Not only did I get to test out some of the hottest virtual reality headsets coming up on the market at E3 2015, I also tried a peripheral for the virtual reality experience – the Virtuix Omni. It’s touted as a “first-of-its-kind” virtual reality gaming platform, and my hands on experience had me jumping on the proverbial bandwagon.
There were two Virtuix Omnis set up at E3, one being a prototype that didn’t have all the features of the full release, and another that was essentially the consumer version. I was put on the prototype so I can’t speak about some of the features the full release will have. (These will include strafing, jumping, crouching and sitting.) I was told that the prototype had on what they loving call “training wheels.”
The way the Omni works is this. You put on a pair of shoes made specifically for the platform and a harness that swivels around freely in the Omni’s support ring. The harness is not permanently attached to the ring, but rather glides along the top of it as you move. Here’s a photo of the final harness design without the “training wheels.”
You’ll notice the struts on the side and rods coming out of the harness. The flat surfaces underneath the rods are what glide along the top of the support ring. The training wheels are usually further down the struts, and are a second set of rods and gliding surfaces that move along the bottom of the ring. This allows for more stability as people get used to the set-up, and I was told that all Virtuix Omnis will ship with these.
But enough of the technical stuff, on to the actual experience! Once I was all settled in to the Virtuix Omni, I was given a virtual reality headset to put on. Next, Lorenzo Adams, the communications manager for Virtuix, handed me the gun controller he had previously explained, and away I went! You essentially lean forward into the support ring, and walk like you normally would. The friction-less shoes and concave surface of the platform make it extremely easy to walk in a conventional manner. It’s the leaning forward part that takes a little getting used to, but by the end of the session I felt totally normal when using the peripheral.
The game I played was Virtuix’s own TRAVR. Rather than the actual game, however, I was put in what is called TRAVR Training Ops. It’s a voxel virtual space with targets placed sporadically. You’re only supposed to shoot the red ones, then move on to the next area.
The gun controller had a cross button near the front of it that I would press to aim, and a trigger for shooting. Pressing the cross button only focused the gun in an aiming mode, as I still had to look physically with the headset at the target to be able to hit it. I was told the gun could be held anywhere for the function of this demo, but future versions would have realistic aiming gun controllers.
In most virtual reality games, you’ll find yourself playing seated or standing in a stationary position. I could not imagine trying to play TRAVR without the Virtuix Omni. It made perfect sense to simply run through the virtual space, stop to shoot the targets with the gun, then head to the next target. Without the peripheral, a regular controller would have been necessary. It would have detracted from the experience. I found myself getting cocky by the end of the demo and shooting targets while still running. I had gotten so into playing that I hardly made the connection between the Virtuix Omni platform, and the virtual space I was playing in anymore.
Turning around in the Omni to go in different directions was a little tricky at first, though I’m sure the training wheels were partially to blame since they hinder the harness’ movements a little. Plus, I didn’t realize strafing wasn’t an option on this particular model, so I was trying to test out that feature without knowing it wasn’t part of the demo. After a while, I did find myself getting used to turning around in the Omni support ring. The friction-less shoes made me look like Bambi on ice, but I overcame that. By the end of the experience, I was told to take the headset off and found myself staring in the complete opposite direction from where I started. I had absolutely no concept of where I was looking while playing the game.
The Virtuix Omni is looking at a winter 2015 release window, with a $699 price tag. If this seems a little steep, keep in mind that most competitors will be selling their systems for $1200-1400. The lack of moving parts is what allows Virtuix to sell their platform for half the price.
That $699 will get you the gaming platform itself, a pair of Virtuix Omni shoes in your size, a pair of tracking pods to attach to the shoes, tracking software, the harness and a few games, including TRAVR. The virtual reality headset and any controllers must be purchased separately. However, the good news is that the Virtuix Omni works with any current virtual reality headset.
One bonus I haven’t mentioned yet is that the platform breaks down completely for easier storage. No worries about the behemoth taking up permanent residence in your living room. Unless you’re like me, and liable to use the thing every single day. In that case, yes, it will be a permanent fixture.