When a Combine Soldier throws a grenade at you, your instinct is to run. In the Virtuix Omni, you can.
At CES 2014, Virtuix showed off the latest version of its virtual reality rig, which features 40 capacitive sensors in its base to track your every step and move your character inside a game. Until now, the Omni tracked your legs with a Microsoft Kinect. Today's Omni is more accurate and offers analog motion — which means that the faster you walk, the faster your character moves, with an unlimited number of possible speeds. I tested out the company's latest setup with Oculus Rift's 3D head-tracking goggles and Half Life 2.
After lacing up Virtuix's custom sneakers, which have slippery plastic pads on the bottom, I hopped inside the Omni's waist-high ring and strapped on a harness. It fits just like a climbing harness and is attached to the support ring surrounding you. Once I was securely strapped in, I was free to put my weight on the harness and swing my legs about. You're still very much grounded inside the Omni, but you're supported enough that you can walk on its slick curved base without the fear of falling. It takes a few minutes to learn how to walk in the Omni, since you have to lean forward trustingly with each step.
Soon, I would become a very nauseated Gordon Freeman
Once I put on the Oculus goggles, my transformation was complete. The Virtuix team booted up Half Life 2 and I became Gordon Freeman. Soon, I would become a very nauseated Gordon Freeman. I was dropped into Route Kanal, a level early in the game, where I was free to run around shooting Combine Soldiers. Walking inside the Omni generally works well, but can be a struggle since your steps don't always translate to movement step for step. You also can't strafe or walk backwards very well — things I don't necessarily do often in real life, but which have become integral to the way I think about movement in first-person shooter games. Aiming was also wonky, since the targeting reticle onscreen was based on where I looked (using the Oculus), and not based on where I pointed my plastic gun.
These are relatively minor nitpicks, however. The bigger issue was the motion sickness. After five minutes on the Omni, I was about ready to throw up. Imposing two challenging technologies on my body simultaneously was stimulus overload. All I was left with was instinct — running around and hiding behind cars as bullets whizzed over my head. I felt like I was in the game, and as I rotated my body to check for enemies behind me, I had no idea which way I was facing in real life. It's jarring, to say the least, but it's incredibly immersive. I bet I'd eventually get used to it, though. One of Omni's staff members has spent the majority of CES wired in for hours at a time, demoing the technology for curious onlookers.
The Omni doesn't work perfectly, creating a 1:1 relationship between moving and your character in the game, but it's very obviously a sign of the future we'll all soon be a part of. Virtuix plans to ship the Omni for around $499 in May of this year, and will work with any computer game or app that uses keyboard input.