September 12, 2018

Mixed Reality(XR): The New Utility Player in Health & Wellness

How does digital immersion impact real world activity? Will virtual reality create disparity between human beings and their own bodies? Or is there a way mixed reality solutions actually combat the current plagues of obesity and sedentary lifestyles?

Taking up residence in the Oasis of “Ready Player One,” from your couch leads to frightening assumptions. Such predictions are fed by popular gaming stereotypes, as well as statistics about the overall decline in physical fitness.

Fortunately, there’s an opposing force at work. Mixed reality solutions are making headway, delivering authentic interactions that promote physical fitness and wellness. From professional arenas to home gyms, digital worlds are able to enhance athletic performance and present new, customized opportunities to help people achieve their health and wellness goals.

Performance Enhancing Experiences: XR for Athletes

For elite athletes, professional or amateur, mixed reality training experiences allow them to better isolate the tenths of seconds, extra inches, and technical perfection that can make all the difference. With more vision into performance and biofeedback, AR/VR and IoT integrations allow athletes to measure, fine-tune and micro-focus like never before.  

Training and Tracking in Professional Leagues

As mixed reality adoption increases, so does its implementation in established leagues. NFL quarterbacks can run through a thousand plays a week, using a VR headset. SportsTechie notes,“VR will play a big part in the development of… quarterbacks across the league.” At GeekWire’s Sports Tech Summit, SF 49ers president Al Guido states that VR “reduces hits but does not reduce the amount of time someone can practice their craft.”

Additionally, the NFL Players’ Association recently partnered with WHOOP, an IoT wearable that monitors players’ bodies, giving them feedback on how much stress they’re undergoing during training. Several other leagues, including the English Premier League (EPL), currently benefit from XR training methods.

Promoting Skills, Mitigating Risk for Developing Athletes

Virtual reality can effectively target the body’s ability to react due to its sensory nature. According to a NY Times article about the Stanford football VR training lab, “the brain’s reflex center believes VR experience is real.” Current and incoming college athletes interact with high-tech solutions in their everyday lives, so using an XR approach to improve their skills feels more natural. At the same time, the institutions and programs can have more peace-of-mind around potential injuries from wear and tear.

Even highly competitive, premier youth programs are raising their hands for smaller-scale VR solutions to motivate developing athletes. According to ZDNet, there are VR options on the market for $200 and $2,000 per month, “While that’s not exactly cheap, it’s a cost many youth sports programs, which are highly-competitive, but under increasing pressure to limit unnecessary contact scenarios, will be likely to consider.”

Physical Fitness for the Masses

Experiencing personal breakthroughs and reinforcing the self-discipline needed to look and feel good–we just can’t get enough. The general public has eagerly embraced various connected devices offering music tie-ins, personal achievement graphs, or social networks of mutual encouragement. Mixed reality drops nicely into this toolbelt, providing something dynamic, sensory, and fun.

Augmented reality glasses, for example, will prove a useful gym assistant. Virtual trainers can show people how to properly use equipment and encourage the user. Real-time feedback from the equipment as it’s being used can maximize the effectiveness of a workout, while making corrections to help prevent injury. VR environments with 360-degree video will keep runners on a treadmill engaged, letting them realistically move through real or fantasy environments. Nothing like being chased through a virtual Jurassic Park by a T-Rex to get your legs moving–whatever it takes.

It’s Not Exercise When it’s a Game, Right?

It didn’t take long for fitness experts to recognize the treasure-chest of motivation inherent in online gaming. The thought of simulating a plain old box jump to look like Super Mario Brothers is nothing short of amazing. By leveraging the addictive draw of leveling up or winning awards, VR fitness games have the allure to “fool” users into putting in hard work. Users boast about losing 20 pounds in a month, turning that “can’t leave it alone” appeal of video games into a powerful fitness regimen. According to the VR Institute of Health and Exercise, playing The Thrill of the Fight burns the calorie equivalent of running, while Sword Master is akin to using the elliptical machine at the gym.

Feedback on a Need-to-Know Basis–Because We Need to Know NOW

While the gaming aspect of virtual workouts is compelling, mixed reality offers an equally essential fitness element: connectedness and measurement. The physical achievement data that users receive in real-time satisfies the need to know progress is being made.

Neon comets a gamer leaps up to catch may be entirely digital, but the calories used for those jumps are absolutely physical. Seeing “Calories Burnt” and other metrics constantly rising is what turns fun into motivation.

For People Who Want to Talk in Class

Fitness has long embraced a social element; sharing progress and goals connects people to others like themselves, who are looking for inspiration, community, and results. MyFitnessPal is an app that’s been around for a number of years, and its success is partly due to its huge community of support. Many running and workout apps include a social component, while in-person group classes like Orangetheory Fitness are enormously popular.

As mixed reality eHealth platforms enter the marketplace, they open up a whole new universe of social potential. Virtual environments are still in their developmental stage, but the global multi-player competition of gaming is being imported to competitive fitness experiences. Soon people who don’t have (or want) access to gyms or groups can customize their ideal exercise buddy, fitness class, or physical gaming opponent, whenever, wherever.

Healthcare and Rehabilitation

Another area of physical training where mixed reality is opening new doors is in rehabilitation. The aftermath of injuries, strokes, and various medical procedures involves retraining muscles, and the process can require discipline and follow-through. In 2017, the English Premier League partnered with a start-up, Mi-Hiepa to leverage VR for rehabilitation solutions following injuries, in addition to training and scouting applications.  

Rehab is a large time commitment, and physical therapy (PT) exercises often saddle patients with a lot of pain. Healthcare professionals are often frustrated with patients who slack on their PT, or experience relapse because they don’t keep with their program.

With VR and AR gamification, rehab can transform into a rich fantasy game experience–which can also work to help manage pain. Wielding a virtual sword at a target, for example, can bring a patient through a customized range of motion.

Changing Perception: XR as Part of the Solution

The remarkable usefulness of XR in physiological conditioning is partly due to its multiple sensory channels of information–and also its intuitive data application via IoT connectedness. While users enjoy instant gratification of customizable feedback, it is also possible to directly connect third parties (coaches, trainers, etc.) to XR data. Sensors, cameras and wearable devices record and relay information to experts who can better advise their athletes/patients.

As XR evolves the health & wellness arena, people will be able to personalize and/or socialize their user journeys, in addition to gaining deeper physiological insights. But more importantly, when it comes to being an active participant in our health & wellness, XR is showing its potential to be a valuable contributor.