The Outside, Inside

Waiting for the technology to catch up, so fully immersive environments can transform all of our indoor workout experiences. Charles Pearce, founder of Immersive Gym, outlines his vision to Kate Cracknell

What inspired the creation of Immersive Gym?
Back in 2009, I was training for a charity cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. I spent months in my garage, training on a Tacx turbo trainer while looking at a computer screen, thinking there must be a better way.

There were rides on Tacx where I knew there was a stunning valley to my right and a mountain to my left, for example, but the technology and the content simply didn’t give me that ultra-wide view. I had to cycle with blinkers on. My wish was to be in a training space where I was fully immersed in the virtual environment – where my entire field of view was filled, so I could look left or right and still see the environment as if I were there.

The growing importance of fitness in people’s lives wasn’t being reflected in the design of their fitness spaces

I kept thinking someone would address this – that someone would create a product to meet this need – but fast-forward five, eight, 10 years and I was still having the same experience. No-one had done anything about it, so I decided to.

The result is Immersive Gym, launched at the end of 2019 and – for now at least primarily
targeting ultra-high net worth individuals and hotels.

What is your expertise in this area?
Fortunately for me, Immersive Gym represents a coming together of things I’m passionate about. It’s the perfect example of work and life outside of work coming together.

I’ve worked in the high-end property sector for many years, and in that world, I’d seen
significant technological development coming into other spaces: spas, home cinemas, home lighting and so on. But the gym space, into which people were putting all this nice kit, just hadn’t changed. It was still mirror on the wall, wooden floors. Nobody had asked the all-important question: ‘What is this room about?’ This in spite of the fact that only by asking this question can you optimise a space and make spending time in it as enjoyable as it can be.

I found it a big contradiction, because on the one hand we were seeing huge growth in the number of people wanting to focus on their wellbeing. But that lifestyle change – the growing importance of fitness in people’s lives – just wasn’t being reflected in the design of their fitness spaces.

BODY BIKE OceanIX takes a spin along the ocean road

Things are changing now, though. In fact, even though lockdown prevented us offering in-person demos, if anything our conversations were accelerated by COVID. People are spending more time at home now. They’re keen to ensure their home fitness provision is up to scratch.

So, what is Immersive Gym?
Immersive Gym is ultimately about creating an experience that makes fitness immersive, motivational, enjoyable. In physical terms, it’s a three-walled screen onto which content is projected to provide an immersive environment in which to work out: minimum dimensions are 4.25m wide for the main wall by 3.5m deep, with 2.5m a good height. We’re currently discussing spaces where the dimensions will be 9m wide by 5m deep, though; it’s a flexible concept where we can design the system around the space.

Every piece of content is displayed in a standardised way, so the experience is the same wherever it comes from

What underpins Immersive Gym, though, is the way we format all content to optimise it for our system. Our team doesn’t only include content creators. We also have specialists in projection mapping, programming, software development and so on to ensure that, whatever the source of the content, it’s formatted to channel through our server and display on the big screen in an optimal way. Not only that, but every piece of content is displayed in a consistent, standardised way, so the experience is the same wherever the content comes from.

What sort of content do you use?
We create our own content, but we also channel third-party content. People are already addicted to Zwift, Tacx, Rouvy; Immersive Gym allows them to continue with that training, but in an immersive environment.

Third-party content can be optimised to fill the side walls.

Zwift actually provides an option to grab extra content which we can use to fill our side walls. With other third-party providers, we can optimise the content – using screen mirroring, for example – to fill all three walls without having to stretch it.

Meanwhile, our own content is filmed in ultra-wide format on cinema-grade 6K cameras. Just as an example, we have a lovely ride along the coast road near San Sebastian in northern Spain. You cycle through a tunnel and, as you come out, you look up to the mountains on your right or down to the sea below on your left. You’re cycling along a life-sized road and your entire field of view is filled with the scenery. It’s beautiful.

Our cycling content is all live film. Zwift is doing a great job when it comes to virtual worlds, so we don’t feel we need to do this at the moment – especially while there’s so much lovely footage out there for cycling that still needs to be captured in the right quality for our system.

If you have a favourite view – anywhere in the world – we can create it for you as a piece of content

Immersive Gym isn’t just for cycling, though, even though the idea was born from my cycle training. You can use it for any workouts. We’re developing some great content for rowing, for example, and here we are using Unreal Engine – the gaming software used in Fortnite – to create hyper-real virtual environments rather than filmed environments.

