These days, a lot of us are stuck indoors. Our gyms may still be charging us their monthly fees, but we aren’t able to go. After a month of stay-at-home orders, and likely a few more months without the usual summer outlets for physical activity, we are all looking for an alternative and entertaining way to keep fit.
Last month, I wrote about how the Oculus Quest was a novel way to keep fit, especially when your space and money may be somewhat limited. This month, I was asked to evaluate a new app on the horizon: Supernatural. Supernatural bills itself “an immersive, virtual reality fitness experience that combines the best music, coaches, destinations, and movements into an incredible home workout.” It also promised a new routine each day.
Supernatural is offering the first month free for all new users so they can evaluate the “fitness system.” After that, they charge your credit card $19 per month. That’s a pretty hefty fee, but Supernatural also makes some pretty hefty promises. The developer claims this fee is due to the nature of the personalized workout, as well as updates that include new content, including new music for at least one new daily workout.
Over the next month, I’ll be reviewing Supernatural to see if it’s delivery matches up with their promises. Because they are charging $228.00 per year for the privilege of using their program, I’ll also be evaluating whether the value of the workout you receive is worth that kind of money. I’ll be doing so both from a fitness and an entertainment perspective (after all, if you aren’t entertained, you’re probably not going to keep it up).
Calibration and Training
When I first arrive in Supernatural, I am greeted by an enthusiastic woman who assures me that she’ll be with me every step of the way. The surroundings are gorgeous. My first setting appears to be rocky mountains in the UK. The trainer walks me through a simple calibration process to assess my height, lunge, and squat. Once that’s done, I’m taken through a short training that explains the basic workout, and then another trainer steps in to introduce me to some advanced 360 functionality for a total body workout.
You’re given a white baseball bat for your right hand and a black bat for your left. You watch the screen for the balls with the corresponding color. On each ball is a transparent cone that indicates the direction in which you’re supposed to hit the ball. The balls are virtual, but they kind of remind me of kickballs from gym class. If you miss, they sound like kickballs too. Some balls have special features. If the ball has a tail, you’re supposed to follow through them differently. If the ball has several arrows emanating from it, that’s an indication that you’re going to want to turn. Golden triangles occasionally appear to indicate that you’re supposed to squat. If the triangle leans to the right or left, you’re supposed to lunge. If several triangles appear in quick succession, you’re supposed to hold the position. You do this on repeat to upbeat music, with a trainer giving encouragement and advice. After each song in the workout, your scenery switches. The scenes in each workout routine are themed to match something in nature.
So far, there is a small list of workout routines to choose from, most of them last between 20-30 minutes. They all seem to rely on the same basic game mechanics. The trainer usually appears beforehand to tell you about the scenery and how it relates to the theme, give you some encouragement, and maybe a quick stretch.
Glitchy and Slow
I have to be honest, so far, I’m not too impressed. The scenes are all exotic nature photos, absolutely stunning high def, full-motion scenes. But the time to load each song and backdrop within a routine can be more than 5 minutes. During that time, you have the privilege of looking at a yellow loading bar on a black screen, which I have already nicknamed the “yellow bar of death.” That’s 5 minutes of me standing still doing nothing. I’m not a patient person, and standing still in VR is plain uncomfortable, not to mention awkward. At least when my computer is taking forever to load, I can abandon it and make myself something to eat while I wait. I would be much happier with a slightly lower res-version of these backdrops if I could get going sooner. Right now, I have plenty of time to be patient and wait for a game to load, but when life is normal, and I’m working out, I’m usually fitting it in before breakfast when I’m on a time crunch to get out the door on time for work or class. Even two or three minutes between each song can mean the difference between me being on time and late. Frankly, I don’t want to have to wake up earlier just because I’m going to have to factor in 15 minutes of slow loading.
The game also has crashed on me multiple times, usually several times before I’ve even worked out, leading me to get frustrated and want to abandon it for a game that won’t crash. Of course, I don’t. I’m literally sticking to this game like it’s my job. You can thank me later.
[Editor’s Note: I didn’t experience such long load durations myself, nor any crashes. My average download time per level was no more than 30-45 seconds at most. After checking with Lori, we came to the conclusion that internet connection speeds were the likely culprit. My connection speed is 500 Mbps, whereas Lori’s (we tested) was around 100 Mbps. The average internet connection speed in the USA (according to Ookla) is about 132 Mbps, so most American users might very well experience the same issues that Lori did. It might also explain why she experiences lots of crashes, whereas I experienced almost none. Having said that, I often experienced a stuttering performance at the start of workouts.]
