Zwift to launch massively multiplayer online game for exercise bikes

By Jonah Comstock

Zwift2How can digital and mobile technology transform the stationary bike experience to make it more like riding an actual bike? This is a question that a handful of digital health startups have tried to address recently, but London-based Zwift has a new approach: a stationary bike MMO, or massively multiplayer online game.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal Digits blog, the company is doing a soft launch today for 1,000 people, with a full launch planned for this winter. For $10 a month, users can race each other on virtual courses, communicating with one another via headsets and microphones. To play, cyclists will need their bike, an indoor trainer that turns their bike into a stationary bike, wireless sensors that measure speed and cadence, a computer and a smartphone.

The game is displayed on a computer screen, but riders can adjust camera angles and other features from their phones, and a tablet version of the whole system is coming in the future. The system can also take in and use data from a chest-strap heart monitor, and can upload activity data to Strava, Garmin Connect, and Training Peaks. 

Initially, creators are envisioning the system as a training outlet for serious cyclists (who already own most of the required equipment) during the winter months. The soft launch will feature just one virtual environment for cyclists, called Zwift Island. But in the future, creator Eric Min has big plans. For starters, he plans to create additional online courses modeled after real life locations like Central Park in New York City or even actual race courses, which would enable the software to be used to train for a particular race.

Down the road, the Journal reports, Zwift sees its software being used in conjunction with real life cycling events, allowing users to virtually compete in/ride along with the Tour de France, for instance. The software is also compatible with Facebook-owned virtual reality platform Oculus Rift, although only for spectators -- the technology might be too immersive for the user to be comfortable biking while using it.

Last year a slew of mobile apps launched from various companies designed to provide visual experiences to people during their workouts. In February 2013, Aetna launched Passage, which uses the Apple device’s built-in accelerometers as a pedometer to track the users’ steps whenever the app is open and running. It translates those steps to a virtual display of another location, shown on the screen in a 360 degree view. The app starts out with a course through Paris, which the user must complete in order to unlock subsequent locations.

In September, Rock Health graduate BitGym, which makes mobile software for smartphones and tablets that display virtual runs or tools while the user works out on a treadmill, exercise bike, or elliptical, launched a new product. BitGym doesn’t connect to the exercise machine but instead gauges the user’s speed using the tablet’s front-facing camera, so it can be used on any workout machine. And a very similar crowdfunded offering, FitTrip, tracks heart rate in addition to speed and cadence.

Finally, in December last year, Santa Clara, California-based Blue Goji, co-founded by Guitar Hero inventors Charles Huang and Kai Huang, launched an exergame called Goji Play which is meant to be played at the gym on exercise machines such as treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bikes. Blue Goji has three components: the app, available only on iOS devices, a set of wireless controllers that can be attached to any fitness machine, and an activity tracker to wear while exercising.