Can virtual reality get employees moving?

As companies explore ways to encourage employees to be physically active, what role does virtual reality play in encouraging healthy behaviours?

Earlier this summer, Pokémon Go, a mobile app rooted in virtual reality, became a craze that enticed individuals to walk more in order to catch fictional creatures. Beyond that, some companies have fused exercise and gaming by introducing virtual headsets and fitness gear such as HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Goji Play.

Read: Pokémon Go: Is game a disruption or a wellness tool for employers?

Through the technology, users immerse themselves in games while they engage in cardiovascular activities or strength training. For instance, instead of staring at a wall or TV while spinning on a stationary bike, they can cycle virtually through the city to deliver newspapers.

Combining exercise and gaming undoubtedly engages people, according to Larry Katz, a professor and director of the sport technology research laboratory at the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “When you’re playing a game, you’re engaged . . . and when you’re using virtual technology, you have to move in order to get the technology to move.”

While Katz says there haven’t been any quantitative longitudinal studies on how effective virtual reality has been in promoting physical activity, he has seen qualitative results through his own experiments.

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A few years back, Katz held a virtual Olympics competition before the actual event and invited people to participate in physical activities using video game consoles such as the Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move.

“We had different stations where you can do ski jumping or ice skating,” says Katz. “The Microsoft Kinect allowed you to turn and pirouette as you move. I took pictures of people and they were totally engaged in it.”

Part of the appeal, says Katz, is that virtual reality fosters spontaneity. “If you want to go for a jog, the weather has to be acceptable. But with virtual reality, you turn on the computer and away you go. You don’t even have to put on sports equipment to play. It gets you totally engaged and sweating.”

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There’s also the fun factor that can be sorely lacking when it comes to traditional exercise, says Linda Lewis-Daly, a workplace wellness consultant. She notes employers have tried to make physical activity more fun by creating team challenges and activities. “But when employees hear fitness or exercise they go, ‘Wah, wah, wah,’ and they tune that out,” says Lewis-Daly. “If you can make it fun, people will make time for that.”

Combining exercise and gaming motivates people to concentrate by challenging them to increase their physical performance in order to advance to higher game levels, says Katz. “Video games are designed to get people in that zone and engage them in an activity.”

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Despite the benefits, it’s still early to tell whether companies will use virtual reality as part of their wellness programs, says Lewis-Daly. While employers are “intrigued and interested” in the concept, “they’re also frightened a little bit about gamification and virtual reality, in particular, ” she says.

For one, there’s the cost factor, and while Katz says the price of technology has dropped over the years, virtual reality tools are still expensive and vary according to how advanced the technology is. The Goji Play, which comprises remote control bands and access to a mobile game app, costs US$119, while sophisticated headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive go for about US$600 to US$800 respectively, according to their websites.

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Another concern from employers is whether they’ll be liable for injuries if they sponsor the gadgets, says Lewis-Daly, noting that while virtual reality may be second nature for young employees who grew up with technology, it can be completely foreign to some older workers.

There’s also the external perception and questions around whether it’s reasonable for employers to invest in the technology even if the purpose is to improve employee wellness, says Lewis-Daly. While the general public will agree it makes sense for companies like Google Inc. to invest in the technology, the reaction for corporate or public sector organizations may not be as supportive, she notes.