Step Into Virtual Worlds with the Virtuix Omni
Using the Virtuix Omni and the Oculus Rift simultaneously.
SAN FRANCISCO — Virtual reality is everywhere you look at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, but few people are talking about its most serious limitation: How do you get real-world motion, such as walking or running, to translate into a game without running the risk of a player sprinting headlong into a wall?
Houston-based developer Virtuix thinks it has the answer. Its Omni device looks kind of like a treadmill, but instead of having moving parts, the Omni uses a slippery concave surface to let players walk, sidestep and run in place through virtual worlds.
Available for preorder on Virtuix's website, the Omni costs $499 and is compatible with any PC game. The company said that 3,000 have already been sold.
We tried out two Omni demonstration models at GDC. First, we had to put on special shoes with low-friction soles. Then we stepped onto the Omni, the surface of which is shaped like a shallow bowl. The surface is designed to be slippery, and has sensors that can pick up the shoes' movements.
By leaning on the circular railing, and with some difficulty, we were able to create a semblance of walking that consisted of putting our foot at the edge of the Omni's platform, shifting our weight onto the foot and then letting it slide down to the center again.
The first demo consisted of a simple coin-collection game. We stood on an Omni in front of a TV screen depicting an elf-like character. Walking on the Omni steered the character through the level, collecting coins and dodging obstacles.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Standing on a slippery surface can take some getting used to. During the demo, we found ourselves leaning heavily on the Omni's railings and dragging our feet across the platform without putting too much weight on them.
The second demo, called "TraVR," felt like a cross between "Splinter Cell" and "Dead Space." This time, we wore an Oculus Rift headset (not included with an Omni purchase) and held a gun-shaped Xbox-compatible controller. We also wore a harness that rested on top of the Omni railing and swiveled with us as we moved.
To aim, we merely turned our head until the reticule at the center of our vision was lined up to the target. To fire, we pulled the trigger on the controller. The fact that aiming was controlled with head movements instead of the gun was less than intuitive, but that's more of a problem with "TraVR" than with the Omni itself.
Similar to first-person shooters of the 1990s, "TraVR" didn't let us move backwards in the game, only forward and side-to-side. This made backing away from the inevitable horde of zombies impossible. At certain points in the game, our character also lurched forward when our feet slid slightly on the platform.
Playing both demos, especially "TraVR," was surprisingly physically demanding. Trying to run on a strange device while wearing a virtual-reality helmet was not easy, and by the end of it we were sweaty and out of breath.
Walking on the Omni platform didn't really feel similar to walking on solid ground, but we did get it working. As with most virtual-reality devices, it's hard to tell if any flaws with the Omni arise from its own design, or from the simple need to get used to a new technology.