis CycleMapping, is designed to help women understand their cycles and how to train during each different phase. Steph Eaves speaks to Ennis-Hill to find out exactly how it works

How usable is your product?

Your fit tech product might be a game changer, solving problems or creating new possibilities for clients, but none of this will matter if it’s not easy and enjoyable to use. Industrial designer Nick Chubb explains why usability is key, and the factors to consider when designing your new product

Put on your red light

Red light therapy promises a variety of benefits, including better recovery, skin rejuvenation and increased energy, but is it all too good to be true? Fit Tech spoke to Bryan Gohl and James Strong of Red Light Rising, and Wes Pfiffner of Joovv to find out more
interview

Kilian Saekel

A-Champs is a platform that delivers sports science-based programmes and games through interactive sensor pods that come with light, sound and vibration

Adrian Hon

Zombies, Run! is one of the most enduring fitness apps, with half a million users getting active while engaging in ‘missions’ against the zombie apocalypse. Its co-creator spoke to Steph Eaves about the power of story

Digital community

Matt Stebbings of SLT Group talks about the creation of their Community Portal, a new platform that aims to help anyone to get active, whether that’s inside or outside of SLT’s facilities

Funxtion: A vital connection

NonStop Gym, Switzerland’s no frills gym chain, has appointed FunXtion to create its member training app

Monitoring mental health

New technology uses advanced machine learning to monitor patients’ mental health between visits to their medical providers
people

Devi Mahadevia

Facebook director of sports and fitness partnerships
With Facebook paid online events, publishers can charge viewers to attend a video livestream on their Facebook pages or a third party video service
people

Andy Etches

Founder and sports director, Rezzil
Rezzil was able to have an injured player learning his new manager's philosophy, positioning and playing style – all from a seated position
interview

Preston Lewis, Black Box VR

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
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Technogym