Handling movement is a really tough challenge for VR developers. For a long time gamers have moved using a mouse and a keyboard, a gamepad or even a joystick. While these work fine as they are, they don’t give the gamer full immersion into a virtual reality game, detracting from the experience. This problem was given an initial solution by the HTC Vive, as it lets the player move in a space of up to 15 square feet. This obviously makes the gameplay much more immersive and natural, but it is also limiting in that game designers have to design games whereby motion is restricted to within that limited area. One of the ways the US Military trainers have been developing their VR training is by creating a treadmill that is Omni-directional. They are great to use, but they’re huge, complicated and very expensive.
Now though, we might just have a new solution – the Omni by Virtuix.
The Omni works by using a concave disc and special shoes with low-friction surfaces. This allows the player to walk smoothly in any given direction. The disc’s concave shape means that gravity is used to pull the feet towards the centre, which makes the player’s stride more natural. On the top of each shoe is a sensor pod. These track the shoe’s position and reproduce it in the game. The Omni also has a harness. This looks similar to a climbing harness with straps going around the thighs and the waist. This harness is not tethered, so the range of motion is as complete as possible. The Omni platform means you can sit, step, jump and run smoothly in 360°s.
Users have commented that it takes just a few minutes to get used to the equipment. It is normal to feel a little clumsy and tentative at the beginning. Testers report that the surface is sturdy and the harness and shoes are comfortable enough so that you can forget you are wearing them.
The Omni system is compatible with all mobile and PC VR headsets. These include the HTC Vive, the Razer Hydra and the Oculus Rift S. At present, it isn’t compatible with consoles like the Sony PlayStation but Virtuix has said it plans on adding support for these console systems in the future.
Unlike some other VR equipment, the Omni works with any game that supports a gamepad. This is because your movement is translated to the movement of a thumbstick, making the Omni compatible with many VR games - a huge positive for this kit. If you consider other VR equipment like the TeslaSuit, where there are only 2 compatible games, the Omni is a step ahead of the game.
Setting up the Omni is as simple as emptying the box, plugging it in and playing. Both the hardware and the software are ready to go.
The Omni has been demonstrated using the game Skyrim¸ which is an ideal game for such a device as you run, move and creep from place to place.
Founded in April 2013, Virtuix was one of the first pioneers of innovation in Virtual Reality. Following the Kinect’s launch by Microsoft in 2010, Jan Goetgeluk, CEO and Founder of Virtuix, started to believe that VR was about to come to the fore. So, in 2011, he began developing the motion platform of the Omni. He wanted to be able to experience VR by walking seemingly naturally, instead of having to sit down and push buttons on a keyboard or gamepad.
Two years, and a lot of development and research later, the Omni Kickstarter campaign was launched. This raised in excess of $1.1m and was quickly among the most successful Kickstarters of its time.
Virtuix has now moved its focus from the consumer market to the commercial market and, in particular, focuses on entertainment venues through its network in global distribution. To date, the company has sold over 3000 Omnis in more than 500 commercial venues across 45 different countries. This distribution makes the Omni, aside from headsets, the most widely distributed VR hardware in the world.
Further progression took place towards the end of 2018 when Virtuix unveiled the Omni Arena. This is a turnkey attraction for esports and is aimed at entertainment centres of the highest calibre.
After its Kickstarter campaign back in 2013, Virtuix has had a lot of investment. In fact, it has managed to raise over $20m from private investors, two strategic investors, 12 venture capital funds and Mark Cuban. The company now employs 35 people and has offices in Shanghai (China), Zhuhai (China) as well as its headquarters in Austin, Texas.
The Omni has a lot of patents and patents pending in the United States. There are also many international patents and pending patents too. Here is a list of patents the Virtux Omni has in the U.S.:
The special shoes that users wear have pins that slide into grooves on the low-friction surface of the Omni. These help to stabilise the feet and prevent them from sliding laterally. The toe of the shoe has more friction in order to help the gamer keep balanced and stable. This means that when you wear the shoes, you have a more natural gait and can really explore the game world fully immersed.
In terms of specifications, the Omni’s outer diameter measures 122 cm. It weighs 50 kg. The support ring can be adjusted in terms of height and so it can accommodate gamers who are between 142 cm (4’8’’) and 195 cm (6’5’’) tall.
The belt that the Omni comes with is there for support as well as safety. The belt has flanges attached to it, which extend over the support ring. These stop the gamer from falling. There are also vertical blockers providing support laterally.
The Omni software translates a user’s movements into strokes that move your game’s avatar. It is compatible with the Kinect and will also support magnetometer and accelerometer solutions that are in the pipeline.
In the box, you will get the tracking hardware, the Omni software, the support belt and the Omni shoes. You will need your own head-mounted display, game controller and PC.
As well as being accessible to a lot of people for a lot of games, one of Omni’s most obvious pros is that sedentary gameplay is long gone. The Omni means that people can get fit and stay in shape all while gaming. Gamers are on their feet and in constant motion meaning that it is a much healthier way to play a game and a much more fun way to work out. The software is even capable of tracking a gamer’s calories burned and distance travelled all while playing. Forget passive gaming, VR can reach its full potential with the Omni.
Now to its cons. The Omni is quite cumbersome; it’s not going to be something that is inconspicuous in the corner of your living room. Having said that, it is pretty easy to take apart and store. You can remove the top and store it away just like any other household exercise equipment.
Another downside, at least at the moment, is the fact that this is only usable with PC games at present. Virtuix has said, though, that it is looking into bringing this to consoles like the PlayStation and with any luck, the PlayStation 5.
Finally, the Omni shoes are sized, which means that if there is more than one player, you will potentially need more than one pair of shoes. The Omni shoes come in UK sizes 3.5 to 14.5, which is a huge range! The Omni overshoes on the other hand, are available in small, medium or large – each covering three sizes and so these could be a cost-saving option for people who are sharing the Omni.
The Omni is designed with the safety ring that can support players weighing up to 130 kg (just under 20st 6lbs). The belt means that the player won’t slip or fall down.
The Virtuix website sells all of the components separately but the whole package together will cost around $700. This is an incredibly low price for such a smart piece of kit. In the package, you get a platform, the harness, the shoes, the tracking pods and three bundled games. Virtuix also provides a one-year warranty. The cost does not include a headset, which means that if you are starting from scratch, it will be more costly.
The website also sells two different shoe styles – the Omni shoes and the Omni overshoes, which allow the player to keep their own shoes on, potentially making them less smelly!
The Omni is a phenomenal piece of kit that adds a whole new immersion layer to the VR experience. What’s more, it is really efficient spatially. It is also very intuitive to use once you get your bearings and get used to how it feels. It has clearly been a long time in development and refinement and is undoubtedly going to influence other game developers and kit designers in the years to come.
The future looks promising for Virtuix’s Omni and, if they commit to making it compatible with the PlayStation, will be much more prominent on the VR market.
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