Sunday 10 January 2016

Ambient: Hong Kong Virtual Walk


       If you’re a regular reader of my blog you know of my love for Virtual Active workouts. You also know of my disappointment that they’ve moved away from DVD releases and are now only offering their new releases as downloads.  So perhaps the new line of virtual active walks and rides being offered by Ambient will fill the niche left behind by Virtual Active on my DVD shelf? 

     The first Ambient workout I tried is their Hong Kong Virtual Walk. The DVD contains three workouts.

     Walk 1 is approximately 17 minutes and takes you through Kowloon Park. This was my second favourite of the three walks. Even though the park seems to be in the heart of the city, it’s a peaceful place and contains some gorgeous gardens.


     Walk 2 is approximately 16 minutes and takes you along Bowen Road, said to be the most famous jogging path in Hong Kong. This was my least favourite of the three workouts, mainly because most of the footage looks no different than any jogging path you would see anywhere in the world. Occasionally you get a glimpse of the stunning Hong Kong skyline through the break in the trees but these are few and far between.

     Walk 3 is approximately 30 minutes and was by far my favourite of the three workouts.  It takes you along the harbor and the waterfront and you get stunning views of the Hong Kong skyline during the day, at dusk and at night. I doubt I’ll do Walks 1 and 2 again but I’ll definitely return to Walk 3 again and again.


      As I was doing the Ambient DVD I couldn’t help comparing it to the Virtual Active workouts I love so much. The first thing I noticed is that the Ambient footage moves at a much slower pace than Virtual Active footage. I’m able to do the VA hikes on my spin bikes easily but the Ambient walk footage moved almost too slowly to be adaptable to a spin bike. (I also have some Ambient rides to try.) The footage is also filmed more at eye-level than VA footage is—this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it may seem weird at first to people who are used to walking/riding with Virtual Active workouts. The VA team uses a chest-mounted camera and I’m assuming Ambient footage is filmed from a shoulder-mounted or helmet-mounted camera. Another thing I missed from VA workouts are their handy subtitles that tell you “where” you are at the start of each stage.  I also found some of the Ambient footage monotonous--it seems we stayed on the same path or followed the same person for longer than we typically would in a VA workout. 

     Much like recent Virtual Active downloads, the Ambient workouts don’t contain music. There are only ambient/nature sounds. Since this was my first time doing the workout, I did it without adding my own music and just listened to the ambient sounds and enjoyed it. All Ambient DVDs are filmed in HD. The Hong Kong DVD did not have a “Play All" option. After you play an individual workout you have to return to the main menu to select another workout. Definitely inconvenient. I’ll have to see if the other DVD’s are missing this option. 

     I hesitate to make a judgement after trying only one DVD, but my initial impression is that Ambient is a more "budget-friendly" version of Virtual Active. Take Virtual Active and take away the guided option, the music, the subtitles, etc. and you get Ambient. This isn't a negative thing, necessarily, especially for people looking to stretch their dollar. (Ambient DVD's are generally about $5 cheaper than Virtual Active DVD's when not on sale). I still prefer Virtual Active (and The Sufferfest for a different kind of experience) but it's nice to have options. 

     Even though the Hong Kong DVD was a mixed bag, I enjoyed it enough to look forward to trying the rest of the Ambient DVD’s I have in the days to come. I'm giving the Ambient Hong Kong DVD a 7/10, mostly on the strength of Walk 3.

Monday 23 February 2015

Virtual Active: Paris Run

            The Paris Run is part of Virtual Active’s Run Series 6.  FYI, Run Series 6 also includes Taiwan (which I reviewed here), Central California, Buenos Aires and Hawaii’s Big Island. I decided to only purchase Paris and Taiwan for now. I already have the Central California Hike on DVD (which I adore and will review soon) and I already have lots of South American rides from Bike Series 2. I’m still undecided about the Big Island Run—the clip looked very rocky and barren and not like the green, tropical terrain I was hoping for. I’ll see how much I like the Maui Run on the BitGym app before I make up my mind.

