Review: Virtual Active for iOS

The build up

When I first started running, I was pure treadmill.  I signed up for a 5K, and was really getting scared about running outside.  I don’t know why, but I dreaded the idea.  Well, I made myself get outside, and the situation flipped.  I appreciate having a treadmill and the ability to run when I can’t get outside, but I don’t enjoy it nearly as much, and am so much more aware of every minute that passes.  Last summer, I spent a week in London for work, and got to run along the Thames path every day (sometimes twice a day), and totally fell in love with the run.  I used my growing familiarity with the path to visualize while running on my treadmill when I got home.  And you know what?  It worked.  I mean, it really worked – the time flew by and I enjoyed the run.
As the months passed and my memory faded along with the black in my hair and the hair on the top of my head, the trick worked less and less.  I desperately needed a way to see something other than the wall and treadmill control screen, yet not as distracting as a TV show (which I find lowers my performance as I zone out).  An article in Runner’s World about making treadmill running more enjoyable had a sidebar on ways to see scenes while running.  It was pretty outdated in its view of what’s available as they all required special treadmills or equipment.  I did some Googling, and found a bevvy of iPad apps that showed scenes – one of them was free to buy and required no footpod or treadmill connection.  Score.
What it is & How it works
That app, Virtual Active, displays different running (or hiking, biking or walking) scenes and uses the accelerometer in the iPad to sense your movement.  It’s pretty clever.  It comes with a Grand Canyon run for free, and has many additional scenes at a $7.99 per scene in-app purchase price.  Each scene weighs in at about 850 MB, so this thing can fill up your iPad quickly.  I said I’d only use the free scene, but as I use it more and more, I decided the cost of buying new scenes was worth it.  I’ve now bought the Seattle scene (a great mix of downtown/waterfront and outdoors runs) and the Italy scene (a mix of costal runs, quaint town runs, plus Venice and Rome).  You can delete scenes to make more room on your iPad, and re-download them later.  Very smart.

Pre-run startup screen where you can select which segment to start with, and how long to go for

 
Music can play through (whatever your current playlist is in the music app will be what plays, starting from wherever you left off playing in the music app), and there are pause, forward and back track controls in the app.  You also set the duration of your run.  During the run, it cycles through the segments of the overall scene, and will loop back through if you run long enough.  You can also choose the starting segment.
 
The app uses the front facing camera to judge movement, so you need to ensure you a) have one (sorry owners of the original iPad or earlier models of the iPhone), and b) it isn’t obstructed (e.g. by a case or something you’re using to secure the iPad wherever you decide to put it for use).  When you start the run, it shows a black and white pixelated view of you via the front facing camera while telling you this is how it gets info on your pace.  Oddly, it also suggests where to put the device, and includes putting it off to the side on a chair.  How it’s going to see you clearly from a chair to the side of the treadmill is beyond me, but it says it can.  You can also set whether you’re on a bike, elliptical or treadmill.
My impressions
I found it did a good job of matching scenery movement to my pace, but that will depend on where it sits on your treadmill and any angulation versus your body.  My iPad is naked (case-less), sitting on the control screen (blocking it, actually, to help me detach from how long it’s been), and has a pretty good view of me.  The app will warn you if it can’t sense any movement.
Venice – during a run
I have to say, I absolutely love this app.  It has really made running on a treadmill so much less tedious and the time definitely goes by faster.  It’s not the same as running outside, but I don’t expect it to be.  I expect it to be better than looking at my wall and the clock.  It is, and by a big margin.
 
The app is made for both iPhones and iPads.  While it works on the iPhone, I think it would be much less immersive, and thus wouldn’t help remove the feeling of being hamster on a wheel.  For me, it’s iPad or nothin’.
My depressions
Is it perfect?  No.  A common complaint in the App store is that it pauses and looks around sometimes – very unnatural when you’re in the middle of a run to sort of hover and have a look around.  That said, you’re looking at 9.7” screen on a treadmill, so why is pausing to take in the scenery despite your feet moving suddenly such a horrible and awkward thing?  I say enjoy the view and relax your mind a little.
 
Feature-wise, I would love the ability to skip ahead or back to the prior or next segment.  For example, when ‘running in’ Seattle, I really didn’t want to do the downtown part – I just wanted to focus on the waterfalls, Mt. St. Helens and the rain forest.  You can’t.  You can start at one of these segments, but the app will cycle through to everything if given enough time.  Ideally, you could swipe ahead or back (I prefer this to trying to use little arrows like you have to do for music), or pre-pick which segments play or don’t play before a run.
 
Lastly, and this hasn’t really been a problem but I can see it not being ideal – the music control buttons are a little small.  The app designers should remember that the user is likely sweaty and moving.  Big buttons are better.
To buy or not to buy?
Overall, I absolutely recommend this for people who run on a treadmill and have an iPad.  You can use it with an iPhone, but I would suggest saving your money.
 
You have nothing to lose by trying the free version, so I say go for it.  Just be warned that you will likely drop at least another $7.99 on a scene after a few runs through the Grand Canyon.  It can transform something a lot of people dread (whether they love running or not) and keep things interesting on days with bad weather or other demands that keep you home (or in a hotel gym). 
Get it here, enjoy it, and enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

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