Pedaling Towards the Future: The Gamified Indoor Cycling Landscapeby@kostik
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Pedaling Towards the Future: The Gamified Indoor Cycling Landscape

by Konstantin UsachevApril 17th, 2024
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The first real attempt to create gamified indoor cycling came from the game company Atari in 1982. However, the actual rise of gamified indoor cycling didn't occur until 30 years later, thanks to advances in cycling technology. Today, indoor cycling platforms have millions of users and serve as major sponsors for real-world professional cycling events and teams.
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Imagine you want to go for a bike ride. It could be a social ride with friends, a workout to maintain your fitness, or perhaps you’re an elite cyclist aiming to compete with the world’s best.

Unfortunately, poor weather, bad road conditions, or time constraints hold you back. So, you take your bike, put it on a specialized equipment known as a smart trainer, connect it to your PC, Apple TV, or smartphone, and launch an application.

In just a few seconds, you’re pedaling through a beautiful virtual world alongside friends, experiencing routes you’d never find on real roads.

While this might sound like science fiction or even magic to some, it’s a daily routine for millions, and I would like to give you a glimpse of the technology behind it.

As a PC/Console game developer and a passionate cyclist, I spent the last two years working on several experimental projects at the intersection of gaming and indoor cycling within the specialized cycling industry. For example, we released a mobile game for cyclists called Hustle City. If any readers have had a chance to play it, I’d be happy to read about your experience in the comments.

I’m writing this post to remind myself of how incredible this industry is and to help others discover its magic. Now, let’s dive into the world of gamified cycling!

The Journey of Indoor Cycling

The Pioneers

The first attempt to create gamified indoor cycling came from the video game pioneer Atari. The 80s witnessed the boom of aerobics and video workouts, and video game companies didn’t want to stay behind. So, in 1982, Atari created a prototype of Project Puffer.

Source: Atari Project Puffer page

Here is how Puffer was going to work: a player pedaled the exercise bike, controlling the speed of a character on the screen. The handlebar of the bike had buttons for navigation so that the player could turn and avoid obstacles. The speed control technique was very straightforward: the faster you pedal, the faster your character goes. Games for Puffer didn’t only include bikes but also car racing and even ship navigation.

The project had very high hopes and was anticipated by the public. However, Atari was on the verge of bankruptcy due to the game industry’s global crisis and was eventually passed to a new owner. The ambitious project was abandoned, but it remains in the hearts of vintage Atari enthusiasts.

The New Beginning

The actual rise of gamified indoor cycling occurred only 30 years later, thanks to advances in cycling technology and rising interest in gamified fitness.

The pivotal invention that allowed this to happen was the smart trainer. It finally allowed millions of cycling enthusiasts to bring their workouts indoors at a reasonable price.

Source: Wahoo media kit

Now, what makes it smart? Basically, it is a stationary indoor bicycle trainer that can also measure the power you produce and dynamically adjust the pedaling difficulty.

The first smart trainers with rich user experiences and third-party device compatibility hit the market in the late 2000s. They were created by the hardware companies like Wahoo, Tacx, and Elite. Since then, about 10 million units have been sold.

This invention nurtured a niche but large enough market of cycling enthusiasts hungry for more effective and engaging riding experiences. Cycling hardware companies have paved the way for software companies to enter the gamified cycling experience market. Zwift was the pioneer that introduced its open-world MMO in 2014, and it was a great success.

Source: Zwift media kit

Zwift remains the industry leader today, with around 2 million paying users, but many platforms have followed, including MyWhoosh, Virtupro, and Rouvy. Fun fact: now, indoor cycling platforms even become major sponsors of real-world professional cycling events and teams.

Challenges on the Road

With the growing popularity of gamified workouts, some unsolved problems still keep the industry within the niche of enthusiasts.

“Games Are Not for Efficient Workouts”

Most cyclists are reluctant to invest in entertainment and don’t want to sacrifice workout efficiency for the sake of fun. At the same time, they often watch Netflix or YouTube while training because they get bored of pedaling in the same spot with the unchanging scenery.

It is both a marketing and game design challenge to help gamified cycling overcome the “leisure activity” stigma and develop robust experiences that encourage users to explore an interactive game during their workout.

Lack of Interactivity

The most significant limitation of current gamified indoor cycling is the lack of interactivity. With the smart trainer as the primary controller, the interactive aspects are mainly limited to physically based movement calculations and the visual representation of avatars.

Control in such games is often done by turning the steering wheel to which the phone is attached or using a piece of special steering equipment.

This approach has the following downsides:

  • Players have to mount a phone holder on their bike and put something under the front wheel to turn the wheel more comfortably
  • The handlebar turn control does not feel natural, as in reality, steering only starts by turning the handlebars and continues by tilting the body, and this handlebar turn is only done by a few degrees
  • Only the turn movement is available because it is too inconvenient to press any buttons on the phone during the game

Although new controllers like Zwift Play offer some improvements, they are product-specific and don’t solve the issue universally.

Game Availability and Reliability

Maintenance announcements in video games are not uncommon, but they are unacceptable in training software. Having to reschedule your workout due to maintenance can be highly annoying. Imagine an athlete who has already put on their cycling kit, filled a water bottle, and set their mind on a training session.

Needless to say, the churn rate spikes dramatically whenever the system is unavailable, and it’s even higher if there’s a crash during a workout.

Hardware Communication

Many companies produce smart trainers and other equipment for indoor cycling, and it’s not uncommon for users to combine different brands in their setup. The problem is that companies sometimes utilize various communication protocols. Even when they claim to follow standard protocols, their implementations may vary.

When users may own so many possible combinations of sports equipment, it isn’t easy to ensure reliable communication and seamless compatibility.

The Next Big Move

After spending some time on the projects in this area, it became evident that additional specialized equipment is required for a truly engaging indoor cycling experience. Ideally, it should be a third-party solution compatible with different equipment, providing different interaction methods. It turned out that such a platform already exists—it’s a VR headset that is almost a perfect fit for indoor cycling. It’s always astonishing when an emerging technology matures so that new applications adopt it.

A VR headset not only enables the use of natural movements as input while cycling, but it also comes equipped with all the necessary hardware features for an optimal indoor cycling platform, including:

  • An all-in-one hardware unit, eliminating the need for a separate TV or PC setup

  • High-quality audio input and output

  • Engaging visual capabilities

  • Robust Bluetooth connectivity for external hardware support

Of course, some challenges exist, such as reduced ventilation, sweating, and limited battery life. However, based on my experience, these issues are manageable and don’t affect my enthusiasm for the notion that the future of gamified indoor cycling lies in VR.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!