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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Peloton Rides Are Video Games Now

Ask any Peloton user what they like about their bike, and most answers would probably include some reference to a Peloton instructor rather than the bike itself. It’s been written many times before, but it's worth noting again: Peloton’s big draw is a combination of the instructor personalities, pick-me-up mantras, and music playlists. As the company wades through the hardware muck and a massive corporate restructuring, its special sauce—and source of recurring revenue—is still its software platform.

So it makes sense that Peloton’s first big new feature in a long while is a software feature. What’s more interesting is that it involves no instructors at all. The new feature is called Lanebreak, and it turns a Peloton bike ride into a game. Think Mario Kart meets Peloton; riders pedal along a floating virtual track, encountering prompts and challenges along the way. Lanebreak was first announced last summer, and some subscribers were able to access the software then in its beta form. Now it’s rolling out as a software update to Peloton bikes in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, and Australia.

Peloton is hardly the first digital health and fitness app to deploy gamification to keep people engaged. For Peloton, it might be a way to lure subscribers back to the bike, if their exercise equipment has morphed into a piece of non-performance art in their living rooms in recent months. It’s also a way of allowing users to interact more with Peloton software. Lanebreak charts a virtual path through a bike ride, giving visual cues for you to constantly adjust your cadence and resistance, instead of just having an instructor shout through a 2D tablet. As Eric Min, the chief executive of virtual cycling app Zwift, said in a recent WIRED article, maybe relying solely on instructor-led video content isn’t scalable or creative enough.

Peloton isn’t putting Lanebreak front and center in its bike app, which suggests it’s still a feature that's meant to complement the main classes. The feature lives under the More Rides tab, where Scenic Rides are buried too. Lanebreak workouts range from 10 to 30 minutes long, and like instructor-led classes, they include playlists of popular music.

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In my brief experience using Lanebreak so far, I noticed options for workouts set to David Bowie remixes, some Dua Lipa, and a lot of David Guetta. The interactive mechanics are broken down into Beats, Breakers, and Streams. Users are prompted to adjust the bike’s resistance knob in order to navigate to the correct lane and hit fast-changing cadence and resistance goals. The Breakers mechanic was oddly fun, both visually and audibly; I was encouraged to “charge” the breakers to 100 percent of capacity by, well, pedaling faster. And I found myself wholly engaged in a short 10-minute Lanebreak class—which is to say, I didn’t check my smartphone once during the ride.

Lanebreak currently works only on the Peloton Bike and Bike+, and not the company’s treadmill or mobile app. It doesn’t feature the all-important Leaderboard that riders typically see during a live or on-demand Peloton class. (A Peloton spokesperson points out that you can see the Leaderboard before and after your ride, so you can get a sense of who the competition is and check out your rank after the fact.) And Lanebreak’s gamification isn’t tailored to each individual rider. The most customization it offers is on intensity level; there’s Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert. Otherwise, it’s hop on and go.

We know gamification works within certain contexts, like when it’s being used to help people achieve the goals they already want to reach anyway. In this sense, Lanebreak is the perfect complementary feature for people who are already, shall we say, Very Into Peloton. But people get bored easily with a one-size-fits-all gamification approach. This has prompted some researchers to pursue longitudinal studies about the effects of gamification in fitness and to research how much more engaged people are when personal preferences are considered in game design. Peloton almost certainly knows this too.

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The question then is what Lanebreak is an eventual road map to, and what it looks like in future iterations. It’s not hard to imagine Lanebreak picking up more personalization features down the virtual road. It’s also not hard to imagine it as an eventual VR app, or as an augmented reality app, a kind of interactive layer that exists when users are away from their Peloton bike tablets and doing another kind of workout.

The company says it’s currently focused on Lanebreak for the Bike and Bike+ only. So in the short term, it’s all about bringing novelty back to Peloton bikes. But if it ends up in some other software form in the future, it could represent a much larger goal, one that plenty of other tech companies have set their sights on too: being anywhere and everywhere the users are.


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