Online Bicycling…Anywhere, Anytime

Going for a ride virtually anywhere in the world from the comfort of your stationary bicycle.
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Bicycling is great exercise, and quite a bit of fun in the right circumstances. It provides a low-impact workout without the joint stresses of other forms of exercise. On warm, sunny weekends, the bike paths across the United States are busy with riders of all ages and abilities. Increasingly, cities and towns are becoming more bike friendly, with bicycle lanes on many streets and more than a few successful projects to turn abandoned railroad rights-of-way into dedicated linear parks and bicycle paths.

Unfortunately for riders in many parts of the country, bicycling is a fair-weather sport, limited to months when the roads are clear and dry and well illuminated. Due to their slender tires, bicycles can be hard to navigate when roads are icy or covered with wet leaves. Plus, as days get shorter during the fall and winter, the amount of daylight available for riding is greatly diminished.

Stationary indoor bicycles provide a safe, always-available alternative to outdoor bicycle riding. While they offer the same health benefits, they may fall short when it comes to rider enjoyment. To help solve this problem, entrepreneurs from companies like Peloton and BitGym are hard at work to provide a more engaging experience for stationary cycle riders using real-time video and other technologies.

Based in New York City, Peloton delivers high-energy instruction using live video streaming to stationary cycle riders located across the country. (“Peloton” is a French term that means “pack” and is commonly used in bicycle racing.) Using a customized cycle designed and manufactured by Peloton, riders are able to follow live instructors and interact with other riders in real time. Live video and audio links from the New York facility are delivered over Internet connections to Peloton cycles located in subscribers’ homes.

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A live video production control room at Peloton is equipped with a TriCaster production switcher from NewTek and a robotic camera control system from Telemetrics. Photo by Eric Hwang.

A typical Peloton workout lasts 45 minutes. The live instructor is captured by multiple Sony PTZ video cameras located in a custom-built studio with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems designed by Walters-Storyk Design Group of New York. Sixty Peloton cycles are located in the New York facility for use by riders who attend the sessions in person. The live video production control room is equipped with a TriCaster production switcher from NewTek and a robotic camera control system from Telemetrics. Audio production takes place using a Biamp Systems Nexia console connected to a Martin Engineering DSP and Sennheiser wireless microphones. The production control room is equipped with two 55-inch LCD displays and Genelec audio monitors.

Video signals are delivered to remote riders using Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS). The 720p/29.97 images are compressed at multiple bit rates up to 3 Mb/s and bundled with stereo AAC audio streams running at 64 Kb/s. An Akamai CDN service delivers the live video classes and an Amazon CloudFront network serves pre-recorded, on-demand classes. Each Peloton Cycle is equipped with a 21-inch HD video screen powered by a customized load of Android software.

A key aspect of the Peloton experience is interactivity, both between the instructor and participants and among participants themselves. The progress of each rider is displayed in real time on a status board that provides data for the instructor to use for coaching individual participants, giving them performance feedback or encouragement. Participants can video chat with each other using an AddLive system that is integrated into the Peloton system. Riders who work out with pre-recorded content can compare their relative performance at every point in the race to all of the riders who have taken that route before, including their own previous attempts.

Yony Feng, chief technical officer at Peloton, has big plans for expanding the user base and enhancing the user experience. He says, “We are currently working on our second facility, which will be located in Chicago, and we will soon be rolling out a method for participants to view our live and recorded streams on Apple iPads.”

He adds, “We are also looking at increasing our audio bandwidth to 192 Kb/s for enhanced music quality, and we are investigating how to allow remote participants to individually adjust the loudness of the instructor’s voice relative to the music volume to suit their personal preferences.”

Taking a completely different approach to technology for stationary bicycle riders, BitGym has produced a smartphone/tablet application that allows users to ride their way along a variety of courses at their own pace. Using video footage from a number of sources, including Google Maps’ Street View, the app plays out a live video sequence along a bicycling (or running) route that dynamically adjusts its speed to match the rider’s (or runner’s) pace. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, the app is available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

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BitGym offers riders a variety of virtual tours of exotic locales.

The key to BitGym’s interactivity (and much of its appeal) is the method used to determine the user’s pace. Instead of requiring a hardware connection to the exercise equipment, BitGym uses the front-facing camera of the user’s device. A sophisticated motion detection algorithm analyzes the captured video of the user in real time to calculate riding or running speed. This result controls the speed at which the video sequence is played to the user.

Dozens of video sequences are available through the app, with more being added regularly. The videos are filmed specifically for specialized workout sequences, such as hiking on trails in the Grand Canyon or running through the scenery of northern Italy. Alex Gourley, co-founder and product lead at BitGym, says, “We stream a video signal using H.264 over HLS to the user’s device and a 3D model of each tour. This allows us to provide exceptionally smooth video playback and deliver interactive info to users as they progress along a tour, such as notes about the scenery around them or feedback on their performance.”

Clearly, both Peloton and BitGym are responding to the demands of the marketplace for tools to relieve the crushing boredom of stationary bicycle riding. The community support/challenge approach of Peloton is one way to engage riders and encourage them to increase their pace. BitGym uses immersive video sequence delivery to give riders the impression of moving through a scenic area. Both approaches seem certain to help participants ride faster and more often, in any location, at any time of day.

Wes Simpson is an independent consultant and author of Video Over IP from Focal Press.