Reg scribe spends 80 hours in actual metaverse … and plans to keep visiting
It's not a place to spend all day, but a useful alternative when friends are distant, or the real world is dangerous
I've spent over 80 hours in an online environment that nails the Oxford Dictionary's definition of a metaverse – "a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users" – and I find it so useful I expect to visit it frequently in future.
Is this thing a metaverse?
My metaverse of choice is called Zwift – a virtual environment that simulates cycling or running with an interface a lot like a first-person shooter.
For cyclists, Zwift requires an actual bicycle mounted on a "trainer" – a device that lets the pedals spin but prevents the bike going anywhere – plus a speed sensor. The software is at its best with a "smart trainer" that can also measure the cadence at which a rider spins their legs and how many watts they produce, and can vary resistance riders feel when they pedal. The last item is key, because it enables Zwift to simulate riding up a virtual mountain by increasing resistance when going "uphill". The game requires players to reveal their weight and height, with that data used to calculate speed - a 70kg Zwifter producing 200 watts of power will move faster in the virtual world than a 90kg Zwifter producing the same power - as would be the case on the real world.
Trainers with all the sensors and dynamic resistance control start at around $500. Zwift also requires a PC, Mac or AppleTV (plus display), and can also run on iOS or Android devices.
Whatever device you choose, you connect it to your trainer with Bluetooth, then ride Zwiftly through simulated environments. You can travel through cities and towns, sylvan glades, transparent underwater tunnels, the lava-filled bowels of an active volcano, and even the platforms of a London train station located about where you'd find real-world Waterloo – but which offers an exit that's a 40km shortcut to virtual recreations of hills used in races at the 2012 Olympics.
You can experience Zwift alone, in groups, or race other players in real time. The harder you ride, the faster you travel through the virtual worlds. The image above shows me on a solo ride, with a list of nearby riders to the right. The game lets you chat with those riders – but most of the time you're too puffed to use the keyboard.
The game never requires goggles or glasses – I use a PC and a 28-inch monitor. Third-party accessories are available to simulate steering or even tilt bikes to replicate the angles riders experience when ascending or descending – but that kit costs plenty. It's not used by the vast majority of Zwift's three-million-plus users, who make do with the game's pretty visuals and real-time performance data.
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I think Zwift nails the Oxford definition of a metaverse because the game imposes its reality upon your real-world effort. You simply can't get anywhere without putting out the power required to propel a rider of your weight from virtual point A to virtual point B. Cycling authorities therefore recognise Zwift as a sufficiently rigorous environment for professional races (and have even sanctioned cheats who fudge their data to improve performance).
With the addition of a real-time voice service to connect participants, Zwift hits the Zuckerbergian definition of a metaverse by allowing participants to hear one another puffing as they all hit virtual hills.
Why ride in VR?
I started using Zwift during Sydney's June–October 2021 COVID lockdown because gyms were closed and time spent outdoors was restricted. Zwift offered longer and more satisfying rides, and the chance to replicate one of my favourite activities. The game's training programs offered just the goal-oriented activities I needed as July smeared into Locktember.
Since lockdown ended I'm Zwifting about three times a week for an hour or more each time – rather more hard riding than I did before I started. And I've just signed up for another virtual training program to get ready for a cycling event in the real world.
I'm using Zwift for that training because the game is convenient and avoids the messy and dangerous parts of cycling. On Zwift I can be halfway up a mountain half an hour after waking up, without stopping at a real world red light or dodging big-city traffic. That traffic means most cyclists head out early. On Zwift I can ride anytime.
In conversation with bike club teammates and fellow Zwift users, my sentiments seem common. One clubmate, Ben, agreed that Zwift is more convenient than real-world cycling and that the game's structured workouts can build fitness and endurance more effectively than riding in the real world. He added the observation that Zwift marries two of his passions – cycling and gaming – but feels the game isn't a great substitute for real-world racing. "Zwift is Mario Kart," he told me. He described a Zwift rival's racing as closer to Gran Turismo – a racing sim that tries to replicate actual cars and tracks more faithfully than Nintendo's kart-racing game.
Another cycling clubmate, Douglas, also appreciates Zwift as a training aide but finds it most useful when he also uses Discord to chat with friends while on virtual rides. He even goes on virtual Zwift rides with a friend in Canada.
"I'm not enamoured of the fake scenery," he told The Register. Instead, it's the chance to train hard without risk – and to socialise – that make the experience a part of his life.
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Douglas also opined that Zwift could be a guy thing. He told your correspondent he's heard the theory that "Men have side-by-side relationships, women have face-to-face relationships". Cycling in the real world is definitely side-by-side, and Doug feels that COVID lockdowns saw Zwift emerge as a replacement for that social experience.
Will Zwift stick?
Our collective experience of the metaverse suggests these things could take off – if they make an existing experience more social and/or more convenient.
Virtual reality has already proven this. I'm aware, for example, of VR and haptic feedback being used to train student dentists to administer injections, while architects and CAD types use it to experience their designs without the need for any real-world construction.
But I've never seen VR take off for entertainment, despite endless attempts at virtual presentations of concerts or other events.
Yet if I'm right, and Zwift is as good as it gets, I think metaverses that make existing real world experiences more accessible or more social have the potential to become very popular. If they improve on Zwift, things could get really interesting. ®
For any readers interested in a Reg-reading Zwift meetup, feel free to e-mail me your Zwift ID so I can link to you. I've changed my Zwift handle to "Simon Sharwood – DHBC Vulture" if that helps. I'll aim for rides early in the UK morning and/or evenings on the US West Coast.