And Then I Rode a Virtual Bike [BitSummit 2016]

This year's BitSummit featured a surprising number of virtual reality titles. It's been nothing short of amazing to see what ideas independent developers are bringing to VR. 

One thing that always had a long line was Atsushi Obata's VR Cycling, seen below with me atop its bike, becoming a god:

There wasn't much to the game itself — bike race against an anime mascot — but the point was more seeing what it feels like to bike along a winding racetrack a virtual world where the pavement and walls can't kill you. I was worried about how I'd do, because every single person had to put their feet down multiple times to steady themselves, and many couldn't get up to a good speed before they'd lose control and have to step down and/or rely on the apparatus to save them. 

Now is when I brag about how awesome I did at this thing. Here's the secret: I looked down. In taking a close look at the build of the machine, I noticed the front wheel was in a wheel of its own, placed on the floor. I mean this:

That thing doesn't replicate steering a bicycle perfectly, but everyone was getting on this bike expecting it to. They made the mistake of approaching this thing as a real bike instead of what it was: an unfinished piece of software hooked up to prototype hardware. It didn't help that the back looked like this:

That thing held the bike up pretty well, but not quite as well as most people could hold themselves up on a real bike. If someone actually leans at the angles to which this apparatus can go, they're likely falling off their bike. It was less of a problem than the front part, but still imperfect. Hardware situation notwithstanding, let me say again that the Virtual Bike is pretty fucking impressive overall. 

I also cut corners a lot. Given all the mistakes I'd seen people make — mostly involving overcompensation and the turning mechanism — and grass having no effect on the bike's speed, I found it silly to actually go into those sharp turns at all. So screw it, I cut through the grass. 

That said, it was amazing that I had to fight off the instinct to do the same wild turns or rather, make the same mistakes I had seen everyone else make. 

Someone out there will read this, hyuck to themselves, and say something along the lines of "Hur derp, why not just ride a real bike?" Great question, and here's a great answer: it's not about riding a bike, smart guy. Something like this could be an incredible tool for people recovering from strokes or other afflictions. 

During physical therapy, people need to push themselves to their absolute limits, but are often hampered by the setbacks that got them into physical therapy in the first place. It's dangerous for them to be actually doing the activities that can make them stronger. The real act of riding a bike on a road could easily be fatal for someone who doesn't have all their mobility back. We've seen Wii Sports and other motion control games serve patients well, and something like a virtual bike — after some refinements could offer a similar recovery tool.

Apart from that, it does also show the beginnings of an entertaining virtual cycling game. With some tweaks, VR could use bikes and other equipment to give us fun games and invaluable medical devices. The future is looking good.