During E3 2013, I got a chance to check out the Omni gaming peripheral in a private showing offered by Virtuix. The device builds upon the immersion effect offered by Oculus Rift and other VR headsets by allowing users to actively walk and run though virtual environments rather than passively use gamepads and the standard keyboard/mouse combo.
The Kickstarter campaign for Omni started on June 4, and actually reached its goal of $150,000 in two days -- and it's still climbing. That's super impressive, and should help Virtuix refine its product way beyond what was shown during the gaming convention.
The Omni comprises of a passive, concave base with ridges for traction, a built-in circular stand for gripping with your hands and keeping your body in position, and a belt-like device that clips around your waist and rests upon the stand for even more stabilization. There are also shoes with a special sole that somewhat fits into the grooves in the base, and software that allows the user to map the foot movements to the directional keys in a PC game.
The current prototype also uses a Kinect for Windows camera to actually detect the user's foot movement. While this indeed works, it's not entirely accurate either: you may start moving and Kinect won't pick up until a second later – same for stopping. Virtuix plans to actually create sensors that will be built into the shoes for less latency and more precise virtual movement.
The demo provided during E3 2013 used Half-Life 2 and the Oculus Rift. Thus, after I slipped on the shoes and was locked into the Omni, I was asked to practice moving in various directions. Essentially you have to walk forward in one spot without actually moving or reverting to marching in one place. The base doesn't move like a treadmill either, so the process is a little weird.
Once users get the hang of pseudo-walking, the Oculus Rift is slapped on their face. With a gun in one hand and your other hand gripping the Omni's circular stand (the "belt" actually frees your other hand), you must "walk" though the environment and shoot down enemy targets firing back at you. Being thrown into the Half-Life 2 environment and seeing NPCs that have up until now been "flat" and on a PC/console screen, the encounters were highly jarring. Throw in actual walking and turning, and you have a new method of losing weight.
And then it hit me: this would be awesome in a non-VR gaming application. Take the Wii for instance: you can jog in a virtual world by placing the Wiimote in your pocket. Why couldn't you actually run in place using the Omni? Even more, throw in the Oculus Rift and you're transported into a virtual realm where you can jog alongside other virtual athletes.
The Omni will be sold on its own, so users can purchase any VR headset they want. The company also plans to make the stand adjustable so that it accommodates most users of various heights. Unfortunately, there's no chance of sensor clip-ons later on down the road for your current pair of shoes: the system will come packed with its own set of special shoes for the ideal experience.
"Gaming on a keyboard, mouse or gamepad while seated pales in comparison to the intense experience and fun that comes from actually walking, running, and jumping in games," said Jan Goetgeluk, CEO of Virtuix. "Bringing this innovation to Kickstarter will accelerate the integration of natural motion into emerging virtual reality applications such as gaming, fitness, and simulation."
There's definitely a lot of promise in the Omni, and I look forward in seeing how this VR tech will handle movement once the Kinect is ditched for built-in shoe sensors. Like the Oculus Rift, it's the next step in the evolution of gaming without forcing customers to borrow money from the bank.