Virtuix’s Omni – First Impressions

by Justin Baillargeon June 17, 2013 @ 9:16 am

Omni Impression

On the final day of E3 I was lucky enough to get an appointment to check out Virtuix’s Omni, a recent Kickstarter project that has gotten the attention of the VR world rather quickly. Omni is a low-friction bowl-shaped platform that solves one of the most daunting challenges of virtual reality – movement.  Whether it is the most recent Oculus Rift head-mounted display or any of the VR devices of the past, a player’s movement has always been restricted to a controller, breaking the VR illusion. Some solutions have existed, but all that I have seen have revolved around massive 360-degree treadmills that are far from practical.

The Omni, unlike previous contraptions, includes zero motors or moving parts. You may ask, how is that possible? It’s actually a relatively simple, intuitive solution – using a low-friction surface and a low-friction shoe, players are able to walk or run in the contraption without actually physically progressing in any direction. When you plant your foot down in front of you it immediately slides back down to the center of the bowl where the high-friction tip of the shoe stops your feet from flying up from underneath you.

The current setup uses a Microsoft Kinect to detect a player’s movements and translates them into something the game can understand. We were told however that they are looking to get rid of the Kinect and put the motion detection in the shoes themselves to provide a more accurate and affordable solution.

The Setup – Learning to Walk Again

In order to get myself acquainted with the low-friction surface I first walked on the surface while holding onto the ring that circled my waist. After I felt comfortable with walking I was given the support harness to wear and spent some time in that as well. When wearing the harness  I was told to lean forward with my body when walking, something which just came natural after practicing for a short time.

After I had felt comfortable with the setup it was time to put on the Oculus Rift and put a gun in my hand. The game that was setup for the demonstration was a modified version of Half Life 2 that is compatible with the Oculus Rift.

Impressions – Feet-on

With the first step I took my character did the same. I was now in the game. My actual footsteps were translated fairly accurately in the game with each foot forward registering a “forward” command in the game. I then proceeded to run and my character did too.

When trying to come to a complete stop from running however I found my character proceeding forward yet still. After a few seconds of continual forward movement I noticed that one foot was still on the curved portion of the platform and the Kinect was registering it as forward movement. I quickly put my foot back to the center of the platform but by then it was too late – I was already caught in a corner. However all of this is the result of the current tracking system, and not a failure of the Omni platform itself. When the team implements their own tracking hardware rather than relying on the Kinect this problem will most likely be a thing of the past.

The low-friction surface and shoes are not like your traditional rubber bottomed shoes. You will make some noise when using it – noise that is actually comparable to a traditional treadmill. When you make contact with the low-friction shoe there is a noticeable “thump” that you can hear and feel rather easily. The sound can easily be muffled with nearly any pair of headphones, the physical feeling however you cannot. If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about – the feeling is most comparable to wearing bowling shoes on the hard wooden floor of a bowling alley.

Even though it makes a noticeable thump you shouldn’t have to worry about the noise or potential noise complaints – the Virtuix guys were running live demos all week in the hotel and not a single complaint was brought to them.

Moving Forward

The Omni appeared on Kickstarter at the start of the month and has already exceeded its goal (in 3.5 hours nonetheless). The real journey for virtual reality begins now. With Oculus Rift nearing a final product form the Omni would be the perfect companion for the next generation. The true next generation isn’t about who has more processing power, the cloud, used games, nor is it about a constant internet connection.

The next generation is about immersion. We have reached a point where games are struggling to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd; just look at the amount of racing games at E3 this year! The excited to say that virtual reality is finally reaching a state where near-full immersion is right around the corner, the Omni and Oculus Rift are just the start.


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