Virtual reality is currently being seen as a passive, sit-down experience. Here’s four technologies that will make VR much more fully interactive—from treadmills to Oculus-ready “Wiimotes”
Oculus VR has been leading the conversation about what that medium’s going to look like and how we will interact with it. Oculus were long adamant that the Rift was a “sit down” experience. That façade has been crumbling for months, and was pretty much shattered at last month’s Oculus Connect developers conference in Hollywood when a standing demo was given to developers and press.
What follows are my notes from interface designs that I’ve encountered over the past few years that go well beyond the “head mounted display with an Xbox 360 controller” that is—perhaps falsely—viewed as the “default mode” for VR experiences.
1. Virtuix Omni: The “VR Treadmill”
“VR treadmill” is the easy-to-digest idea behind the Virtuix Omni which, like the Oculus Rift, was brought to life through the miracle of crowdfunding. I hoisted myself—awkwardly—into one of the contraptions at this year’s Gamer Developer’s Conference:
Put simply the Omni is a kind of treadmill that translates footsteps into motion in virtual space. The user stands on a platform with a slippery concave surface embedded with capacitive sensors. Special shoes, comfortable slippers with a contact plate attached, are worn so that footfalls are translated into commands. A waist-high ring keeps the user from falling out of the Omni, and while in VR a belt harness helps keep the user upright.
The harness is necessary, because the act of walking in the Omni can be more akin to a controlled stumble.
Imagine stepping onto the ice of your local hockey rink–assuming your town still has one–in leather soled shoes. That’s what it feels like to step onto the Omni for the first time.
The Virtuix is still in “pre-order” mode: one can be set aside for you for just $499. Without a core commercial VR device on the market, however, it just doesn’t make sense to have an expensive peripheral—more than the price of a Rift development kit—trying to ship to a mass market.
2. The Sixense STEM Controller
Dedicated control schemes are a risky proposition: the promise of a market is there, but promises don’t keep the lights on. But that isn’t a problem for the Sixense STEM controller, which I got my hands on at a recent VRLA meet-up. The unit consists of two handles that remind me of lightweight flight simulator sticks paired with a base station.
They had a lightsaber demo running, and I couldn’t resist. The controllers had a good weight to them, and made decent proxies for my hands in virtual space. A virtual representation of the controller base station made orienting my body simultaneously in the real and virtual world possible—something that no other embodied VR control scheme has accomplished in my experience.
Once again I was back in the Rift, not caring if I looked stupid as I threw my body through the motions of being a Jedi Knight training against a sensor remote. While the demo gave people the option to use two sabers at once, I spent most of my time using Form III, Soresu, “The Way of the Mynock.”
Yes, that’s a thing. Look it up.
Without an HMD, the Sixense is essentially a pro-level Wiimote, but it’s the best pro-level Wiimote I’ve ever used. That’s good news for Sixsense: it doesn’t require an HMD to enjoy.
3. Tactical Haptics’ Reactive Grip
In a similar vein is Tactical Haptics’ Reactive Grip technology, which marries the motion tracking of the Razer Hydra with force feedback. The experience is uncanny. There’s no obvious reason why shifting plates on a stick handle should be able to create the illusion that I was holding a shield that was being struck by arrows, but that’s exactly what the GDC demo I experienced convinced me was going on.
Tactical Haptics didn’t manage to find the crowdfunding success that the Rift, Omni, or even the STEM controller did. But the company hasn’t given up yet, and if you see them at a VR meetup it is worth the time to check them out.
(Fun fact: the Razer Hydra tracking uses the technology Sixsense developed.)
The dream many developers are chasing is the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. So far the closest I’ve come to that experience has been in the lab of immersive journalist Nonny de la Pena and in the living room of game dev Aaron Rasmussen. That was all the way back in the summer of 2013, when he showed me Atlas, which used a Rift, an iPhone, a GoPro harness and a rug—kinda—to enable me to walk around physically in VR.
Rasmussen stood behind me with his laptop after placing a series of colorful QR-code markers on half the hardwood floor to give the positioning software reference points. The other half of the floor was taken up by a Persian rug, which Rasmussen told me could be used by the system as a reference point.
For experienced gamers used to keyboards, mice, and gamepads, it may seem ridiculous to watch all these attempts to create “natural” control schemes for virtual reality. The first time I used the Rift was with a controller in my hand, and that felt perfectly natural to me.
Within a week I was speaking with one of the best experience and puzzle designers I know, for whom the Rift was not a “come to Jesus moment.” This designer wasn’t even a casual console game player. Using a gamepad was as foreign as the Rift itself. That’s what makes every attempt to hot glue gun a Leap Motion controller to an Oculus or build a CAVE system out of Kinect cameras fascinating: there’s no “right” way to do any of this yet, and the opportunity exists to blow the doors off interactivity.
Hardcore gamers can be a conservative bunch when it comes to how and what they play, but orthodoxy be damned, let’s see what’s out there.
Portions of this article were originally published on TurnstyleNews.com, a public media site that covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.