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.

5 comments
eclipsarie
eclipsarie

This is ok... But when you buy this thing know that you wont be able to use your hands ... You will always have to keep your hands up and no man can really ''RUN OR WALK'' freely without swinging his arms. Another thing is its belt area will make you uncomfortable and you wont be able to crouch. Last thing is that this thing is big. Many people wont be able to store it in their homes. So this is not a ''NATURAL MOTİON İNTERFACE'' this is just a huge walking pad...

gitlem
gitlem

I'd just like to make a few remarks:

"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"

Actually, in TF2 with the rift you have the possibility to move your crosshair independently of your head, you can look in one direction and shoot in the other. In this particular video though this is disabled because as you say, the gun is just a prop so he has to aim with his head. Though, even today it is fully possible to use a gun model to actually aim like you would naturally, for example using a razer hydra controller.


"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)."

Remember that both of these devices are early prototypes. The models intented for customers will be much more functional. You will definitely be able to crouch, jump and spin freely (the rift will most likely be wireless).


antonioschavez
antonioschavez

The track record for everything is zero... until it isn't. A little bit of research takes care of one of your points (i.e. no crouching/jumping, when the consumer version of the rift fully intends to have positional tracking... Which may not be the case, but it is planned) and as for the rest... Well, you're probably right that this particular device won't be a huge deal. There most likely won't be a home solution for full immersion until we have low cost, non (or minimally) invasive, high bandwidth brain computer interfaces. That said, VR isn't actually competing with the FPS game market. People will still play TF2 without an Oculus Rift competitively. What the OR is offering is an affordable new experience. Something most people haven't had the opportunity to fidget with. I fully expect to see a new revolution in Adventure games, simple interactive environments, etc... Hell, I'm picking one up just so I can emulate multiple physical displays. Set up a kinect to put my desk space into that environment along with my hands and I'm good to go!

Despite any reservations for this particular device, I wouldn't be surprised to see a number of "arcades" spring up around the idea of full immersion. Regardless, it's a step (pun intended) in the right direction. People will donate for what they THINK it means and eventually, this company, or another like it, seeing movement in the market will start to put together a real vision of what it could actually mean.


mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator

@antonioschavez It's a great point about arcades, Antonio. One of my colleagues and I were chatting about just that earlier today. If Laser Tag still exists (there's one right down the street from my house in a town pop. 4,000) then why not this?

antonioschavez
antonioschavez

@mattpeckham @antonioschavez Absolutely! I can easily see businesses popping up advertising unique VR experiences, with the most successful having a team of in-house engineers and designers offering personally tailored VR environments. Like a prototype Total Recall :P

Directional, moveable fans synced to your environment via microcontroller. Scent dispensers... The moveable terrain thing actually seems like a relatively straightforward engineering problem that people just haven't really had the financial impetus to solve yet. A series of judiciously placed microcontrolled, asynchronous, elevation controlled rollers under a firm and flexible surface... Electrostatic "grass" just to show off :P

Definitely challenging but very feasible. Especially as the price of computation and materials continue to plummet.

All in all, I see this as the beginning years of an exciting (and in some ways terrifying) new leap in the ways we interact with that nearly incomprehensible mesh that we call "the human experience."