And then for something like yoga, although the content won’t respond to your workout as it does when you connect equipment, we have lots of wonderful environments in which you can immerse yourself. You can work out on a beach, for example, or looking at the mountains. In fact, if you have a favourite view – anywhere in the world – we can create it for you as a piece of content. You’ll have the sound, too: we specify a 5.1 surround sound system as a minimum for our installations, and normally 7.1.

How interactive is Immersive Gym?
When you’re training, you want the world to move with you. Gym equipment can therefore be connected to Immersive Gym via your turbo trainer or via ANT+ Bluetooth, allowing the content to respond to your workout: if you speed up, slow down, go up an incline, the on-screen content reflects this.

It’s hugely valuable for elite athletes to train and visualise themselves in the race environment, without having to travel there

There’s also scope for coaching to ensure you get the most out of your workout. Our system includes two cameras – front and side – which act like digital mirrors to show you what you’re doing. You can then loop in an instructor or personal trainer via video call. They appear on-screen, life-size, and have access to these two cameras as well: they can see what you’re doing and give you feedback.

Exercisers can video call their own personal trainer, who then appears on-screen to observe and offer guidance.

We’re also working on being able to let you train in the exact same environment where your instructor is. Say you’re training with a yoga guru in India. We’ll make it so you’re right there with them, training at their base in India.

We’ll also be launching body tracking soon, which will use AI to assess your movements, comparing this to the pre-set perfect technique and giving you feedback.

Is your target market purely residential and hotels?
The price tag at the moment means Immersive Gym is really for high net worth individuals and hotels – for now at least. You’re currently looking at a minimum of £75,000 for the full set-up, and significantly more for larger spaces or if you want to go higher spec. Of course, we’re fully expecting people will use these rooms to watch live sporting events, concerts and so on as well. They will be immersive fitness and multi-media environments, and this will help justify the expenditure.

We’re also working in elite sport, although in the long term we expect this to be a small proportion of our overall market – we estimate there are 1.5–2 million private residential and hotel gyms around the world where the fitness experience hasn’t been optimised.

Immersive Gym can be used with a variety of different gym equipment.

We’re currently working on an installation for British Rowing, creating the 2,000m Tokyo 2021 rowing course in Unreal Engine, and we’ll do the same for the Paris 2024 course. It’s a multi-player set-up with data and stats built in. You can have up to eight rowers racing side-by-side, or else you can train on your own against the avatars of previous champions; we’re working on making those avatars very real.

It’s hugely valuable for these elite athletes to be able to train and visualise themselves in the race environment – all without having to travel there. They can familiarise themselves with the course and work on race strategy. Plus, of course, it makes the gruellingly long hours they put in to their training more interesting for them.

It’s for all of these reasons that we’re also in early stage discussions with one of the pro cycling teams.

There may still be nothing quite like being outside, but we’ll make indoor training as close as we possibly can

Meanwhile, although we initially held off looking at the workplace environment due to the ‘work from home’ impact of COVID, we’re having some interesting conversations with employers who, locked into leases, are exploring the role of the office moving forward. Organisations are looking to create experiences in the workplace to justify people commuting in, and wellbeing is high on the agenda.

What is your ultimate vision?
Our ultimate vision, and the principle that underlies everything we do, is to make fitness and wellness truly engaging for as many people as possible.

At the moment, our price point puts us out of reach of the mass market. You also need a dedicated space. However, the technology will catch up: first, it will be a curved screen that allows for single-user workout cocoons; then it will be eyewear that’s more workout-friendly than the current VR headsets; then it might be contact lenses… And it will all come sooner than you might think.

That will be great for us, because we aren’t about the hardware. We’re about content creation, processing, optimisation, display. We’re about the system through which all the content runs. We then have partnerships with hardware companies, plugging into their products.

We have to start where we can, with the tech that’s available now, but we ultimately want Immersive Gym to be enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible. We just need the hardware to catch up.

What is the future of indoor cycling?
It’s only going to get better and better as the gap between the outdoor and indoor worlds shrinks. Most cyclists would currently choose to be outdoors if they can, but with the growth in eSports, the AR overlay of real athletes as avatars and so on, it’s going to get more real, more engaging, attracting even more people to compete in this way. Immersive Gym is part of that.

As a final thought, we believe it’s also the case that those beautiful spaces in which we’d love to be cycling need to be protected, so we’re launching a Move for Good campaign. For every metre cycled in Immersive Gym, we’ll donate a percentage of our profits to help protect those forests, rivers, seas.

There may still be nothing quite like being outside, but we’ll make indoor training as close as we possibly can, and we’ll help people do good while they’re at it.