It's like playing laser tag on ice, wearing bowling shoes. That's about as close as I can come to describing the Virtuix Omni treadmill, which has been kicking around tradeshows since mid-2013. When we first saw it, the Omni was a slippery wooden prototype that let you move in one direction. Now, it's a few months away from release, with a final design on display at CES. But it's still the same basic machine it's always been: a bizarre niche controller that's equal parts fascinating and frustrating.
The Omni treadmill, which now has a metal frame, is comprised of three basic parts. First, there are the shoes, a special pair of sneakers with slippery plastic ridges on the bottom and plastic tracking units on top. Once you put them on, you can step into the treadmill: an equally slippery black pit in a circular cage that evokes the Virtuality pods of the '90s. Finally, you'll strap yourself in with a harness that snaps around your waist and legs, with metal bars that keep it anchored to the top of the cage, and put on an Oculus Rift. Actual infinite treadmills do exist, but technically, the Omni is more like a hole that you keep slipping back into. Originally, a Kinect tracked the resulting movement of your feet and translated it into game controls. Later, Virtuix tried embedding sensors in the base, and now, the disks on your shoes do the job.
Moving any direction but forward is still awkward
I doubt that most writers who've tried the Omni treadmill, myself included, could accurately tell you how well it works. It's usually played in five-minute sessions, which doesn't give you nearly enough time to get used to the weird gait it requires. To walk on the treadmill, you have to throw your weight forward just enough to gain momentum, but not so much that your legs slide out from under you. Moving any direction but forward is incredibly awkward; to turn, you point your head towards where you want to go. You shoot using a toy gun, but you actually also point it with your face, which is neither an ideal solution nor a final one — Virtuix hopes to find a way to track the gun in the future.
The technology seems more polished than it was at least year's CES, but my overall experience was similar to Ellis Hamburger's in 2014. The major difference is that I didn't feel any motion sickness at all, despite playing a fast-paced VR shooting demo that would have turned my stomach while sitting down. If you want, you can also use it without the Rift; Virtuix founder Jan Goetgeluk says some people have pre-ordered it just as a way to exercise while gaming.
Until February 1st, you can pre-order the Virtuix Omni for $499; after that, it's going up to $699. No matter when you order, that's too expensive for all but the most dedicated, but Goetgeluk says that he's gotten 4,000 pre-orders. The first Kickstarter units are expected to ship in March, with pre-orders continuing to ship through April.