The lights are on
Ever since its successful $1 million Kickstarter in 2013, I've wanted to step into the concave Virtuix Omni. The octagonal, treadmill-like enclosure is designed to add locomotion to virtual-reality. It took some getting used to, but once I did it provided a unique VR experience that will find a home with those looking for the most complete immersion available.Before putting on the Oculus Rift and headphones, Virtuix CEO Jan Goetgeluk had his team put me through a simple training exercise. In order to use the Omni, special low-friction shoes are required. These have a rubber pin in the center of the toe that fits into the many grooves, helping with stabilization. The different motions can be mapped to keystrokes and mouse movements.
As I worked through the tech demo/training exercise, I learned to maneuver a tiny character on a television in front of me, collecting coins and dodging attacks. During this phase, I was required to balance myself with my arms on the enclosure ring, which limited my ability to turn and correct for odd angles.Learning to let my body weight force my foot to slide down the inclined sides of the Omni was challenging. Once I got the hang of it though, I was ready for the full experience.In order to allow free movement and support, the Omni prototype I used has a large harness that Velcros across the waist and includes leg straps. I expected to land face first into the safety enclosure, but things got easier once I was wearing the Rift. There were moments where I expected to slip entirely, but despite my best efforts trying to lose my balance, the harness kept me upright.I found it much easier (though not completely intuitive) to move in place as my virtual avatar moved through corridors. The demo, called TRAVR, is a simple zombie shooter with head movement handling the reticule and a gun-shaped peripheral for immersion. Anything with a trigger would have worked since the controller isn't currently mapped, but having the gun helped sell the illusion.I can understand the Omni's allure, but it faces the fundamental problem of being reliant upon devices like the Oculus Rift. While Oculus believes it's getting closer to a retail model, and Sony is just entering the fray with its own enormous resources, the Virtuix must wait until consumers have the tools necessary for immersion.Additionally, Oculus has been clear about its own intentions regarding active use. The Rift is designed for a seated experience, and requires a cable leading from the image source to the headset. Head tracking is also a problem to solve, as the Omni's 360 degree rotation means that players will inevitably be facing away from the camera. The Omni has great potential, and more active gaming that fits a core consumer's interests is a noble aspiration. However, the device is ahead of its time. Provided that Virtuix takes the time available to find ways to more quickly acclimate users, reduce the bulk of the harness without sacrificing safety, and refine the design of the shoes to make the stepping and sliding more naturally mimic a normal gait, it may find a foothold in enthusiasts' homes. I think it's a hard sell for the masses, but once the first excellent consumer VR gaming headset becomes available, I expect there will be those who are willing to take many next steps in place.
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