Computers: Getting on your virtual bike: Mike Hewitt pedals an exercise cycle with a difference

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The Independent Online
According to market research, the average exercise bicycle has a life of no more than six weeks. By then, users have either succumbed to a heart attack in mid-pedal or have become so bored with the thing it has vanished into the loft alongside the Abdomenizer or Bullworker.

It should therefore be interesting to see what impact, if any, Cybergear's new Virtual Reality Exercise Bike makes on the hi-tech world's collective beer gut. 'Our goal was to make exercise fun,' says Michael Benjamin, president of the Boston-based company, who hopes his product is going to be the first example of VR technology to achieve both critical and commercial success. 'We've tried to eliminate the factors that make exercise bike work-outs boring.'

These are: a lack of any degree of competition and the fact that you are putting rather a lot of effort into going nowhere. Initial experiments with enclosed VR helmets had to be abandoned after users complained of sweaty heads.

Instead, to simulate an on-the-road experience, the VR Bike has a 25-inch high-definition colour monitor fixed to the front, close to the rider's nose. This is linked to an on-board 486 PC-compatible system with a CD-rom drive and sound card.

The sound effects and motion graphics are synchronized to the pedal and handlebar movements to provide an 'immersive' sensation, akin to a Star Wars ride.

The bike part is the creation of Tony Koselka, whose previous credits include the Reebok sneaker and, perhaps more obscurely, the Spalding inflatable baseball glove.

The unit is designed to be used in a reclining position, like a pedal go-kart. Its handlebars have gear-change and brake control buttons built in and pivot to simulate leaning into turns.

The virtual side was developed in co-operation with the MIT Media Lab's 'perception guru', Aaron Bobeck, with graphics by Yale's Peter Lehman. Once strapped in, users select their exercise program, the degree of difficulty, how many riders, if any, they are racing against and their electronic environment. At present this consists of a one square mile virtual pastoral scene, with hills, lakes, woodland and four marked trails covering five miles.

However, in due course there is no reason why programs could not be written to simulate downtown New York or the West End of London. For release later this year, for example, is a complete Tour de France course.

Such sensations as going uphill and turning corners are transmitted to the rider via the bike's gearing.

If you crash into a virtual tree, ride over a virtual cliff, or drive into a cyber-pond, you can feel the full benefit of the experience through the sudden locking of the handlebars and pedals and corresponding crashing and splashing sound-effects.

If you are participating in a race, any virtual riders who overtake you can be programmed to signal an 'eat my dust' hand gesture as they pass. And should the effort of competition prove too much, the VR Bike permits riders to break off and gently cycle into a sunny meadow for a rest.

In terms of the competitive element, you need not just race against virtual opponents. Several bikes can be networked together, allowing a proper race to take place within the confines of a gym. At the moment, this is across a conventional local area network linking computers on one site.

But there are plans afoot over the next few months to link VR Bikes to the Internet, the global information newtork, offering the potential for riders from different continents to compete against one another in cyberspace.

Whether this sort of virtual Tour de France will take over from the real thing remains to be seen, however.

The VR Bike hits the US shops next month with a price tag of dollars 5,000 ( pounds 3,300). If presents trends are anything to go by, this will probably translate into pounds 5,000 by the time it reaches our health and fitness outlets.

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