[UPDATE 5/4/2020: The rate at which the routines and workouts download have increased to the point where it now only takes a few seconds to move from one workout to the next. I have observed that the resolution of the background is very slightly lower as a consequence]
Good Workout, Iffy Design
Once I finally got going, it is a pretty decent workout, though I found I did not enjoy the gameplay as much as I could have due to a few design choices. Now a solid Expert+ at Beat Saber, I know that the key to success with these types of “hit the target” music-and-rhythm games is…do not overthink it! Let your body react to what you see. Beat Saber did a great job of keeping the background minimalist and using only a few different, brightly colored, and contrasting indicators, making it very easy to follow.
Here, the game developers have made some conscious design choices that make it impossible to simply react. The directional indicators of the targets are transparent. From an aesthetic perspective, I get this: It looks very sleek and modern – and allows you to see the pretty scenery they’ve placed all around you. From a performance perspective, however, I hate it. My unconscious brain can’t process an almost entirely transparent image fast enough to react without my conscious intervention.
I have the same problem with the light tails, which appear as little shimmers against the backdrop. You’re supposed to use your bat to follow these tails to the next ball, but you can’t really see them very well as they blend into the background — and there is no indication, haptically or visually, that you’re actually performing the motion correctly. There is some verbal feedback from the trainer, but it’s of the generic kind and doesn’t seem to adapt to your performance.
I was grateful for the squats and lunges because lower bodywork is essential, but I had a hard time distinguishing the squat triangles from the lunge triangles. The lean of the lunge triangles weren’t so distinct as to make the corresponding action evident. I kind of wish they just made them different colors or exaggerated the angles of the triangles just a little more so I wouldn’t have to guess.
I also was a little annoyed, and a bit worried about my future with this app when the routine had me rapidly turning only to perform a squat right away. I often didn’t have enough time to turn before the triangles came at me. My form was off, and proper form is pretty crucial when you’re squatting because there is a risk of injury to the knees or back if it’s performed incorrectly. I found the 360 nature of Supernatural didn’t add too much but did result in me doing a lot of inadvertent traveling, which led to my guardian lighting up a little more than usual, as well as me bumping into my couch a few times.
Minor Wish List
Whenever I try out a new app, I always think to myself: what could the developers do to make this a better experience? A lot of the time, my answers are the same: let me choose.
The Ever-changing Backdrops
Don’t get me wrong: those scenes are stunning. Especially right now, in the middle of a pandemic where half the world is in some form of self-imposed or government-mandated house arrest, seeing lush, beautiful nature pictures in high resolution is a gift. But… I mean, this is VR. There are tons of ways to see the world without leaving your living room, many of which are free (YouTube VR, for example). When I’m trying to get in a solid workout might not be the best time for nature backdrops…especially since all that beauty, while theoretically enhancing and stress-reducing, can also be distracting. Frankly, I kind of resented the developers needs to change the scene between each song, without making it an option to just let me stay put so I didn’t have to wait 5 minutes for the next part of my workout to load. Truthfully, I’d like the ability to pick and choose my scenes, choose if I want to change them between songs or, just stick with one scene if I really like it. I think it would be awesome to have a backdrop gallery.
Set Workout Routines – Fit Someone Else’s Music Taste
Right now, there are only a few workouts to choose from plus the original daily workout. One thing that is glaringly missing, probably because it is an option in basically every other fitness-type game available so far, is the ability to choose the music I play to. A few games let you upload your own tracks, but most at least have a preset list of songs for you to choose from. BoxVR sorts their music choices by genre and lets you create and save your own playlists, which makes up for a lot of the game’s other shortfalls.
Here, Supernatural only has workout routines. You can’t choose your own music or make a routine from a list, so once you’ve selected a workout, you’re stuck with whatever music that trainer has decided on to go along with their routines. So far, the music is ok, though not really my favorite kind: I’d definitely prefer to control my playlist.
Also, I’d love to change around the colors of the balls and bats. I’d like to make them contrast more with the scenery. I’d love to be able to at least control the opacity of the directional cones for the same reason. Black and white is a very tempting choice when developing an app that relies on color, as you’re less likely to have an issue with colorblind players, and the color coordination has a sleek, modern look. But, it’s not just the lack of contrast: black and white get boring pretty fast.
You can change the volume of the music, sound effects, and coach, but I’d like to be able to turn the coach off completely during gameplay. I found them unhelpful.
The Missing Basic Elements
I’m not sure why one of the country’s most popular fitness trackers was omitted from their list of compatible heart rate monitors, but Supernatural doesn’t (yet?) work with Fitbit. Apple watch, oddly, was not excluded, which given that the Oculus Quest doesn’t work all that well with apple, is a pretty odd choice. If this is going to be my main fitness app, I want it to come loaded with my personalized information.
