VR Fitness App CEO Sam Cole on Evolving From BoxVR

Looking for a last-minute holiday gift for you and yours? Maybe you’re eager to get a jump on the New Year’s Resolution to hit the gym (even as COVID lockdowns make that an impossibility)? Or perhaps you’re just looking for the latest and greatest in the VR/AR landscape. If any of the above ring true to you, you should give FitXR a look ASAP.

FitXR is “the leading developer of virtual reality (VR) fitness apps, passionately dedicated to making fitness more fun and accessible.” You might be familiar with the developer’s first product, BoxVR, the award-winning title which has been a consistent best-seller across the Oculus, Steam and PSVR stores. But FitXR isn’t stopping there; they’re currently building “the world’s first virtual fitness studio that brings the energy and enjoyment of group fitness to the comfort of the home, providing users with total body workouts designed by top fitness experts.”

That plan includes the currently available total-body dance workouts that users can access from the comfort of their own home and more fun alternatives to “go-hard-or-go-home” gym routines. Other new features include a feedback system which “gives users the feeling of having their very own personal trainer within a live class and additional player data and scoreboards within classes.” It’s all part of the company’s progressive look forward at the future of fitness and VR/AR. 

I had a chance to chat with FitXR CEO and co-founder Sam Cole about the early days of the company and how FitXR grew out of the success of BoxVR. We talked about the ongoing COVID pandemic and how the home-friendly exercise app can actually help people of all ages and fitness levels stay active and healthy, even while under lockdown. And we looked ahead at what’s in store for FitXR and its users as technology continues to evolve, even as personalized fitness needs become more important than ever before. All that and more follows below!

As far as your own personal fitness journey and experience with VR, which came first for you? Was it a fitness focus or were you interested in VR? 

Sam Cole: For me personally, I’ve always been fortunate, I guess, like I’ve always found sports and fitness that I was attracted to, and so I didn’t have a personal issue with working out. But what kind of linked them together for me was, I think I was in the weight room of a budget 24/7 gym here in London, and I was looking around at everyone in the gym and everyone’s wearing their headphones, kind of zoning out. Not a lot of interaction with each other. And I just had this, at the time then, and I kind of still have this belief today, is that like the next computing platform after the smartphone will be some kind of lightweight, mixed-reality headset, and so instead of carrying around something like this in our pockets, we’ll have glasses on that enable us to interface with a screen that’s in front of our face at all times. I just had this moment where I was like, once that happens and that technology shift happens, this kind of fitness environment, fitness in general, is going to be completely reshaped.

The weight room example … I can just imagine being guided to pick up slightly heavier dumbbells than I was picking up the other day, or if I was on the treadmill, it would be like I could feel like I was running anywhere outdoors. And I think for me that sparked a kind of a journey to look into where augmented reality and virtual reality was. At that time, there was a lot of hype around Magic Leap and what they were building, and a lot of excitement around when that technology was going to end up in consumers’ hands. And yeah, I think we discovered pretty early on that virtual reality was in a form that was much closer to being able to be ready for consumer adoption.

And some of the shortcomings that we thought would exist in virtual reality — like we thought there would be problems around sweat, or problems around hygiene, or problems just with the weightiness of the headset — once we actually started prototyping and building experiences in VR, we realized that a lot of those issues could either be really easily mitigated or weren’t issues at all. And so that led us on this journey where for the past four years, we’ve been very focused around building the at-home virtual reality component. But as a company, we’re very interested in the immersive fitness space, and for us, that is going to incorporate at-home, in the gym, outdoors across virtual reality and augmented reality.

What are you seeing as far as potential for FitXR in this more sedentary time that we’re currently living in, especially due to COVID restrictions?

Sam Cole: I think this is broadly a benefit of virtual reality and amplified by fitness-based virtual reality. But I think the perception of a gamer of being someone who’s sedentary and spending a lot of time on the couch gets completely thrown out the door when you’re gaming in VR, because you’re not gaming with your hands anymore, you’re gaming with your entire body. And so I think that kind of active-based gaming is great today. I think active based entertainment is really interesting to get people moving around and especially as they’re spending more time at home.

I think for us, going back to the fact that we’ve got this really wide demographic of people that FitXR appeals to in current customers, I think that we get really excited about young people but equally older people at home who have either struggled with fitness before, or maybe are sedentary now, just being able to find this and get into this, because we’ve got workouts from beginners right through to advanced, from six minutes right away through to 60 minutes. So we’ve tried to be very inclusive with our approach to how we’ve built this product.

What are some of the milestones that you’re proud of from FitXR’s journey so far? What were some of the paths you took that didn’t quite work out? 

