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Stepping into Virtual Reality— “Hands” On with the Virtuix Omni

on Thursday, Mar. 20th

Anyone who plays video games knows that with any new game controller there’s usually a learning curve. The only new control scheme in the past few decades that needed no real explanation was the touchscreen. That might account for one reason that smartphone games are so popular: even a two year old can pick up and play one.

For the most part games rely on hand-eye coordination as the heart of any control scheme. That can mean a control pad, keyboard and mouse, touchscreen, or motion controllers like the Wii’s remote. With virtual reality emerging as the next great frontier of gaming the gold standard for experiences shifts to what developers are calling “presence”: the sense of actually being in a virtual world. It’s not as satisfying to press a button and have your on-screen body take an action when you are wearing the screen on your face.

This is where peripherals like the Virtuix Omni come in.

Put simply the Omni is a kind of treadmill that translates footsteps into motion in virtual space. The user stands on a platform with a slippery concave surface embedded with capacitive sensors. Special shoes, comfortable slippers with a contact plate attached, are worn so that footfalls are translated into commands. A waist-high ring keeps the user from falling out of the Omni, and while in VR a belt harness helps keep the user upright.

The harness is necessary, because the act of walking in the Omni can be more akin to a controlled stumble.

Imagine stepping onto the ice of your local hockey rink–assuming your town still has one–in leather soled shoes. That’s what it feels like to step onto the Omni for the first time. The act of walking on the Omni takes some getting used to, perhaps more than what was allotted in a demo on the show floor of the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco this week.

The initial learning process takes place in a simple third person game that has me walking down a long row, pivoting slightly to walk over coins and avoid enemies. This is done without the harness, and the main thing I was aware of was how dependent I was on holding onto the guardrail of the Omni to keep my legs from going out from under me. Skating has never been my strong suit, so I was surprised that I managed to post a high score in the demo.

That assumes that the demo wasn’t rigged to make me feel better about myself.

More interesting by far was getting the full Omni/Oculus VR combo experience. With an Oculus Rift headset suspended from a pole above the Omni and the harness around my waist I had a full 360 degrees of motion inside a first person shooter set in creepy corridors.

For this game I was also issued a rifle peripheral that was to be used only for pulling the trigger and hitting the reload button. Aiming in the game was dependent on what I was looking at. Unfortunately the rifle also had a small thumb stick that fit in the spot where the thumb meets the hand. Which would have been no problem if the thumb stick inputs had been switched off.

A too tight grip on the rifle meant that I would sometimes continue moving forward despite having come to a full stop inside the Omni. Since I wasn’t familiar with the setup it took me a minute to suspect what was going on. For someone who has a frame of reference for these types of demo glitches this is no big deal, but the promise of a rig like the Omni is that it will be more intuitive than a controller for non-gamers.

This might seem like a secondary concern when it comes to the emerging domain of virtual reality, but the potential of the medium lies far beyond the console and PC gaming market. There are plenty of “casual” gamers who are more than willing to put themselves under the spell of the Rift, or Sony’s Project Morpheus, that have little familiarity with game controllers.  Look around you, there’s one of them now: playing Candy Crush Saga on their phone.

I have some confidence that I could get the hang of the Omni with more time. There’s a lingering concern about stepping out of the device: with one foot in midair and the other on the slick surface of the  Omni there’s a moment when it would be easy to lose balance. This isn’t a massive concern if one is mindful, but coming out of VR can be a strange enough experience as it is without having to remember to watch your step.

At present the Omni is aimed at what we can consider a “hardcore” gamer market. The rig is retailing for under $500, and will allow PC game controls to be mapped to the device. The Omni started out as a Kickstarter project, and the final version is expected to be shipping to backers this summer. The company is still taking orders online for those who missed the initial crowdfunding campaign.

That release window will almost certainly beat the  retail versions of both the Oculus Rift and Sony’s competing device to market. Possibly by a country mile. Until VR is commercially available the audience for the Omni will be limited, which may be a good thing for the longevity of Virtuix. Not only are they bound to get manufacturing and design quirks settled out, but the design of VR experiences are going to have to be different from conventional games. A lot will be learned about what does and doesn’t work with this system in the coming months.

That, above all else, was my main problem with the demo on the show floor. A kinetic, dark hallway shooter might be the norm for PC games these days but it doesn’t do a great job of showing what’s amazing about VR. I suspect that I might have gotten my “sea legs” with greater ease if I’d just been tasked with walking around a virtual environment and giving a task to explore. In virtual reality less is proving to be so much more.

Image: Concept Art via Virtuix

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