One of the products that we were most interested in testing out at CES this year was the Virtuix Omni. Weeks before the show, the CEO of the company, Jan Goetgeluk, informed us there will be an active VR event at CES 2016. Virtuix was going to be hosting the first ever Active VR eSports tournament, complete with live shoutcasters, at the Virtuix Omni booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
In addition to the competitive match, there would be an Omni for us to try. Naturally, we relished the idea. Our News Director, Seth Colaner, and I were extremely excited to get a chance to try the company’s omni-directional treadmill.
Strong Early Support
When our appointment time came, Goetgeluk himself met me at the booth. I could tell from his expression that he was having a great time showing off his newly-shipping product.
I talked to him briefly before it was my turn to get strapped into the Omni. I asked him what kind of feedback the company has been getting, and he told me that it’s been overwhelmingly positive. Virtuix has sold over 5,000 units of the Omni, even before the availability of a VR HMD to use it with, and pre-orders have been coming in through the website at a consistent pace. On top of that, the mini-IPO that the company is “testing the waters” for, received over $6.5 million of investor interest in just the first 48 hours. I asked Goetgeluk what the magic number the company was looking for before moving forward with the mini-IPO filing. He said that remains to be seen, but the early interest is certainly a good start.
It was then my turn to try the Omni out, so Goetgeluk got me set up with a pair of special shoes that work with the treadmill. The shoes come in a number of sizes, but they are more universal than standard shoes. Goetgeluk asked my size; I generally fit a size 10.5 – 11. He had me try on a size 10 Omni shoe and to my surprise, I had no trouble getting it on. The fabric used for the top of the shoes is rather flexible to accommodate different foot sizes better. Once I had the shoes on properly, another Virtuix employee attached the tracking units to the top of my feet. The small, octagonal sensors are key to the experience, as they handle the tracking for your feet.
Watch Your Step!
The first thing I noticed when I put the shoes on is just how slippery they are. The soles of the shoes feature three contact patches that are made of an anti-friction material that looked like metal taps. Even on the carpet, I could feel the shoes slide around easily. You certainly wouldn’t want to be walking around in them much. Balance is in limited supply when you have such slippery soles.
Once you step into the Omni, there’s even less friction on the molded plastic surface holding you up. You definitely need to brace yourself on the Omni with your hands before getting into it. The Omni features a harness system similar to a climbing belt, but somewhat bulkier. The belt strap is large (think championship belt size) and made of padded fabric. The harness tightens around the waist, and there are two additional straps wrap under your legs that attach to the belt. These must be tightened properly or you will feel like you’re slipping out of it when you try to move.
Getting Used To The Omni
Before the VR headset was put on my head, Goetgeluk and another Virtuix employee gave me a quick rundown of how to use the Omni. It’s really simple; all you have to do is walk in place. The harness and lack of ground friction will prevent you from going anywhere, but you are essentially just walking normally.
The key is to lean forward a little and let the harness hold your body weight as you walk or run forwards. Changing directions can be a little trickier -- you can't exactly plant your foot and pivot -- but you basically twist your hips and keep your legs moving. The harness was a little bit loose on my waist, but the motion still worked just fine. With a bit more time, I’d have been able to fine tune the adjustments of the harness, which would have made changing directions a little easier.
As you run on the treadmill, the motion sensors on your feet track the movement and transfer the data to the game. If you walk with a slow, short stride, you’ll move slowly in the game, but if you start running with longer, faster strides, that will translate to more speed in-game. (We also noticed that longer strides, even when they weren't faster strides, made you move faster in the game.) You can also walk in reverse, but that motion proved to be a bit more challenging. With a little bit of practice, it should be pretty easy to get the hang of it, though.
The game that Virtuix had us playing was a cooperative shooter. The company said it didn’t want to discourage newcomers by pitting players against each other in this demonstration, but it is possible to go head to head, too.
Aim With Your Head
To play the game, you need a gun controller. Virtuix was using an off-the-shelf Xbox light gun for this task. The gun was really only used for the trigger mechanism; it was not tracked for aiming. Instead, to aim you have to point with your head. This mechanic works okay, but its not really the ideal setup. Virtuix told us that the lighthouse sensors that come with the HTC Vive can be used for tracking the aim of your gun, but in the public setting of the CES show floor, the tracking didn’t work well enough. The option is there for developers to make more immersive experiences by decoupling the aim from your head, making it even more life-like.
This, of course, leads to game support. A peripheral of this size and with this kind of price tag isn’t something you’d want to invest in to play one game. We asked Virtuix what kind of experiences we can expect to support the Omni in the near term and the long run. For now, your experiences will be limited. Virtuix is developing a couple of experiences for the Omni, and games like Skyrim and GTA V have already been shown to work using the VorpX drivers, but the company said it will be about a year before we see any major titles come out with true Omni support. Virtuix said you can expect to see a number of games in the next year or so, but it also said there is lots of interest from companies making virtual tourist attractions that would let you tour around in VR.
So Much Fun!
My short time with Virtuix’s Omni proved to me that this can really work. I was playing with it for maybe five minutes, but in that short period of time I became a believer. Running around in a 3D environment is more fun than I can describe in words. I was excited beyond belief when I came out, and all I wanted was more. This isn’t going to be an accessory for everyone that gets into VR, but for the true FPS fan, an Omni will be a must have to experience the full potential of VR immersion.
Virtuix is already selling pre-orders of the Omni treadmill through its website, and shipments have started slowly going out this month. The base Omni package sells for $699 and includes the gaming platform, a pair of shoes, one harness, a set of tracking pods and a full year warranty. You will also receive TRAVR, the company’s in-house developed shooter game, and a few other tech demos to whet your appetite for active VR. Additional shoes are available for $59, and extra harnesses sell for $79.
Editor's Note: I (Seth) was also fortunate enough to get a chance to blast my way through the Omni demo. To add to Kevin's writeup above, I noticed that although the motion was smooth and easy when I was already leaning and striding one way, changing direction is really tough. You can't pivot, at all. Instead, you have to keep your legs pumping and throw your weight into the harness in the direction you want to move. It's a counter-intuitive way to change directions, but it's not awful. As a fellow more than six feet tall, I also found that my stride was a bit long for the Omni. I kept stepping too far, reaching past the bounds of the octagonal platform. Again, this doesn't wreck the experience; it's just something to get used to.
In the demo, you have to run down a long hallway and into a battle arena. There are two grenade launchers you can go pick up, and you carry a machine gun. As your enemies flood the arena, you can either run towards them and shoot from close range or stand your ground and sharpshoot. I mostly did the latter, and using the grenades, I cleared out clusters of enemies and also shot down the flying machines that came at me. (My kingdom for a melee weapon, though!)
For many people, active VR is a panacea. Many of us love to game but also have a need to be active sometimes. Combining gaming and movement in this way was, simply, a blast. The demo lasts just 5-10 minutes, and that wasn't enough time for me to work up a sweat, but by the end I was beginning to breathe more heavily than normal. I emerged from the demo grinning like an idiot, and I just wanted more.