March 10, 2023

Article at Medium

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I’m Whacking Balloons in Virtual Reality

Crow’s Feet
Orrin Onken
AI picture by the author

It’s the latest shiny object in my quest for fitness.

I was lounging on the beach in the Dominican Republic with a couple of my old-guy friends and the conversation turned to the ailments that kept us there on the beach, rather than out in the ocean surfing, or snorkeling or deep sea fishing. It turned out that both of them, still in the workforce, had suffered injuries and had been assigned a vocational rehab regimen designed to keep them on the job.

To get back into the game, they were both exercising using virtual reality, specifically a MetaQuest 2 virtual reality headset. I was shocked and chagrined, not about the injuries or the exercise regimen, but by the fact that both of them possessed an electronic gadget that I did not have. That was an abomination.

Our vacation in the Caribbean ended, and when we got back to Oregon, it was snowing. In fact, in a full-blown screw you to those of us who had tried to escape the winter gloom, mother nature delivered record-setting snow. I, however, had more important things than bad weather on my mind.

Defying the stern warnings of the mayor and the TV weathermen, I maneuvered through the snow to my local Best Buy and returned four hundred dollars poorer but the proud owner of a virtual reality headset. I am old, shallow, and easily distracted by shiny objects, so making sure my friends don’t have better toys than I have takes up a fair portion of my remaining mental acuity. But this time it was in pursuit of a noble cause — physical fitness.

Being retired, I didn’t have a job to return to, nor was I being bossed around by a physical therapist, but exercise is good. And I wasn’t getting enough.

During the pandemic, the gym near my home — one that I belonged to but seldom attended — closed and never reopened.

I am a walker. But a fair weather walker. The pandemic didn’t stop me from walking, but winter did.

I dig in my garden and haul bark dust, and as spring threatens I gaze longingly at the work to be done around the house. But there is still snow on my deck.

I am a yoga guy. There are lots of different kinds of yoga and I’ve tried a few of them, but the only one I truly love is community-college-adult-education yoga. This subgenre of yoga takes place in a big empty room at the community college. There are no Hindu tapestries on the walls and the teachers, recognizing that their aged students all have hearing problems, do not play loud Indian elevator music during the class. My instructor at the local college had been an eighty-two-year-old woman who, as far as I could tell, took a breath of air once every fifteen minutes and could hold a plank for two days. Although, she embarrassed me with her ability, I loved that woman. The pandemic closed her class, and she decided during the hiatus to retire. To honor her service, the community college stopped offering yoga altogether, and began offering introduction to scrap booking.

So here I am in my living room wearing this 30-pound virtual reality thing clamped on my face like the infant space monster in the movie Alien. It is not comfortable, but the world inside it is impressive. I am suddenly a character in a 360 degree movie. IMAX on steroids. In my hands, I hold controllers that in this virtual world can be swords, or guns, or pointers or boxing gloves, and probably a lot of other stuff. I take a while to figure out the controls, and once I get the hang of how it works, I explore a little. There is a lot to explore, but I’m not in the metaverse to fart around. I’m there to exercise.

Photo by the author.

So I get down to it.

I bought an app called SuperNatural. It is the Cadillac of virtual exercise. To use it, I put on the headset and power it up. Because I will be blind to the real world, I use a controller to sketch a boundary on my living room floor. This is the space in which I will exercise. This border is invisible as long as I stay inside it, but If I stick my hand through it, it appears as a blue wall and flashes red where I have broken through. In theory, this prevents me from punching my non-virtual reading lamp or the flatscreen TV.

Being blind to the real world around me is unnerving.

I crank up the exercise program and start at the beginning. I am high in the Alps. The setting is stunning, but I have a fear of heights, so my first inclination is to drop to my belly and hug the earth. I remind myself that what I am seeing is not real.

A young lady, a virtual trainer, appears in front of me. Unconcerned about the altitude, she exudes fearlessness, health, positivity, supportiveness, and energy. She is the kind of perky which makes me want to kill her — virtually, of course — but she hasn’t given me my light sabers yet, so I can’t. We do a couple of warm-ups together as she explains what is to follow.

Fortunately, my virtual trainer, unlike real-live gym trainers, understands the benefits of brevity. She finishes her spiel and vanishes into the ether before I decide to skip the light sabers and simply strangle her.

My light sabers appear, one in each hand. I am Luke Skywalker of the Alps. Then white and black balloons start coming toward me. My job is to hit the black ones with the lightsaber in my left hand and hit the white ones with the lightsaber in my right. Along with the balloons come triangles. My other job is to duck and weave and squat — while swinging at balloons — so that my head is in the apex of the triangle when it arrives.

There is music. Because I paid the big bucks for the program, I get real music — by musicians that I know. That means somebody paid royalties. No AI crap, or synthesizer music created by the developer’s cousin Elmo in his garage. The music it good. And by good, I mean old-time rock and roll.

It turns out that whacking these balloons is fun. When you hit one correctly, it pops like a soap bubble. If you hit it with the wrong saber, it bounces away. Adding greatly to the fun, the bubbles are choreographed to arrive to the beat of the music. Thus, once I got a feel for how the balloons worked, it went from weirdo martial arts to dance.

I’m Norwegian and can’t dance, but in this case no one is watching. Not even me. So, what the hell? I go for it.

It is exercise, all right. After several songs, changes of scenery, and a lot of balloon whacking, I’ve worked up a sweat. My trainer eventually appears again, tells me lies about how great I did, and guides me through a cooldown. I remove the device from my face, find myself back in my living room, and collapse in the La-Z-Boy.

I asked my wife what it looked like from the outside. She said it looked like I was experiencing some sort of convulsion, but managing to control it enough to stay upright. I’ve heard my golf swing described the same way.

Health and fitness is not my strong suit. When most health and fitness gurus talk, I can discern that they are using complete sentences, but beyond that I can’t make head or tail of any of it. It’s one of my many shortcomings. I have no idea whether using Supernatural is good for me, but whacking balloons gets my heart rate up and gives me sore muscles.

Even if it is not giving the best bang for my exercise buck, virtual balloon whacking is a kick. It is not grim, like the exercise done in those TV ads for Peloton, or even during my own afternoons on the rowing machine at the gym.

So I’m going to keep up the balloon whacking for a while. Even if I don’t get healthier, I will have pulled even with my grumpy-old-man buddies, and will be able to hold my head high next time we are at the beach comparing toys. And unlike exercise, that always makes me feel good.