As the name implies, the Paris Run is all urban. You pass all the touristy sites you would expect—the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, etc. You also travel along the Seine and along the Champs-Elysee and as well as pay a visit  to Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge.  

While it’s pretty amazing riding by all these sites, my favourite parts were traveling though the parks. It’s just a personal preference—I generally prefer the more natural settings to urban settings for my rides. (Actually, my perfect ratio for a ride is about 80% natural/rural and 20% urban.) 

Most of the Paris terrain is flat with just one set of stairs to provide a climb. The VA website lists the run time at 35 minutes but the workout is actually 40 minutes when you add on the cooldown.  Like the rest of the Run Series 6 downloads, there is no guided option (BOOOO!) and no music, only ambient sounds.


I enjoyed the Paris Run but not as much as the Taiwan Run, which had stunning, open vistas and a nice sense of calm and peacefulness.  When VA was filming in Paris, they posted some pictures on their Facebook page of them shooting in what looked like the outskirts of Paris along the Seine, with lots of greenery and beautiful chateaux so I’m hoping that that footage is released soon.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Virtual Active: Taiwan Run


           Taiwan is part of Virtual Active’s new Run Series 6. Sadly, VA is not releasing their workouts on DVD any longer and this is only available as a download. ($7.95 US for a SD download and $10.95 US for an HD download. I got the HD download and it was well worth the extra $3.00.). I say “sadly” because as much as I know downloads are more convenient for some people, more cost-effective for companies to produce and that they’re the way of the future, so far all the VA downloads are only offered as “basic” and not “guided”. This means no instructor and no music—only ambient and nature sounds.  I love how the VA DVD’s give you so many options—guided with music, guided without music,  unguided with music, unguided with no music, captions, etc. I’m really going to miss all those options. I loved the Tawian Run but I really missed having the guided option as I love learning more about the location I’m in and I like following the drills and workout the instructor designed.

            Since there’s no music or “designed” workout involved in the basic downloads, my reviews for VA downloads will be different than my other reviews. I’ll basically just be giving a description of the locations and my thoughts on the workout overall.

           The locations in the Taiwan Run are stunning. You start in Taipei City and pass a small market, travel along a river and visit a temple, among other things. I enjoyed seeing the city but it was my least favourite part of the workout because once you get out of the city is where the Tawian Run really shines.  You run along side a gorgeous gorge and along a (very) narrow path alongside what looks like a bottomless cliff. You run through misty green forests and along swinging bridges. You run through a thunderstorm. My favourite part was running through tea fields in the rain. The fields themselves are spectacular and the falling rain added a peaceful, zen feeling to the atmosphere.

            Since the workout is unguided, you can make it as easy or as challenging as you want. On the VA website, the time is listed as 50 minutes but it’s actually 55 minutes when you add on the five-minute cooldown. Most of the terrain is relatively flat, but there is a point where you climb many, many steps so I used that opportunity to stand on my spin bike (yay!).  (The run scenery moves a bit slower than the scenery in designated bike workouts but I had no problem doing this workout on my spin bike.) As I already mentioned, there’s no music but there are “ambient” sounds like birds and cars. I played my own music but kept it low enough so that I could still hear the ambient noise and I loved hearing the thunder and the rain. Even though I don’t always enjoy the music in VA workouts, I appreciate that it usually matches the locale and the BPM (beats per minute) of your expected cadence/speed during a guided workout. Even though I liked the music I played during the workout, it didn’t really fit the “feel” of Taiwan so I really missed having the music option.

            Overall I loved the Taiwan Run. It’s a perfect length, the scenery is gorgeous and it’s nice to have the option of making the workout as easy or as challenging as I want.  As much as I’ll miss having the “guided” VA workouts, the Taiwan Run helps soften the blow a bit. 

Virtual Active: Maui Road to Hana Challenge


           From time to time I’ll be reviewing some of the workouts on the BitGym app (for more information on the app, read my review here). As far as I can tell, the Maui Road workout is only available on the BitGym app.  And that’s probably a good thing as I really can’t see myself wanting to pay money to do this workout again.

