LOS ANGELES -- I did not fall! No, really. I didn't (just watch the video). Falling was my biggest fear when I booked a meeting last week to see the Virtuix Omni, an omnidirectional, low-friction surface that allows you to move around in a virtual environment (using the) without (seriously) endangering yourself, your coffee table, or others.
The Omni is about 4 to 5 feet in diameter and is sloped toward its center. It's a low-friction surface with a narrowly grooved exterior. A circular handle surrounds your waist, affording you a degree of much-needed support and protection from falling.
The package also includes a special stabilizing belt and special, low-friction shoes. How special.
The belt wraps around your waist and under your groin area and includes two stabilizing plates on either side that brace against the circular handle, helping to keep you upright. It's not the most comfortable-looking arrangement and thankfully I was too tall for it to be of any real benefit to me. Instead, I held on (one hand on the handle and another on my shotgun) for dear life.
The Omni interfaces with the Oculus Rift and uses it for head-tracking, and while my demo featured Half Life 2, the Omni should work with any PC game. The rifle peripheral only acts as a trigger mechanism and your actual aim is strictly dictated by your line of sight. So, wherever you look is where your crosshair goes.
A Kinect (Xbox 360 version) is used for body tracking, but Virtuix says it's working on its own sensor, which it plans to ship to its Kickstarter backers in January.
To move forward you simply walk forward. Well, it's actually not that simple. First, after putting on the aforementioned special shoes, Virtuix insisted that I take a few minutes to simply get used to walking on the Omni.
If you've ever tried walking up an icy patch of sloped pavement, then you'll have a pretty close idea of what this feels like initially. After a few minutes of leaning forward, putting my weight on my front foot and then sliding it back (that's kind of how it works), I was deemed ready enough to put on the goggles.
With the Oculus Rift on your head, you no longer see the real-world, so I actually spent a few moments walk-training with my eyes closed, to get used to the disorienting sensation of using the Rift while standing. Honestly it's a miracle I didn't fall.
While I'm sure I'd get better at walking using the Omni, I didn't take to it as easily as I feel I should have, and I think a training video of sorts could do wonders for shortening the learning curve.
After several minutes of play, I kind of just wanted to stop. Possibly out of frustration. "Walking" didn't always move me forward, and every time I turned my back to the Kinect, it made my character in the game jump. It was just really difficult to be precise with movement.
I'm not sure if this is the fault of the Omni, the Kinect, the Oculus Rift, or my own admitted ineptitude, but my overall impression was either that Virtuix still has a lot of work to do or I should have spent more time training. It's honestly probably a bit of both.
The Omni is available for preorder to Kickstarter backers for $429. After that ends in July, it'll go on retail preorder for between $499 and $599. Units using Vitrtuix's own sensor (the final version won't use Kinect) will begin shipping in January 2014.
The Omni has potential, but it still feels a bit too half baked right now to get truly excited about.