One of the toughest challenges facing VR is how to handle movement. While conventional control schemes like gamepads, or mouse and keyboard, work as well as ever, they do hinder the medium’s promise of total immersion in virtual worlds. And sitting in a chair while moving in-game makes some people sick quicker than downing a bottle of cheap scotch.
The HTC Vive solves this problem by letting you move within a space up to 15 by 15 feet. While this is certainly the most natural and immersive approach, it puts awkward limitations on designers to construct games that restrict motion within a limited area. Short of creating an environment with one-to-one correspondence between physical and virtual space, the only way to provide an unlimited range of motion is an omni-directional treadmill. The US Military has been developing these for training simulation purposes, but they’re expensive, complicated, and large.
Fortunately for the rest of us, Texas-based Virtuix has developed a far more elegant solution.
Run like the wind
The snug harness and shoes are comfortable enough that you can largely forget about them once you’re up and running (literally).
The Omni utilizes a low-friction, concave disc with special shoes so the user can smoothly walk in any direction. The concavity takes advantage of gravity to pull your feet back to the center, creating a more natural stride than a flat surface would. Sensor pods mounted on top of the shoes track your feet to translate your motion into the game. The harness is similar to one used in climbing, with straps around the waist and thighs. Critically, it is not tethered to the support ring, in order to allow for a complete range of motion. The platform lets you run, jump, step backwards, strafe, and sit, with smooth, 360-degree movement.
Although initially tentative and clumsy, within a few minutes I was acclimated to walking around. The structure is appropriately sturdy, so I soon felt comfortable enough to lean into my stride, which is necessary for it to really work as intended. The snug harness and shoes are comfortable enough that you’ll quickly forget about them.
Plug and play
While I used an HTC Vive Pre for my demonstration, the system is compatible with any PC or mobile VR headset, including the Rift. Virtuix plans on adding console support for systems like PlayStation VR in the future. It works with any game that utilizes a gamepad, because your walking is cleverly translated to a thumbstick movement. This nearly-universal compatibility with existing VR gaming content is one of the Omni’s strongest selling points.
I played one of three games that comes included with the Omni. It was a cooperative, wave-based arena shooter. Frenetically running around to gun down robots was a perfect way to dive in and get a quick taste of the experience. The other two games are also variants of first-person shooters, but in the future they hope to branch out into other genres, such as exploration-based games. Jonathan Blow’s upcoming exploration puzzler The Witness immediately springs to mind as a fantastic candidate. At previous events the Omni has been demoed with Skyrim, which sounds delightful.
The future is now
Kickstarted in 2013, the Virtuix has been developing the Omni for nearly five years. You can order it right now at the surprisingly low price of $700. That package includes the platform, harness, shoes, and tracking pods, along with the three bundled games and a 1-year warranty. You will, however, have to provide your own headset.
Like the Vive Pre, the Omni adds a fantastic new layer of immersion to the virtual reality experience, but in a way that is much more spatially efficient. The system is intuitive to use, and is clearly the successful and refined fruit of a long, iterative design process. On some level it’s such an obvious idea that someone was bound to develop it no matter what, and there will no doubt be a slew of imitators in the coming years.
Fortunately for us, Virtuix has set a very high bar with the Omni, and I expect them to ride its initiative to success as the promise of VR is finally realized in the next few years.