In theory, a treadmill could be be a great way to handle movement in virtual reality. But how does the current reality live up to the theory? Read on, as we recap our feet-on CES demo of the Virtuix Omni VR treadmill.
The Virtuix Omni has been around for a while – its Kickstarter campaign was two and a half years ago – but the VR treadmill is finally shipping now, and has the potential to become relevant this year, with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive set to launch within the next few months.
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HTC and Valve are tackling first-person movement in VR from the get-go by letting you walk around a 15 x 15 ft. space in your own home with the Vive. And though Oculus is taking more of a baby-steps approach to this aspect, the Rift will be able to support room-scale VR as well. But both solutions are still limited to the size of your physical space – if you want to run around, say, a virtual battlefield or a large building inside a VR game, developers will have to employ tricks to keep the real you confined to the real room you're playing in (imagine things like standing on a moving platform or being hunkered down in a room-sized bunker where the enemies all come to you).
But treadmills have the potential to let you feel like you're walking indefinitely (i.e. no moving platform tricks), only without needing more than a few feet of real floor space. Again, sounds great in theory.
Based on our demo, though, the Virtuix Omni isn't fun enough or natural-feeling enough to live up to that potential.
Our best description of the experience is to imagine that you're moonwalking on the sides of a human-sized serving plate, while wearing slippery bowling shoes. The company says the Omni enables "a smooth gait," but our demo didn't live up to that. It simply didn't feel like taking a step in the real world or even taking a step on a treadmill at the gym.
This is because the sensors inside the base unit and on the shoes require you to drag your feet down the slopes of the treadmill. The forward step feels somewhat natural (it's like walking up on a slight incline), but the need to slide your foot backwards after each step feels odd. I picked up on it quickly, but it never felt completely intuitive (and I'm not sure if I wanted it to).
That's too bad, because the Virtuix Omni is a bold product that may be about as good as a 360-degree VR treadmill can be at the moment. You can turn in all directions, the latency wasn't noticeable and the harness allowed me to quickly change orientation without falling down or out of the Omni.
And PCs will treat the Omni like it's a regular analog controller, making it compatible with most first-person games for the Rift or Vive (and any other PC-based VR that comes along) out of the box.
But without a truly natural walking motion, it's asking customers to get used to an incredibly awkward new way of moving. It expects intuitive human behavior to adapt to the tech, whereas history has shown that the most successful consumer tech products do the opposite.
Even if the Virtuix Omni did allow for perfectly natural motion, there's still the obstacle that it a) costs US$699 and b) requires as much floor space as a piece of gym equipment. That may have made it an extremely niche product even if it had nailed the walking part, but for now it's hard to see this first-generation model going far even with the eager early adopter crowd.
We'll continue to keep an eye on VR treadmills, though, as the opportunity is still there for a company that can allow for a completely natural gait. Who knows, maybe Virtuix can learn lessons from this model and build a 2nd-gen unit that lives up to that promise. As it stands now, though, the free-roaming Oculus Touch and Vive experiences blow this away.
The Virtuix Omni VR treadmill is available now for $699.
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