WATCH: Oculus Rift, Omni ‘Treadmill’ Virtual Reality Demo Illustrates Why I’m Not Interested

Is Virtuix's Omni paired with Oculus VR's Rift the future of virtual reality gaming?

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Virtuix’s Omni whatchamacallit looks a little like a Star Trek transporter pad with a handrail. The rail sits up close, circling your abdomen like a belt, keeping you centered and upright as you move. Promo shots with colorized sections make it seem like a weird version of Simon you play with your feet. Virtuix calls it a “natural motion interface for virtual reality applications.” What’s interesting is that it’s not an actual treadmill, but a concave platform you stand in the middle of and essentially moonwalk on. Do so with compatible motion-capture gear, say a virtual reality head-mounted display, and the Omni can convey the illusion of perambulation through a virtual environment.

Who do we know making virtual reality gear these days? Oculus VR, of course. So Virtuix’s Omni (still in development) paired with Oculus’ Rift head-mounted display (also still in development) demoed in the video above was probably inevitable. In the clip, we see someone playing Valve’s popular team-based shooter, Team Fortress 2. When the player runs on the Omni, his in-game persona moves as if holding down the “run” key on a keyboard (in reality, he’s somewhere between a fast walk and a trot on the Omni — doing “the gamer shuffle,” as someone quipped on YouTube).

It’s not clear if he’s using the mock-gun to aim or just as a prop with a trigger; I’m guessing the latter. In first-person shooters, your head and gun’s iron sights are the same. In fact your head is your gun: Imagine a bunch of bipedal creatures with weapons in lieu of craniums and muzzles in place of eyeballs, which is how shooters have worked since id Software popularized “mouselook” per Quake in 1996.

Clever as this all seems (and fun as it may be to fantasize about), you’ll note the demonstrator’s ability to turn in real-space is pretty limited, nor can he physically jump or crouch (fully spinning in place, given the Rift’s wiring, is also an obvious no-no). I’m not sure Team Fortress 2 was the best game to demo here, unless you’ve never played a first-person shooter and don’t care about the genre’s grammar. Turning, leaping and crouching effectively in competitive first-person games is everything — you can do things in games like TF2 that are physically impossible in the real world. I don’t just mean using a rocket to launch yourself through the air like an adamantine pole-vaulter: Turn in reality as fast as serious players do in games like TF2 and you’d probably snap your neck. Thus unless you’re playing the game with others using the same setup and subject to the same constraints, you’d be a team liability — a moose among cheetahs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m intrigued by the idea here. I’m no lazy mope balking at the notion of full-body gaming. On an average day I run three or four miles; on a good day I might do three times that. I’m just not convinced that shoehorning existing games in with tech like this solves a problem that needed solving in the first place.

What about the treadmill-style approach to virtual reality? In a 2011 episode of the documentary TV series Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible, physicist Michio Kaku tackled the notion of virtual reality with Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s holodeck in mind. How would you build a holodeck today? Kaku sets out to roll his own, or at least propose something in the ballpark.

At one point Kaku visits a facility with a moving floor sporting a so-called “omnidirectional treadmill.” On the treadmill, a soldier in fatigues and helmet tromps in different directions, slowly turning as projections on walls surrounding him change accordingly, providing the illusion of traversing a virtual environment. As the soldier moves forward, motion-tracking sensors instruct the treadmill to move in the opposite direction, so basically NordicTrack meets Kinect, though with obvious limitations: The surface is one level only, and the soldier himself is harnessed to a safety line running up to the ceiling.

When Kaku gives the system a spin, he stumbles at first because he keeps “thinking about [his] feet.” Once he focuses his perception on the simulation itself, he says it gets much easier. This suggests that a wraparound device like the Oculus Rift, which fully engages your visual cortex, might work much better with a treadmill-style apparatus (no looking down at your feet, or at least not your real ones). And Virtuix’s notion of “belting” you in would, in theory, mitigate balance issues.

But as Kaku notes, the treadmill approach to virtual reality is crude. Like the belt-based system he tested for the show, the Omni won’t simulate the feel of different terrain, say grass, shallow water or hardpack. It can’t accurately simulate changes in elevation, say running up or down an incline (though you might compensate by making it take longer to run “up” something or less time to run “down” via software). And with the Omni, there’s the jump and crouch issue, given that belt, or the presence of the belt itself, keeping you from toppling over but also restraining and constantly reminding you that you’re standing in a strange little holding area: Imagine running through an environment leaning against a free-floating, invisible hoop you can never pull out of or away from.

How much do you really want to ambulate like this while gaming anyway? Isn’t the point of games like TF2 that we’re able to do more with less? Think about The Matrix. Neo isn’t interesting because he’s wandering around in this full sensory simulation, it’s that he can do things no one else can. It’s the power fantasy, like dreaming of flying or moving at superhuman speeds. There may be some novelty aspect to moonwalking through a game like TF2, having to hoist a replica gun and twist your body around to look/aim (in ways that may or may not be, shall we say, “ergonomically therapeutic”). But fun as it is to watch a video of someone doing this, I’m not sure most are going to pick that over chilling in a chair or on a couch with a gamepad.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the world wants to moonwalk-and-shoot wearing waist belts and wraparound headgear. Or maybe the killer app isn’t something like TF2 at all, and we’ll see stuff more like Heavy Rain or Wii Fit justifying the concept. While the Omni isn’t publicly available yet, Virtuix says it’s planning a Kickstarter campaign in the near future. I’m sure it’ll make a pile of cash given what people seem to think it means…even if the track record for ideas like this is pretty dismal — zero-for-everything, so far.