Sam Cole: Early on, we were trying to progress forward with three different concepts at once, so we had our boxing concept, we had a spin concept — we literally hooked up a spin machine, a spin bike, and were getting output from that fitting into a headset. We had that, and we also had a rowing concept. And we were bootstrapping. It was just my co-founder and I and a few freelance developers that we were using to help us progress with things faster. And like you said, we’ve got an ambitious vision even now, but that kind of ambition early on, and I suppose a lack of focus can really hurt. And so we were fortunate that at an early stage we were kind of forced from money constraints to be able to focus on one activity.

And so we focused on boxing, probably not thinking that boxing was then going to remain our sole focus for three years. But it took a long time for us to get to the point where we were happy enough to be able to start working, and the team was big enough to be able to start working on a second concept. So we’ve just launched dance, and actually the way we think about both of those, we call them studios. But a studio for FitXR just represents a different fitness activity. Both of those studios have huge roadmaps in their own rights about things that we want to do to improve. Like, they’re still very much a work in progress for us, but the concept for us has always been we want to try and provide a holistic fitness experience.

And so have being limited to just one activity wasn’t enough because we want to… We love, as customers and as consumers of fitness products, we love that diversity, we love, in more normal times, being able to go to group fitness classes and do a boxing class on one day, and then the spin class on the next day, and then go for a run on the third day. And so we really wanted to bring that diversity into our products, but that’s been the kind of that balance that you touched on as like one that was almost our undoing in the beginning because we were trying to do too many things .

What was some early feedback with the boxing studio? 

Sam Cole: At the time it was called BoxVR, and we launched BoxVR on Steam early access in 2017, and at that stage we had spent very little money on it. We were still really bootstrapping as a company. And we actually had this belief that Steam probably wasn’t the most appropriate audience for us because we thought that gamers on Steam would not gravitate towards a fitness product like we were expecting a more mainstream audience might. But we were completely blown away by the support. It was the early community that we tried as hard as we could to listen to, and to foster, and to incorporate their ideas into what we were building. But that early community engagement and loyalty was what really unlocked a lot of future successes for FitXR. It enabled us to go out and raise our first round of venture money.

I think it was pivotal in terms of getting feedback to try and test some of the assumptions that we had. Some were right and some were wrong about what we wanted to actually put into a fitness product. And it still blows my mind that people were willing to not only give amazing feedback about how we could improve the product, but they would pay us to be beta testers. And so we were able to charge $20 for it to download this thing, and that early money was just invested straight back into the product development and it was this… You hear a lot about kind of the lean startup methodology and shipping early and not waiting until you’re proud of a product before shipping it, and just getting it out the door and getting early feedback.

And we were so fortunate to be able to do that because at the time, what virtual reality was, there wasn’t a huge amount of content, and so there was this real willingness from these early adopters, like really, really early adopters of VR headsets to pick up lots of different things. And it was so formative, those early interactions with our customers. And it’s something we still massively focus on. We read, as a company, every single review. We have teams of people focusing on community engagement, and not only just how to involve the community, but also take their feedback and incorporate it into our product roadmaps. Like listening to our customers, I suppose is like a cliche thing to say and something that every business should do, but it’s something that we’ve learned the importance of very early on.

What kind of people did you see gravitating towards BoxVR when it came out? What were they looking for? What are they looking to get out of the experience?

Sam Cole: Even when we first launched BoxVR, we were always unashamedly a fitness product, but we were close enough to a rhythm game that people who liked rhythm games… and I think there was this other factor, which in virtual reality when you’re playing Beat Saber, for example, it’s inherently an active experience. And so we get customers from right across the board. Some people who are sedentary and have had a really unhealthy and not great relationship with fitness in the past. A lot of customers saying things like, “I just didn’t think fitness was for me. I just didn’t think it was a thing that I was going to do, but I’ve found this and it doesn’t feel like my ideas of what fitness felt like. It feels fun and the by-product is that I’m sweating and I’m exercising myself, but that’s not what it feels like.”

Right the way through to people who are bodybuilders, who say things to us like, “I hate cardio. I hate running on a treadmill, and I use BoxVR or FitXR to complement my workout regime.” And then we’ve got a diverse range of ages and a real mixture of people that see benefit in the product. But I think everyone comes to it as a fitness product, and I think we see this coming through a lot in terms of like now fitness has become more of a focus, it’s more of a use case outside of gaming that people that you’re seeing more and more come through in terms of virtual reality.

But if you went back a few years where we were the only fitness application on the stores, I think our usual customer journey was someone who bought the headset to play Beat Saber, or to play some other game. They got a little bit of a sweat up and they thought this is interesting. “I wonder what exists here for fitness.” And then they find FitXR or BoxVR as it was called then, and they’re like, “Oh, wow, this is like a dedicated fitness program, but it’s so gamified that it feels really fun.”

