Most club members come to fitness facilities for exercise and socialization. But what if they could also come to experience a run through another part of the world?

That’s what club members get when they jump on Virtual Active-enabled 7XE cardio equipment from Matrix. The company’s treadmills, Ascent trainers, bikes, ellipticals and steppers allow users to experience a virtual run or walk through various parts of the world, such as the Las Vegas Strip or the streets of Italy. The videos, taken on actual runs by Virtual Active CEO John Ford and other Virtual Active staff, include ambient sounds and historical information about the locales.

The interactivity doesn’t stop there. The Matrix equipment is synced to the video so when the video shows a terrain change, the equipment inclines or declines and when users slow their gait, the video slows.

The video, but not the interactivity, is also available on MyRide bikes, which Matrix distributes.

Through Netpulse, other equipment manufacturers will soon be able to offer the video but not the interactivity, according to Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of business development for Netpulse, San Francisco. Netpulse recently signed an agreement with Virtual Active, San Francisco, to offer the videos as part of its entertainment platform, which is Internet based.

Virtual Active was looking for a way to get its video content to more members, and Netpulse’s Internet-connected network was the way to do so.

“Our platform opened the door to a new age of personalized content delivery,” Weinsheimer says.

Members at Gainesville Health & Fitness Centers, Gainesville, FL, are fans of the videos and the interactivity they get with the Matrix equipment. Pete Dougherty, facility operations manager at Gainesville, installed the first of this equipment last May at Gainesville’s main facility. Now, the facility has 15 treadmills, 12 Ascent trainers, four stair steppers and one demonstration recumbent bike, all with the Virtual Active technology on it. Dougherty says the next purchase will probably be more of the bikes.

This interactive equipment typically has users lined up during busy times while machines without the technology are often open, Dougherty says.

Gainesville has 29,000 members at its three clubs. Those members run the gamut from young to old, fit to deconditioned, Dougherty says. And every type of member seems to be drawn to this virtual reality workout.

“I have a lady who walks with a cane, and I help her onto it each morning,” Dougherty says.

Gainesville management wanted equipment that would engage members more after observing that people didn’t stay long on cardio equipment. With the Virtual Active technology, members are staying on the equipment longer because they are so immersed in the experience, Dougherty says.

A pilot study by Virtual Active found that 18 out of the 20 people surveyed felt the videos reduced the perceived time they were on the machine.

“The other two people hated the music we had chosen,” Ford says. Still, that’s a 90 percent approval.

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The virtual reality program, which is optional on the Matrix 7XE machines, does increase the cost of the equipment. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is about $900, but Andrew Kolman, senior product manager for Matrix, a Johnson Health Tech company, says that most customers pay less than that.

The cost is worth it, Dougherty says, adding that even with this technology, the equipment was still cheaper than some other brands without the technology.

“What I’ve heard from customer feedback is that you can watch video like you watch TV, but it becomes passé,” Kolman says, so the interactivity makes it more enjoyable. “Most people go to quick start and never change the incline, but with this technology, they can see the educational information and hear sounds. You can run for an hour or hour and a half and be more engaged and burn more calories.”

Although some people may question whether members really want all this technology, Weinsheimer asserts they do. One of Netpulse’s partners, Town Sports International, New York, surveyed its club members about the options they wanted on equipment. Virtual runs and personal media playlists came out on top, Weinsheimer says. That led to Netpulse’s My Play list, which allows members to make music selections at home and play those selections when they work out at the club. And it also led Netpulse to its partnership with Virtual Active.

Matrix’s research of members, club owners and trainers also shows that they want more interactivity.

“We had a great grasp on what customers were asking for,” Kolman says. “But we are an organization that isn’t going to do something just for the sake of doing it. We’ve walked away from more things than we signed up for.”

The company created a mock-up of the Virtual Active technology on its equipment and solicited feedback from users, who validated the company’s assumption that people wanted an immersive experience, Kolman says.

“It was the right time and what people are looking for,” Kolman says. “It was something completely different that fits with the product and is easy to use. Users don’t need to learn something new.”

The idea around this technology isn't new, Ford says, but the execution is now better.

“We like to think of it as an evolution rather than a totally different category,” Ford says. “It all started in the 1980s as the blinking red dot on the track showing where you are.”

Future incarnations of the Virtual Active technology will be even more interactive, allowing people to hear their footfalls and allowing network connectivity so people can track their results and race others, Ford says.