Photos by Norman Chan
I can't imagine ever having a Virtuix Omni in my living room. Donning a virtual reality headset such as the Oculus Rift is an isolating act—put one on while sitting on a couch with your roommate or spouse and you're off in your own world. They're not invited, and they're probably staring at you. The Viturix Omni isolates you in the same way, except you're wearing high tech slippery bowling shoes, strapped into a girdle, and completely cut off from the outside world.
Does it feel awkward? Absolutely. Silly? Oh yes. Unlike the Oculus Rift, sliding and walking on the Omni doesn't feel like the future of gaming the moment you experience it. And yet, once I accept the awkwardness and get a feel for how to walk on the Omni, I'm completely immersed in a way that I've never experienced before. With an Oculus Rift strapped to my head, a pair of headphones around my ears, and a fake plastic gun in my hands, I completely lost track of what direction I was facing. I know there were people standing five feet away watching. Filming me. But I'm so cut off from the outside world that I don't care.
Virtuix raised $1.1 million on Kickstarter for the Omni treadmill in 2013. Since then, the company has contracted game developers to work on a game prototype called TRAVR. The game is its big showpiece at this year's GDC. It plays like a stripped-down combination of Call of Duty and FEAR, for the former's follow-this-guy moments and the latter's creepy, flickery lights ambiance.
Walking on the Omni's low friction surface while wearing equally low friction shoes doesn't feel natural, but during my 20 minutes on the treadmill I feel like I'm finding my virtual legs. I have to lean into every step. As my feet slipp down the concave surface, I worry that my legs will slip out from under me and I'll smash my face on the ring that surrounds the Omni and supports its harness. Learning to trust that harness makes things easier. Then, I can put real weight into every step and really walk around a virtual world.
TRAVR's simplified first-person shooter demo feels like the wrong kind of game to make for the Omni. Is shooting shambling zombies ever going to be fun when movement is slower and more awkward than actually running, let alone using a mouse and keyboard? If the Omni's going to work for anything, it's a slow, deliberate exploration game like Dear Esther—a game where walking around is intrinsically fulfilling.
Before the zombies come for me, I get a taste of the Omni's potential. After bumping up against a wall, I have to awkwardly turn to my right and change directions, and in that moment I completely lose track of my real world orientation. I have no idea where I'm facing. I marvel at this for a moment.
Being that cut off from the world is novel. Given the right gaming experience, it might even be amazing. But it also exaggerates the isolation of virtual reality. I can't imagine keeping an Omni in my living room when using it means cutting myself off from everything and everyone around me.
I think most game experiences designed for the Oculus Rift will be better served by VR's head tracking than the ability to walk on an omnidirectional treadmill. The Omni isn't a must-have gaming peripheral, but it might hint at the future of the humble treadmill. Why watch TV while you jog when you could run in any direction, exploring the world of Myst or ducking punches in a VR boxing game?
I step off of the Omni, sweating like I'd just run a mile. I'm not sold on it as the next big thing for gaming, but I'm definitely sold on one thing: it's a hell of a workout.