Supernatural is a new spin on virtual reality fitness, and it may save me from backsliding into a lazy slug during lockdown.
Supernatural, a new virtual reality fitness game you can play in your home, isn't playing around. I sweat so hard I have to guzzle five glasses of water for every 15-minute workout. The first time I tried it, I was so sore the next morning I had trouble walking downstairs. I sometimes get so immersed bopping and throwing my arms around like an exercise ninja assassin I forget to breathe.
And I keep coming back for more, especially now that I'm trapped at home.
Supernatural is a $19-a-month VR app for Oculus Quest with a 30-day free trial. This isn't the kind of VR that lets you sit and swivel around in a chair. It sets high-intensity, choreographed, game-like workouts to popular music, overlapped with encouragement and guidance from expert fitness trainers. It's also like hopping around a breathtaking BBC nature documentary. Workouts are set in 360-degree captures of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Supernatural's creators said they wanted to replicate the fun exhaustion of activities like surfing or rock climbing. The app doesn't mimic those movements, though -- instead, it's aiming to reproduce that feeling of physical activity that doesn't bore you, because the best workout is one you actually do.
"When you're surfing or snowboarding, you're never squatting in a wave like, 'Oh man, I wish this squat was over,'" Aaron Koblin, co-founder of VR startup Within, the maker of Supernatural, said in an interview. Within started developing Supernatural as the fitness program that suited the teams' own needs, after he and other members began to slip into "startup bod," he said. They wanted to recreate the fun exertion of outdoor activities but remove the hangups that keep you from exercising all the time.
"Dancing is primal, moving your body is fun, and -- key for an antisocial person like me -- it's doing it at home in the dark with nobody watching," he said. "That's what allows me to be liberated."
Anyone who's ever played Beat Saber -- VR's first hit in the ballpark of a killer app -- will find the mechanics of Supernatural familiar. Controllers in hand, you swing your arms to strike through flying targets in rhythm with music, and you move your body so you don't collide with obstacles.
But unlike Beat Saber, Supernatural isn't challenging you with increasingly difficult dexterity or progressively complex controller patterns. Supernatural challenges you to swing wider and harder, or to lunge back and forth before popping back up again.
For Supernatural, you pay a $19-a-month subscription after a 30-day free trial, and you need an Oculus Quest, the virtual-reality headset starting at $399 that won a CNET innovation award last year. It's a little like Peloton's equipment-plus-subscription idea for in-home fitness -- the difference being that it doesn't require a $2,245 stationary bike or charge you $40 a month for classes. (Peloton also offers a $13-a-month digital subscription for equipment-free guided digital workouts.)
And Supernatural is the first attempt to move this kind of subscription-based, full-body workout service into virtual reality.
VR was one of technology's buzziest trends a few years ago, attracting giant investments by heavyweights like Google and Facebook, which bought Oculus for about $3 billion in 2014. But hype has fizzled, as widespread adoption of VR has been elusive. Consumers en masse have been ambivalent about these headsets you strap to your face.
At least, people seemed disinterested in VR before the coronavirus pandemic trapped us in our homes. Good luck trying to buy an Oculus Quest online right now. A 64-gigabyte model Quest is supposed to cost $399, but Oculus' store is sold out. Even where you can find it online from third-party sellers on Amazon or Walmart , it's priced at $560 or more.
Supernatural feels a little like taking some sort of ninja shadowboxing dance class. You pick a workout, which can range from about 12 minutes to half an hour. You're greeted by the fitness trainer, called a coach in the game, who gives you a brief mental preparation for what to focus on in that program. Then that coach's voice sticks with you as you move through a selection of popular songs. The coaches give you pep talks, guidance about how to make it through tricky passages and reminders to breathe (which were very important for me).
Supernatural launched in the Oculus Store Tuesday with a handful of workouts, and it adds a new workout every day. They include hit songs like Good as Hell by Lizzo and Can't Hold Us by Macklemore, plus lots more. Supernatural has deals to use music from Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, two of the so-called Big Three record labels.
Within is developing Supernatural to have both a diversity of musical genres and a variety of personalities in the coaches. The idea is that no matter what your own personality or style is, you can find a trainer or workout playlist that gets you immersed and amped up.
It has two main game-play movements. The first is striking through targets that fly toward you with long bats you hold in your hands. The targets are black or white, and you strike them with the matching black or white bat. The second is squatting or lunging to keep your body framed by glowing triangles that fly toward you too.
Supernatural is designed so that every workout is choreographed to that song at a level of difficulty that adjusts to you. You exercise your arms, back and chest by striking with your arms, you exercise your core by twisting your torso with side-to-side strikes, and you work out your lower body with lunges and squats. Some workouts focus more on twisting, others on fast striking, still others on getting you down low only to power back up again.
The program also calibrates difficulty within each workout. It's designed to be challenging enough to be engaging but not so hard that you lose focus on your form and power.
This dynamic difficulty is important for making your workout most effective. At launch, Supernatural has two workouts that don't change difficulty. One is at the beginner level and another that stays locked at the pro level. As I attempted the pro workout, I realized it was actually a subpar workout. When our bodies get tired, we instinctively figure out shortcuts, so as the pro-level workout kept up its pace, I started to inadvertently cheat on my form. I would flick with my wrist more often to hit targets, for example, instead of consistently striking through them with a strong range of motion.
For Beat Saber fans, it's a little like playing the game on 360-mode at a difficulty level between hard and expert -- at least at my skill level. But the challenge of Supernatural is not so much coordination and speed but rather stamina and strength. And instead of being in a shadowy dark vacuum full of weird neon, you're standing on top of Machu Picchu's ruins, the Andes towering against a perfect blue sky. Or floating above the glowing lava of Ethiopia's Erta Ale volcano. Knee-deep in turquoise water of the Galapagos. Places that are rarified luxuries to see, even before all of us were trapped behind our front doors.
You get scores at the end of each workout. One is for accuracy, a combo of how well you hit targets and make it through triangles, and another is for your strength of movement. Supernatural has a social tracking element to it, too. You can follow friends' progress and compare it with your own on a weekly leaderboard. The VR app also has a companion phone app, which makes it easy to check your stats, see how friends are doing and connect a smartwatch to the program to track your heart rate while you're working out.
I've been using Supernatural longer than any other member of the press, and I kill at accuracy. But dammit if I can't get my strength score consistently above 85%. When I really want to hit through the targets with fury, I pretend these black-or-white orbs are actually floating coronavirus cells. I slice through them with F-bomb-dropping vengeance. It usually helps my strength score only a little, but it definitely makes me feel better...
This isn't a strength-training workout. There's no replacement for a diverse fitness regime that mixes cardio activity with weights, resistance, stretching and other kinds of training. But Within's goal was to help people clear the most essential bar for long-term health: the American Heart Association's recommendation to have moderate to intense physical activity about 30 minutes per day, five times a week.
"It's a little bit less about a brand new type of workout to give you the best abs on the planet," Koblin said. "It's more about, how can we get people to get off the couch, get their heart rates up for the American Heart Association-recommended duration, and make a form of cardio that doesn't suck?"
And I work out hard with Supernatural. My resting heart rate is usually around 65 beats a minute. My last Supernatural workout spiked it up to 174. The company is providing customers with free, sweat-proof silicon liners for their headsets while supplies last, so your Oculus Quest doesn't become a funky sweat sponge.
I'm sure I look ridiculous doing it. Or maybe not. In my mind I feel like Jet Li crossed with a Beyonce backup dancer. But after using Supernatural for almost a month I feel good about how I look in the mirror (once I shower off the gallons of sweat).