Where would you say FitXR is on the gamified versus pure fitness spectrum?

Sam Cole: My co-founder came from the video gaming world, and so we had these kind of great discussions early on in the formation of the company about what we were. Were we a fitness company that use gamification and other techniques to build really fun fitness products? Or were we a video gaming studio that builds fitness games? And we very much agreed and have been very focused on being the former. As you’re making these decisions about designing products and what products you’re going to build and what roadmap features you’re going to prioritize. At the end of the day, we need to build robust fitness products. I think if you look at some of the previous fitness games, often they can feel like they were a fun game mechanic that fitness kind of got tacked onto as a bit of an afterthought, and we didn’t want to be them.

We hired people who have come from the video gaming industry. And we’re heavily influenced… I think the best analogy that we think of is some of the language learning applications that are heavily gamified, but at its core, they’re trying to teach you how to learn a language. And so at its core, what we’re trying to do is get people fit, but we’re trying to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like how traditional fitness feels. We’re trying to make it feel the most fun way that you can get fit at home.

What are you looking to do in the future to make those options available for a wider range of people?

Sam Cole: How do we broaden the appeal? I think one thing we’ve learned from listening to our customers is that from things like environments to how the game mechanic works in terms of things like for boxing, things like a streak, or a leaderboard, or any of those competitive aspects, they will highly appeal to certain people and they will be very unappealing for others.

And so I think one thing that we really believe in as a company is all of this should be personalizable. And what we get excited about is making the personalizing features by being able to bring significantly more diversity into the product. Ultimately, your version of FitXR should be completely different to my version of FitXR with enough similarity that we can still interact with one another and there’s still that community feel, but it should be highly personalized to you as an individual. I think that is one thing that we really have a benefit on in comparison to other digital fitness companies. Because of the fact that we’re building this on Unity, it’s built on a gaming engine, and so therefore this kind of personalization is very natural for what we’re doing as opposed to more traditional media, which is a lot of what you see often in the other digital fitness programs.

FitXR virtual reality workout screenshot
Image via FitXR

What’s the process like in getting your fitness trainers comfortable with VR? 

Sam Cole: We work with trainers in London and also in New York, and all of our trainers work part-time for us and then nearly all of them work at some top-tier bricks-and-mortar or boutique fitness studios. We believed from day one that it was really important to work with fitness instructors. Not only did they provide input in terms of how we could structure the classes, because we wanted the structure to be very similar to what you would experience if you went to a group fitness class.

And so they were really essential in helping us form our views around that, but also being the instructors, they bring that personality element. And so at the moment, you see it with the song selection and how they’ve put playlists together and how their cast choreography all works together. And you also have instructive voice commentary, so their prompts sound different and that comes through. And I think this is something we’re focusing on more and more as we’ve got instructor avatars now and instructor voice commentary. It’s a real focus for us to bring in more and more instructive personality.

And we were fortunate we found a great group of instructors initially in London that taught classes that we went to, and we loved their classes and we started interacting with them. The ones that we worked with and the ones that were really transformative for us in the beginning, and some of them, like Ianthe’s our head of fitness now. She’s actually gone from working with us in the really early days in London to now being over in New York and running all of our instructors over there. Ianthe completely understands music. She’s a professional dancer and I think that’s a really important piece. Music is the other piece that links all of this together. It’s like the immersion coupled with the music provides a really fun and engaging experience. And often our instructors are gamers or have an interest in games, that have grown up with games, and so are familiar with some of the concepts that we’re talking about.

FitXR logo
Image via FitXR

Have you pushed into the streaming market at all, or supported people who want to share FitXR on a streaming basis?

Sam Cole: In the early days, we were always very supportive of streamers, particularly when it was like PC VR users, and we’d often try and work with them to be able to showcase our product to a wider audience. I think that what you’ve touched on here has been a crucial part to date, but is also as important as virtual reality scales, especially with the standalone headsets, because you don’t have necessarily the computer monitor in front of you to be able to see what the person’s doing. I’m really excited about some of the tech that’s coming along where I can use my latest iPhone with the LIDAR cam, LIDAR sensors on there, and I can use that to create a mixed-reality view from my phone of what that person’s seeing and share to wherever I want afterwards.

And I think that it’s a really important thing to be able to kind of unlock. It’s like, I think seeing a mixed-reality video is really good. Obviously trying VR’s the best, that’s the best way to experience what it’s actually like. The second best is any kind of mixed-reality video to really understand what it’s like to be in the space. And then it’s like, when you’ve just got an in-person, like the headset view, it’s quite far down that list in terms of showing you how impactful or how immersive the experience is. So yeah, I think mixed-reality and enabling mixed-reality footage and making it easier for influencers and streamers but also everyday customers to be able to share with friends and family is super important.

