I’m standing inside Ethiopia’s Erta Ale Volcano, and naturally, I’m sweating. The perspiration on my brow isn’t from the glowing red lava at my feet, though. It’s from the fact that I’ve visited this remote locale for some cardio.
To prepare for a Supernatural workout, you find a clear area in your home and don an Oculus Quest headset. Once inside the app, it’s just you and an energetic instructor standing somewhere remote on the globe. That is until the music picks up, targets fly your way, and you have to swing, squat, and lunge to the beat in an experience that combines rhythm games, fitness regimens, and mindfulness in an addictive VR world. (In my case, I have to use caution not to swing my arms too high—lest they go through my basement ceiling.)
“I’ve struggled with exercise my entire adult existence. And I don’t find it enjoyable,” says Chris Milk, co-founder of Within. “On the flip side, I was a competitive skier in high school, and I loved it. And that was exercise. I got stronger. I was in the best shape of my life. And I was flying down a beautiful mountain, getting a sense of awe in this landscape.”
As Milk and his team thought about a workout that would motivate them to get back into shape, they realized the solution: Use VR to recreate the exhilaration of these outdoor spaces. Milk has a background in music—he directed videos for Kanye West and Arcade Fire—which helped the group identify another key component: a baseline of licensed beats that would keep people moving.
What it all adds up to is that Supernatural puts you into an impossibly serene setting, plays music, sends targets for you to swing at with your arms and core, and triangles you need to duck and lunge to squeeze through. And unlike a lot of early VR software out there, which looks promising in a video but is terrible when you actually play it, Supernatural just feels right. And that sensation is exactly what Milk is most proud of.
Milk points out how the simple-looking targets alone represent a huge design challenge. Do they make a sound on the millisecond you hit them? Or should their boom be lined up with the beat? (The answer, they discovered through testing, was that they always needed to explode on the beat. The alternative was “not pleasurable”—like listening to a DJ who is first learning how to spin.) The sound timing is one of 300 different adjustments that designers used on the targets to get their feel perfect.
As for how well the app has worked for Milk’s own fitness goals, that’s perhaps the biggest success story of the whole project.
“We are all a lot more fit, that is for certain!” Milk laughs. “I’m probably in the best shape of my life since I was a 14-year-old aspiring Olympic slalom racer. And it’s purely because there’s no friction to rolling out of bed and hopping into [Supernatural].”
See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.