VR is currently limited to what people can see, hear and interact with using oddly shaped controllers. Variety reported on Friday that Microsoft wants to change that, however, with a VR mat that could better incorporate our feet into virtual experiences. The company mostly focused on safety issues--it can be hard not to bump into things in the real world as you explore a virtual one--but it did mention several features meant to offer greater immersion.
Microsoft said in the patent application that it expects its high-tech floor mat to help define the play space in VR experiences. Relying on a physical mat would not only make it easier for systems to know where someone is standing, but also help those people realize they're about to leave the space they've cleared for that gaming session. (Unless they've covered the entire floor with rubber mats, we guess, which is a whole other problem entirely.)
But the mat wouldn't be limited to defining a play space. Microsoft said a VR floor mat could be used to identify reference locations based on certain markers or pressure sensors. Those locations could then be used to enable foot-based inputs within VR experiences. Someone might be able to start a specific experience by standing in a certain place, for example, or interact with certain user interface elements by pressing on the mat's surface.
Enabling foot-based input would only be part of the VR floor mat's gambit to offer greater immersion in simulated environments. Microsoft said in the patent application that motors within the mat could be used to offer haptic feedback. That would make it easier to gauge certain interactions--like if a button was actually pressed or not--but might also be able to simulate things happening in the VR experience. Why limit haptic feedback to our hands?
Variety noted that Microsoft's patent application left the door open for Xbox VR, too, by mentioning head-mounted displays (HMDs) connected to a "computing device" that "may take the form of a gaming console." We doubt the company would be making a floor mat for use with a VR headset like the PlayStation VR, so it would probably want such a system to work with its own Xbox products. But that's just conjecture based on the legalese used in the patent application.
We'll say this for Microsoft's concept for a VR floor mat: it's not the weirdest attempt to make VR more immersive. Companies have also developed VR treadmills, VR shoes and crowdfunded headsets designed to simulate heat, wind, rain and certain smells in VR. And that's to name a few. We find the idea of a somewhat "smart" floor mat a lot easier to accept than a face mask that pumps canisters full of "dragon" scent into people's faces.
Microsoft filed the patent application in April 2018. All of the usual caveats about products described in patent applications should apply: there's no guarantee that Microsoft will ever make this product, and even if it does, it could be wildly different from the one described in the patent. The company is attempting to protect its research into a potential product, not safeguarding the secrets behind something it's already decided to release.