Give Virtuix $500, put on their goofy shoes, and they’ll put you inside Half-Life 2
It takes a significant time investment to get strapped into the Omni for the first time. You have to put on the special shoes with the sliding pads. You have to open the back of the hardware and step in.
A harness is put around your waist and snapped under your legs to catch your weight if you fall. The prototype uses two Sixense sensors on your ankles to track movement, and those must be strapped onto you. Another person handed me the gun controller and put on the Oculus Rift.
The result after all this bullshit, other than the feeling that you’re ready to rocket-punch some Kaiju? Real, working virtual reality. For $500. Get hyped.
Stepping into Half-Life 2
It takes a second to get used to moving when you’re on the hardware. The shoes slide around the slick surface with a minimum of friction, so you need to be comfortable leaning forward when you walk. I slipped and fell twice when I was learning how to walk, and the harness caught my weight without causing me to panic.
Once you understand how to take steps, it feels like you’re walking naturally, but the lack of friction means you can walk, and ultimately run, without moving forward. I began to make natural walking motions, and even spinning around in 360 degrees without losing my balance. It was incredibly fun, even before I entered the video game.
The two motion sensors on the legs are a stop gap solution, the final hardware will be much more elegant. “We’re going to have capacity tracking built into the base of the Omni, which is great for latency, and for accuracy as well,” Coulton Jacobs, the product manager at Virtuix, told me as I was getting strapped in.
“All you’re doing when you’re walking forward is generating keystrokes on a keyboard. All you’re doing is pressing ‘W’ when you’re walking forward,” he explained.
The Omni works out of the box with any PC game using this digital control scheme: When the leg sensors feel you walking, you move forward. Later the team will add true analog control that can feel every step, so you’ll move at the correct speed, even if you suddenly speed up or slow down. That will require a little bit of work on the part of the developers, but the tech will be there for true tracking of each step.
Right now the system can tell if I’m walking, or running, and that’s it. They slid the Rift over my head, handed me the gun controller, and I was inside Half-Life 2. It didn’t feel like a simulation. It felt like I was there.
It took me a few tries to learn how to take a slightly exaggerated step for the hardware to sense my movement, something that should be improved by the capacitance tracking, but once I got the swing of it I was able to walk forward, turn around obstacles, and feel comfortable inside the game.
The aiming was actually handled by the Rift, as I had to aim with head movements. In the future it will be possible to add an extra sensor for positional tracking in the gun, allowing you to aim direction by moving your weapon.
For now I had to look at heads of the Combine soldiers to aim, and then pulled the trigger to fire, and pump the action on the shotgun to fire a grenade. Even though aiming was handled via my head movements, I found myself pantomiming the same action with the gun, and it felt, if you allow me some blue language, pretty fucking great.
Soon I was walking around, looking for the enemy, aiming naturally, and firing grenades into groups of soldiers. It worked in that I felt like I was inside the game, but it was also oddly uncomfortable; I’m not sure if I liked being that close to what often felt like a real-world combat environment. During the end of the demo when the movement began to feel natural I was able to run towards an enemy while firing; I wanted to let out a Rambo yell to show my fierceness.
While the hardware is large and extensive, and I’m curious about how easy it’s going to be to set it up for yourself without help, the whole rig will only cost $499.99 when released. While it will likely require some assembly, connection to your PC will be relatively simple. “All we’re using is a USB connection, it’s just plug and play,” Jacobs told me. You won’t even need to plug it into the wall.
The main cost is the plastic, metal, and sheer size of the damned thing. You’ll also need to buy extra shoes at $49.99 if members of your family wear different sizes. The tech is all in the base, sensing when you’re moving, and sending that information to the PC. It may look like an extensive piece of equipment, but it’s main job is merely to brace your body so you don’t move forward. It’s oddly basic technology being used to give you an effective sense of real-world movement in the virtual space.
The STEM system allows them to take that a step forward by offering what amounts to analog controls: If you walk faster, or run, the game will know that and your character will sprint. The final version will allow even finer controls, although that will take games that support the hardware. The Omni is compatible with every PC game out of the box, but devs will have to do some work to get to the finer levels of control.
This is technology that once took up much more space, and the cost would be much higher for a consumer product. “Finally we’re getting to the point where you can possibly have this in your own home for an affordable price,” Jacobs said. They had a great Kickstarter, raising over $1.1 million with most of 3,249 backers paying enough to receive a unit.
“We feel very, very confident that those early adopters will take off into a market that will absolutely sustain itself,” Jacobs said.
I was disconnected after about ten minutes of running around the virtual world, and suddenly reality felt very strange. I had to keep myself from walking funny, and I kept looking around, as if I could feel the latency of the physical environment around me. I hadn’t just played a game, I had gone some place else, and used my entire body to walk, run, and attack those around me.
This is the future. Welcome.