Day 1 of E3, we made our way past the loud Microsoft and Sony booths, booths that tried to burn the colours green and blue into our retinas respectively. We maneuvered past the crowds that had gathered at the Oculus booth and found the relatively modest Virtuix area.
The Virtuix Omni is that weird walkie VR thing you may have seen touted around conventions, there was one at the recent Eurogamer Expo but as far as I know the public did not have a chance to access the omni directional walker during the show at Earls Court and for good reason. As we arrived at the Virtuix booth we could see two Omni, Omnis? Whatever, there were two of these damn things set up, one on the left for the bumbling press (me) and the other placed on a pedestal to the right. The Omni on the right had a Virtuix employee manning the station, there he stood, gun in hand, some dev version of Oculus VR attached to his head, complete with a cable holder to give free movement and if that wasn’t enough, a camelback water rucksack which fed a tube to his mouth to ensure hydration would be easily maintained. This guy was running around the battlefield like a pro, drawing his gun and quickly dispatching targets. Two LCD screens had been attached to the side of the booth, clearly this was for the benefit of onlookers as they opened a window into this virtual soldiers world.
As I stood in line I could feel the excitement course through my veins, I would soon be walking around and interacting with a virtual world! After a 10 minute wait it was my turn, I slipped on the Omni shoes with relative ease, they’re pretty comfortable, comparable to a pair of slippers. The shoes also have very slippery non-friction soles and attachable tracking pods. A team of Virtuix employees were waiting for me, one had already opened the gate while the other prepped the harness. I slid into the harness and one of the employee’s raised the bar “all the way to the top, he’s tall”. I was encouraged to tighten the straps around my own legs, probably because they didn’t want to go anywhere near my crotch and perhaps to demonstrate that a single occupant can get in and out without the assistance of a Formula 1 pit crew.
I was stood there in what I can only describe as an oversized nappy on the slipperiest thing known to man, okay what now? I was encouraged to take my first step and as I did make that monumental first leap into virtual walking my hands shot out and grabbed the handle bars, wow this thing is slippery, the harness was there to catch me but I didn’t trust it. With my hands strongly gripping the safety bar (how would I ever hold a gun on this thing?) I slid my feet back and forth, it was more like a deranged moonwalk than what we know as walking, I would have to rewire my brain to make this believable.
The final step was to attach the VR headset, I wasn’t afforded the luxury of the Oculus or a plastic gun, instead I was given a Samsung Gear VR with some kind of Amnesia type horror game. I slid the white headset onto my head and was instructed to interact with the world using a touch pad on the side of the headset. As the headset took over my vision I was placed in a dark world with camel coloured walls. The graphics were quite simple, this was running off a smart phone after all. I slowly moved around turning with ease, interacting with doors through the touchpad, picking random items up with the touchpad, how the hell do I use these items? I would never find out. I focused on my “walking”, turning corners was a little tricky, more than once I reached a hand out towards the virtual walls only to lose my balance when they weren’t really there. Oh I get it, I’ve felt like this before, I’m drunk right? I knew that drinking session from the previous night would come back to haunt me. After opening half a dozen doors and inspecting the small rooms behind them I finally found a pathway which lead to a much bigger room, the door on the far-side was locked so I took the only other path which looked like it lead somewhere. It didn’t, the path circled back to the original area and by now I was feeling so sick that I didn’t even care. I removed the headset and the Omni employee that had helped me setup came over to see how I was doing. “Did the zombies get you?” “What zombies” I replied “There should be some zombies, you lasted quite long!”. Yay go me, the zombies didn’t get me but the motion sickness almost summoned my breakfast to the show floor. I untied the harness, carefully stepped out onto the friction pad which is in place to stop you from sliding and went to find a nice thick carpet to lay down on for a while.
Let’s break it down. The Virtuix Omni is a device that enables you to physically walk and run through virtual worlds, to be fair the turning is quite smooth and with practice I think I could actually hold a gun and run on this thing. Here’s the thing, this device costs $700, you need a sizable plot of land to place the Omni on so spare room or maybe even the garden if you live in a place where it never rains, you’re hardly going to keep this monstrosity in your living room, it would totally ruin the chi of the room. And here’s the other thing, the Omni is a VR device, we have no idea if VR is here to stay or will go the way of 3D and disappear into the abyss of failed tech. I probably felt sick because the Gear VR is not up to snuff, I’d wager you need at least 60 frames per second to keep the motion sickness away but without extended time with the headset or the Omni I can’t make an honest judgement on what brought on the motion sickness. For the record I have used the Oculus twice on previous occasions and felt okay, for the record, I was slightly hungover from the previous night’s exploits.
Some final thoughts. Do we really need to be physically walking in virtual worlds to make them believable? I’d wager that the virtual words we have inside our screens right now are actually pretty immersive and somewhat believable. VR will probably carve it’s own niche, we may well be wearing wacky headsets and be pointing plastic guns around in a not too distant future (we kinda already do the gun thing) but we will also be navigating these virtual worlds by turning with an Oculus and moving forward with a good old fashioned analogue stick.