Shoes, on. Belt, connected. Leg straps snapped under my crotch. I'm ready to go for a run in VR.
The Virtuix Omni has been one of the weird-tech poster children of the last couple of years: you've probably seen videos of people wearing a VR helmet, strapped into one of these rings and running in place. It's reminiscent of those old VR arcades from the early 90s that popped up in shopping malls.
What, exactly, is the Virtuix Omni? I used it years ago when it first launched on Kickstarter, in an early prototype. It's now finally for sale direct from Virtuix for $699 (if you want to buy internationally you have to have it shipped: Virtuix goes over the prices by territory here.) I just tried the final version that's shipping out.
It's a gigantic game controller for your feet
The Omni is basically a multidirectional treadmill -- a giant circular structure you stand in with a sloping concave bottom. You slide around inside, trying to walk up the sides of any part of the bowl you're placed in, holding onto the side guardrails for support. For all its high-tech looks, you're basically slipping around on a smooth surface with low-friction shoes. And it's the shoes that are tracking your motion.
Yes, the Omni comes with its own special shoes, included with the package (extra pairs are $59). These feel like slip-on sneakers, but slidy like bowling shoes. They let you slip around in the Omni, while clip-on motion trackers (Virtuix Omni Tracking Pods) measure movement and turn your feet into game controls.
For $699, the Virtuix Omni comes with the large ring structure (the aforementioned "guardrail") and base you see in the photos, a harness in a size you choose when you order, a pair of Omni shoes, and a pair of Omni motion trackers that clip on the shoelaces. You don't get a VR headset, or any sort of game controller for your hands (the gun I used in Virtuix's demo is a separately-sold third-party PC accessory). It's strictly a walking peripheral.
It works with any PC and phone-based VR...but not game consoles
Games interpret the Virtuix Omni like a regular game controller, so you could pair this with an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive (which Virtuix is officially partnering with, marketing its treadmill as being ideal for Vive), and Samsung Gear VR. Not PlayStation VR, however. According to CEO Jan Goetgeluk, he's hopeful to make that happen someday.
It lets you feel like you're walking in place, so you don't run into walls
I put the Omni shoes on my feet, stepped gingerly into the Omni's platform, and buckled the Omni harness. Once you're in, you can walk in any direction by step-sliding. It feels weird, and I kept worrying I'd fall. But I leaned against the railing and walked, and slowly got used to it. Steps translate into movements in whatever direction you're walking, for 360-degree first-person games. The faster you walk, the faster you move.
Advanced VR systems like the HTC Vive already use room sensors to let you actually walk around, but sooner or later your holodeck experience would literally hit the wall -- the physical borders of the room you're in. The goal of the Omni is to create a feeling of freedom in all directions. I could keep running forward forever, or as long as my feet hung in there. That's a different spin than holodeck-style VR theme parks like The Void, but it also means a lot more physical exertion. And running in the Omni feels stranger: unlike the Vive, which maps my real steps into the virtual worlds I'm in, this treadmill feels floaty and a bit disconnected.
The Virtuix Omni is designed for active play, and even to be a form of gaming exercise. It wore me out after a few minutes. I'm not in shape, but the unusual sloping walls of the Omni made my feet hurt midway through the session I tried. Muscles ached. It's a different type of strain than regular walking. Maybe I'd get used to it. If I were playing a real competitive first-person VR game, I'd lose if I played in the Omni. I need gym training.
As my colleague Eric Franklin said when he tried an early version three years ago,"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." I agree. And I really wonder how many people have the stamina for it. Eric Franklin's pretty fit, too.
It seems like you'd need a special class of game designed to understand your fitness level and accommodate. A gentler type of first-person shooter. Virtuix's VR demo game seemed like good balance of movement and rest. As I shot robots and drones, I had to keep reloading my rocket launcher by running across the room and grabbing a new weapon. I got little rest breaks.
The Virtuix Omni is freaking gigantic. No normal person would have the space to set this up in their home. But if your dream of a VR arcade involves an omnidirectional slip-and-slide treadmill for first-person shooters, well, your wish is granted...you can order one now.
One thing I do agree with: VR, eventually, needs to figure out how "walking around in VR" can be accomplished with everyday movements, without walking into walls. I wouldn't want to do it this way, though...but should we get one in for review this spring, we'll try it out in greater detail.