Speaking about the tech a little bit more though, when you were originally designing all your software and your infrastructure around that, did you design it with Oculus in mind specifically? 

Sam Cole: So it’s available on all the main VR headsets, so we’re on Steam, PlayStation, and on Oculus. We never designed exclusively for a headset in mind, but I think what the Oculus Quest 1, and now with the Quest 2, has made VR more accessible to a wider audience. And so as a company, we get really excited about that, because I also think it’s great that you’ve still got Valve pushing the agenda here in terms of what’s possible for PC-enabled VR, because I think that’s really important as well to have like an overall, a very healthy ecosystem, but certainly standalone and aggressive price points around standalone headsets and all of the work that Facebook’s done to make that experience really accessible and intuitive I think is an important step. You don’t have to go back far to remember days when I was lugging around a massive PC, setting up sensors everywhere, and then it was failing because I needed to do an Nvidia driver update. I think the fact that now those problems don’t exist is fantastic.

FitXR virtual reality workout screenshot
Image via FitXR

I would imagine that you do a lot of the beta testing yourself. What’s your favorite routine or your favorite workout to do from your own studio? 

Sam Cole: I’ve been loving our new dance ones, but I’m rhythmically challenged and people in the office tease me about how bad, but the work from home has been good because people can’t see me in the office dancing around. But one of our instructors, Karma, I think does a really good mix of… It’s like I think of it as a dance class, but it’s very good for someone who’s not really very good at dancing, and so it’s kind of a blend of dance and aerobics, really gets the heart rate up and I’ve been doing a lot of his workouts recently.

Whenever I do a Just Dance routine with my girlfriend, I feel like Frankenstein’s monster plus a robot. It’s just… It’s ugly, so I’m right there with you.

Sam Cole: It’s been great though. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s at home as well, I would never go to a… Well, I’ve been dragged along to them in the past for research purposes, but I need the darkest corner of the studio to feel comfortable, and even then I’m very uncomfortable. But I can get to this place where I kind of lose all my inhibitions because I’m literally in a room with no one watching me and that’s the moment I think which is amazing because I get that when I’m boxing, and you get into that flow-like state where you forget about all time and you’re just so immersed in the experience. And I didn’t actually think, if I’m honest, I didn’t think that I’d be able to get the same with dance because I’m such a bad dancer, but I think it’s possible by all of these things coming together.

I’ve been actively looking for a specific workout program because, when you’re a kid, you just run around like normal. But one of the things that I think I’ve always had an issue with is sticking with a program. With FitXR, what is the challenge to keep people engaged, keep people coming back to continue their fitness journey?

Sam Cole: I think for me, the goal is almost for it to be like what you just said. When you were a kid, it felt like play, you know? You were out running around, it didn’t feel like fitness. We all have this perception of fitness as like a chore or something you have to do, something you don’t want to do but you just do it. But remember when you were at school and you were running around on the playground and it was just like you… I’d come in from lunchtime and I’d be drenched in sweat., and you didn’t even think about that as exercise. That was just like pure play.

And I think for us, that’s the ambition, is you make the experience feel fun. But that’s a really easy thing to say and a hard thing to execute on, but you make it feel like play and don’t feel like exercise and people’s normal perception of what exercise is, then it’s easy to form a habit around because it’s fun when you do it, you feel great afterwards because you get the endorphin kick and then you want to come back in the next day, and then you want to keep going with it. I think for us, that’s really the ambition.

What do you think is the future of the industry as far as VR potential, specifically in the fitness arena? What can you tease about the future of FitXR?

Sam Cole: Yeah. To answer the future of the industry, I think you start to see this really interesting convergence of… I think a lot of people early on talked about VR versus AR, and I think what you’re actually seeing is some convergence of the technology where some of the stuff you can do now with passthrough from the cameras means that you can get almost like this mixed-reality experience in a virtual reality headset. That’s super exciting because I just think it unlocks, and this probably feeds into the FitXR piece, it just unlocks different types of exercise that at the moment are quite challenging to do when we can’t see your surroundings, so whether that’s being able to interact with objects, whether that’s being able to interact with the floor. Yeah, I think it opens up a lot.

So we’re really excited about that convergence as that happens. And obviously based on what we kind of said the vision was, I think the fact that you’ve got Facebook and Apple rumored to be working on consumer-ready AR headsets, I think that that’s really exciting as well. You know, the first generation of those is not going to… We’re not all going to be wearing our headsets next year, but I think it’s an exciting thing after working in this space for four or so years, it’s exciting that we’re at the cusp of that type of technology moving forward as well.

FitXR is available on the Oculus Quest and launching on other VR platforms next year.

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