So there are a couple of basics that need to be in this game. First, You can’t restart a workout from the beginning unless you cancel out and go back to the main menu. I had a couple of adjustment issues with my headset and wanted to reset because I didn’t pause in time to get the dust off my lenses. You can pause, you can quit. You can’t restart.
Keep Score and Streaks
After each workout, you’re scored on a graph that displays your accuracy and some other metrics. I think it would be good to see how what you’re doing affects your score real lime during the game. I’d also love to see a combo score and maybe a points multiplier. None of those elements are currently present.
Where’s The Party?
When I went digging into the app between workouts to see what social elements there were, there weren’t many. The companion phone app allows you to see your scores and friend’s scores, but I couldn’t find any way to challenge my friends in real-time to a battle. In fact, I don’t see a way to socialize with anyone. Also, since the platform is calibrated to my body measurements, sharing the platform with my husband doesn’t seem possible. There is a sort of demo mode my husband can use…but just like Oculus, it appears to be one account per person, not per household. So if my husband wanted to play too, he’d have to have his own account. This instantly means the price of the platform rises to $456 per year for our household, which…well, I could buy another quest for that scratch. That’s a full month of grocery money, or one toilet paper run, these days.
Finally, this game assumes a lot about my social life. It thinks I have friends (I mean, of course, I have friends…ahem….) who I’ll want to share my workouts with, who also have a Quest, have Supernatural, and are also willing to pay the subscription fee. I actually doubt all of those things. I have a few online acquaintances though Oculus specific message boards, and the staff of 6DOF Reviews (who all live in different time zones), but few who I necessarily want to share my fitness stats with. I’d also be very reluctant to push an app on them that comes with such a heavy price tag. It would have to be some app to cost twice as much as a Netflix subscription! But I would want to make new friends and add them to a permanent friend list without also having to make them Facebook friends. I want to compete in real-time in the same (virtual) place. Maybe have the option to talk a little smack (and be able to mute)? And I’d love to see my scores on each workout and song on a global leader board.
I’m also not entirely sure what value is added from the companion app. So far, after using it, I haven’t had any desire to check into it.
The Fees Raised My Expectations…They Remain Unmet
So, I’ll be honest, when I saw the 19 dollars per month price tag on Supernatural, I thought: “no other Oculus game really does this, so it must be something extraordinary.”
Given the price tag and the hype offering different workouts each day, I expected a suite of varying gameplay experiences, not just one type of music and rhythm game. Something akin to Sports Scramble where you pay a little extra upfront and then get tennis, bowling, and baseball, all with multiple levels, multiplayer capability, and full campaigns. So far, this just feels like Beat Saber— overlaid on top of super high def National Geographic/Nature Trek/Google Earth, but with less customization. Other than a little bit of extra lower bodywork, it hasn’t been that much better of a workout. When I exercise, I usually don’t spend 100% of my time in any one game. I will often switch between three or four games to both keep entertained and work my whole body.
I don’t mind paying upfront for a good fitness game, particularly one I’d use a lot. Ultimately, I play each of the fitness games I’ve purchased at least a few times per week, so I’ve gotten good value for my dollar — as each time I play the cost-per-usage decreases.
If it were a one time cost, I know I wouldn’t be so harsh, but I’m a student, and my income is limited. If I’m going to put most of my monthly game budget into one game, that game had better give me those things that I crave from gaming. If it’s my fitness budget Supernatural is taking from, it had better give me results I couldn’t have gotten spending that money elsewhere.
Since the cost of Supernatural renews each month and is the equivalent of a new game each month, I’m not really sure what this game/app is giving me that I can’t get from the pretty crowded fitness game market I already paid for in full. I’d better want to play it every day. I’d expect Supernatural to be the entirety of my workout. At the moment, I’m having a hard time seeing how I could justify this cost.
Even the claim that Supernatural workouts get harder along with my skill level isn’t all that impressive: almost every game on the market gives you the ability to choose what skill level to play at. Even though this is only my trial month and I’m not expected to pay anything yet, I can already feel myself thinking along the lines of: “I’d better use this to its full potential each day. Otherwise, I’m throwing money out the window.”
This point of view may evolve as the month goes on…and actually, I hope it does. I have a pretty good track record sticking with my workouts, and I don’t want that to shift. I’d love to add something new to my fitness regime. I’d also like to see if the results are worth the cost. They might be. Expect a full review with scores next month!