            My main complaint with this workout is the repetitive nature of the scenery. You follow the same road for the entire workout and the scenery rarely varies: all you seem to look at is the road and some trees, with occasional glimpses of the ocean. I wouldn’t mind so much if the trees were at least palm trees or the foliage was tropical in nature but most of the greenery doesn’t seem too different from what I would find here in Ontario, Canada.

            I also kept waiting to go off-roading so I could look at some different scenery. Then I realized my mistake—I had chosen a workout with the word ROAD in the title. So my bad. No off-roading, no beaches, no jungles. I’m looking forward to trying the Maui Run soon, which I’m expecting to be more varied and scenic.

            Since the BitGym app is interactive, the length of the workout depends on how fast you’re moving. The description of the Maui Road workout lists the “average time” as 60 minutes but I did it in about 52 minutes (without really going too quickly. My average cadence was about 75-80 RPM). There’s no music but there are “nature sounds” such as birds.

            So not a workout I’m in a hurry to do again. I’m hoping for better things from the Maui Run!

Monday 16 February 2015

The BitGym App

            Virtual Active has teamed with Active Theory Inc to bring the “BitGym” app to life.  The app gives you access to many of Virtual Active’s hikes/runs/rides to use with your spin bike, treadmill, elliptical or rower. The app is interactive in a way that the VA DVD's aren’t—the app uses the front-facing camera on your iPad or iPhone to track your exercise speed and the video speeds up or slows down accordingly.

            The app itself is free to download but to access the video library you need a subscription, which is $7.99/month in the US or $8.99/month in Canada. (I jumped on the “Founders’ Lifetime Membership” when it was offered on Kickstarter, which I believe was something like $150).


            *a huge library of workouts to ride/walk/run to. Currently, the “trail” library has 23 videos, the “mixed” library has 23 videos and the “road” library has 21 videos. Some of VA’s newest videos are included, including those filmed in Hawaii, Costa Rica, Panama and Patagonia.

            *the ability to customize the length of your ride. Most of the workouts vary in length anywhere from 30-60 minutes BUT the length of your ride really depends on how fast or slow you move. You also have the option of choosing your own workout time—you can choose 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes…all the way up to 120 minutes.  (If you want to do the entire workout at your own speed, just choose the “no timer” option.)

*in-app controls. It’s super easy to pause/re-start/end your ride or to turn the nature sounds on or off. I also love that if you choose to listen to your own music, you can control your iTunes music within the app. Simply touching anywhere on the screen brings up the controls: 

*the interactive-ness. Not only is this a cool feature but it’s also very motivating and satisfying to see the trail or road react to your effort.

*the ability to download the videos. You have the ability to make videos available offline for those times when you don’t have internet access. (With my lifetime membership I have unlimited access to this but I’m not sure if the monthly subscription places a limit on downloads.)

*value. You can’t beat having access to 60+ full-length walks, runs and rides in gorgeous locations around the world for less than $10 a month.


            *no option for a guided workout. Anyone familiar with me or this blog knows by now that I prefer the “guided” workout option when it comes to VA. My inner-Geek loves learning about new locations and I just push myself harder when I have a trainer telling me to speed up or stand up. But of course this is just a personal preference and I know from conversations with other VA enthusiasts that I’m in the minority on this one and that most people prefer the unguided workouts.

*no music. Again, this is a personal preference and many would see this as a pro. None of the videos have music but you have the option of listening to “nature sounds” as you work out. (I think “ambient sounds” would be more accurate since in addition to birds, wind, rain, etc. you also hear cars and other human sounds.) You can also turn off the nature sounds and listen to your own music (see the “In-App Controls” under Pros). While I mostly listen to my own music with BitGym, it would be nice to have the music option.

Overall, BitGym is a fantastic value for anyone who gets bored on their spin bike, treadmill, elliptical or rower. It’s also a great way for people who are new to VA to try out some of their offerings. In case it wasn’t clear, I love this app J

Over the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing some of the workouts that are in the app that I don’t own on DVD. I’ll also be reviewing some of the new downloads from Run Series 6 and resuming my reviews on Bike Series 1.