Running, ducking, jumping: it’s the closest I’ll ever come to being Gordon Freeman.
We’re in the midst of something of a virtual reality renaissance. The first time around in the early 1990s was a total failure. Limited computing power and ridiculous head-mounted displays couldn’t deliver the weirdly utopian 3D-interfaces-everywhere future that marketers seemed to promise. Today things are different. Ludicrously quicker computers with 3D acceleration, coupled with new actually usable head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift mean that this time around won’t be like 1992 all over again. Instead of Dactyl Nightmare, we’ll get to play real games and they’ll actually be fun.
The physical immersion factor, though, remains mostly unaddressed—and that’s what Virtuix is aiming for with its Kickstarter-backed virtual reality “platform,” the Omni. Houston-based Virtuix has about a dozen employees and is headed by Jan Goetgeluk, who is riding high on the back of his goal-smashing Kickstarter campaign (the Omni Kickstarter blew through its goal of $150,000 within a few hours of launch and is well over $1M now, with almost two weeks still on the clock).
At a demo session last Tuesday, Ars got a chance to both try out the Omni and also talk a bit with Goetgeluk. The CEO was a bundle of energy, hopping back and forth on stage and repeatedly demoing the Omni’s low-friction running surface. I felt tired just watching the guy, but he remained turned up to an amiable and friendly “11” through the entire session. With his help, I hopped onto the Omni and gave it a go.
The Omni is a combination of a physical device and a set of sensors. There are two preproduction pieces of hardware currently in existence; the one we saw appeared to be quite sturdy and professionally made. The user stands on a low platform, surrounded by a waist-high ring. The platform’s base is concave and lined with a low-friction plastic; the user wears shoes with more low-friction plastic insets in the heel and toe, which enables the user to walk or run in place, with their feet moving with very little resistance across the unmoving platform’s surface. The user wears a harness that rests atop the ring, which keeps the user fixed in the center of the platform and leaves their hands free to hold a controller.
For the prototype hardware, the user’s position, orientation, and movement are sensed via a Microsoft Kinect positioned off to the side. The Kinect was connected to a custom gaming PC provided by Maingear, which also powered the Oculus Rift worn by the user. Aside from the hardware, the Omni also makes use of an open SDK that converts player positional input from the Kinect directly to keypresses (which are then passed to the game). Because it delivers keypresses, Goetgeluk says that the Omni system can work with just about any game.
“Skyrim is particularly fun,” commented Goetgeluk when I asked him which games the team enjoyed. “You can just walk around, enjoy the scene, enjoy the environment. And Team Fortress 2, actually—it doesn’t sound like a game that is good for the Rift, but it’s actually very fun.” I asked about one of my own favorites, Minecraft, and Goetgeluk quickly nodded “Oh yes. Minecraft is actually very immersive. In spite of the graphics, it’s very immersive.”
The Kinect is a stop-gap measure for now—Virtuix intends to develop its own motion tracking system for the Omni. The current plan is to instrument the base with capacitive sensors and augment those with shoe-attached hardware accelerometers. At least at launch, the Omni will remain a PC-only experience. Mac and Linux are near-term possibilities if it turns out consumer demand is there. There’s no immediate plan for console support, but Goetgeluk was quick to mention that the possibility of expanding to consoles isn’t off the table.
Although some hugely popular Kickstarters have struggled with too much success, Goetgeluk didn’t seem concerned by the overflowing Kickstarter response. “For us, it’s a great thing, because we are manufacturing the hardware product,” he explained. “The more volume we have, the easier it is to get the manufacturing done.”
The Kickstarter price for an Omni system (sans Oculus Rift) is $429, and as of this morning there are still about a hundred devices available at that reward tier. Post-Kickstarter, production Omni systems will be $499-599. We’ll be checking back with Virtuix in the next several months to monitor the Omni’s development and to try out the production hardware as soon as it’s available.