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You can fly! Virtual reality workout coming to Minneapolis

October 16, 2017


MINNEAPOLIS ó Maybe the Man of Steel has abs of steel because of all that soaring and leaping tall buildings at a single bound. At least thatís the promise of a new piece of exercise equipment that combines a core workout with the virtual reality experience of flying through the air like Superman. It will be offered by the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.

What is it? The $9,000 machine, a German invention called Icaros, will be the first of its kind available for public use in the country when itís installed in the new YMCA at Gaviidae in downtown Minneapolis next year.

How does it work? Users put on virtual reality goggles with a smartphone insert, then lie in a plank-like position on a sleek metal frame that pitches forward and back and rolls from side to side depending on how you shift your weight. That tilting and rolling control your flight in virtual reality.

In the "Flight" mode of the machine, youíre swooshing over a landscape of mountains, glaciers and narrow ravines. Tilt down on the platform, and you virtually dive nose first toward the ground. Roll to the right, and youíre banking around a bend in a ravine.

Other experience modes are available. In "Deep," youíre underwater, scuba diving past shipwrecks while chasing sea creatures. In "Gravity," you sky-dive from outer space and land on an aircraft carrier while falling past helicopters and drones, which you have to shoot down.

Whatís it like? Nathan Maehren, senior vice president of digital for the Y, has used the machine about 100 times. When heís going fast on the machine, he grunts like a weightlifter as he quickly shifts his body, slaloming around virtual obstacles without crashing. A video display of what heís seeing as he flies through a narrow ravine looks a little like the view Luke Skywalker had hurtling down the trench on the Death Star.

"I almost donít realize Iím working out," he said. "Youíre having fun."

Trial run: At first, it was hard to control where I was going in the virtual space, but it quickly became more intuitive. You adjust your speed with a handheld button, although itís hard to tell how fast youíre moving unless you look down at the speedometer display. I found myself bracing for impact whenever I seemed to be flying headfirst into a cliff.

It was more of a workout for my arms and shoulders than I expected. It may seem like a lot of technological bother just to get a good core workout, but everyone knows planks are deadly boring.

Surprisingly, I didnít feel any queasiness. That may be because what you see in the goggles reflects what your body is doing on the platform. (When your head is tilted down on the platform, youíre going into a dive in the virtual display.)

When can I try it? The new Y is scheduled to open in early 2018. The machine will be used by members in short sessions guided by Y staff as part of a longer workout session.

It wonít be the only exercise experience at the new 105,000-square-foot Y that will combine working out with graphic digital displays. A studio for group stationary bike workouts at the downtown branch will feature a full-wall projection that will simulate cycling course scenery from anywhere in the world.

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McClatchy-Tribune Information Services