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Hands (or feet, rather) on: Virtuix Omni

For a certain type of gamer, the Omni is the answer to years of prayers.

In the wake of the Oculus Rift’s rise comes a rebirth of all things virtual reality. The Oculus goggles are all about immersion, and some companies like Virtuix are taking that idea one step further.

The Omni, Virtuix’s omnidirectional treadmill, is a free-standing rig designed to work in conjunction with other devices, especially the Oculus Rift. To experience the Omni, you first need to put on a special set of shoes with frictionless pads for soles that are made for Omni’s slick, concave surface. Previous versions of the Omni used cameras (including Microsoft’s Kinect) to judge where you were, but the current model uses three concentric circles with sensors in them to track your actual footsteps. You step forward and let gravity do the rest. With each step your foot slides back to the center, and the game you’re playing in turn recognizes it as forward momentum.

The shoes themselves are surprisingly stylish, with a simple black design and the company logo on the side. The guys from Virtuix even joke that they may next branch out and release a line of shoes. Each Omni will come with a pair of the shoes – you tell the company your size when you buy an Omni – and additional shoes will be sold separately.

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Once you’re all laced up, you then need to unlatch the elevated protective ring to enter the Omni. From there you attach yourself to a harness that rests on top of the elevated ring, which allows for 360-degree movement. You then secure a pair of straps to your legs. Putting on the Oculus Rift comes next, and then, finally, you pick up your gun-shaped controller. It’s a bit of a process.

In order to run at a good pace, you need to move quickly – and you need to trust in the harness to stop you from falling. The ultimate goal of using the Omni in tandem with the Oculus Rift is total immersion. You move your head to look around and see the world using the headset, while the Omni allows you to actually walk or run around like you’re inside the game. The rifle is also optional, but if you are moving and looking around, it makes sense to want to use a replica of a gun to shoot enemies.

When it works, the illusion is complete. You run into firefights, dodging behind cover naturally. There are some issues though. The system is designed with forward steps in mind, so strafing – an indispensable feature in most shooters – is difficult. Borderline impossible, even. In practice, you need to turn in the direction you want to move, and that can get you tangled in the Oculus chord.

Some of the limits placed on movement will be corrected when the Oculus Rift is released at retail. The CES 2014 “Crystal Cove” prototype Rift adds a motion-sensing camera that detects your physical position in a three-dimensional space, meaning the final version will more believably allow you to peak around corners and duck. The height of the circle that your harness rests on is also static, so shorter people may have issues with the fixed-height setup. Virtuix claims this will be addressed in the final version of the product.

The other issue is the price, which sits at $499. That alone is a big fee, but to get the most out of the Omni you’ll also need to purchase the Oculus Rift headset – currently only available as a $300 dev kit – and run the system on a high-end gaming rig. That’s all assuming you have the space for the device itself.

That said, Omni is made for a particular type of hardcore gamer, one that may be less likely to balk at the price than most. Those that do give it a try are likely going to find themselves in a workout, assuming of course that Virtuix is able to iron out kinks like the inability to strafe. The system forces you to really move. There is a sweet spot you find after practicing for a bit that gives you maximum movement with minimum effort, but the Omni still requires more strenuous activity than sitting on a couch with a controller in-hand. This does create some interesting possibilities for exercise-focused games, and it also creates an opportunity to turn a standard gaming session into something a fitness-oriented activity.

Virtuix is also working on its own software, and the company plans to debut a game/demo of its own design – a shooter, they tell us – in the near future. It isn’t clear yet how other types of games will work with the rig, but we should get a better sense of that when the retail version finalized.

There are a few issues that will keep the Omni from becoming a mainstream device, but it will offer some the total-immersion experience they have waited their whole life for. Thanks to the Oculus Rift, a gun peripheral, and possibly also a haptic vest like the KOR-FX – a device that gives you physical feedback (like where you are getting shot from) through vibration – you can say goodbye to reality.

The Omni is currently available for pre-order, and the retail model is planned for release in May or June, right around the time of E3.

 Highs

  • Pairs with the Oculus for an immersive experience
  • The movement has been greatly improved
  • The surface and the shoes offer for good movement

Lows

  • The price and physical size
  • The movement is still limited
  • Requires several, expensive third part peripherals