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The evolution of the virtual soldier: Hands-on with the latest version of the Virtuix Omni

Every piece of virtual reality equipment that I’ve seen at GDC this year requires a certain amount of faith that the problems with the current version will be fixed before release.

In the case of the Virtuix Omni, a sort of virtual reality treadmill, the issues include a harness that's awkward to put on and take off. It takes a few minutes for one of the company's representatives to get me strapped into the machine, but I was promised this issue was temporary.

"I regret that we don't have a new belt at the show. This is still a prototype belt. It's functional, but not comfortable, it's not good-looking, it's not ergonomic," Virtuix CEO Jan Goetgeluk told Polygon. The final version would be like a wind-surfer's harness: padded and easy to use.

The next step was putting on the Oculus Rift to enter virtual reality, and some, but not all, of the issues went away when I started running.

New hardware

The Omni used to use Microsoft's Kinect to track your movement, but there are now capacitance sensors in the bottom of the unit that know when you take a step and how fast you're moving. If you walk forward on the Omni, your character in the game walks forward. Turn right or left, and your character does the same.

The shoes provide almost no friction on the plastic surface, allowing you to run comfortably after a bit of practice; the harness and loop around your waist keep you safely in place.

"You can walk forward and look independently," Goetgeluk said. This doesn't seem like a big deal at first, but the ability to run forward while looking behind you, especially when being chased by some form of zombie or monster, adds to the sense that you're inside the game.

The Omni will work on most games, but matching your speed and other fine controls requires the use of the company's SDK, and I was told these features would likely only be in games that came out in the future with full Omni support.

"It will be made available fairly soon," he explained. "We're reaching out to developers here and giving them early access to the SDK so they can start playing around with the motion functions the Omni provides." The SDK can also be used to create mods for existing games, so there may be a time in the near future when you'll be able to run from dragons in Skyrim, or run from monsters in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. No matter what, you'll be doing a good amount of running.

Which is a good and bad thing. I tried TraVR, a rather quick horror demo that asks you to follow another soldier around an industrial environment, and of course you're soon attacked by some supernatural enemies. The darkness of the game, mixed with the sudden attacks and physical gun controller you hold while playing, left me out of breath. It's easy to feel trapped inside of virtual reality at first, I had to close my eyes and remind myself that it was a simulation.

"TraVR was initially a stretch goal for our Kickstarter campaign, and we stretched into this action-packed 25-minute demo that will come to our backers and our customers," Goetgeluk told Polygon. "It will be their first Omni experience. We also use it as a demo here at trade shows."

This is all well and good, and it's a fine demo to show off the technical aspects of what the Omni can do, but it's also on the intense side. I'm not sure if I'd want my wife and kids to have to run from monsters during their first experience of the technology.

I tried another demo where I was a slightly cute character on the screen and had to run down a narrow track collecting coins. It's not much of a game, but it allows you to practice how to walk and run effectively, and it didn't make me feel like I was going to die. Which is a plus when you're coming to terms with a new piece of electronics.

The act of running in place, even with the low-friction shoes and a representative giving you helpful tips, doesn't come easily. You have to trust that the harness will catch you if you fall, and it's hard to avoid leaning against the loop that holds you in place when you get tired. Once I understood how I could and couldn't move, things became slightly easier, but the experience is unsettling in the initial moments.

I was told they've sold around 3,000 units of the Omni so far, and that they're happy with this number. The fit and finish of the final product should be improved, just like the harness we've already discussed, but they're sticking with the need for the custom shoes that allow you to walk or run on the Omni's surface. This means that everyone in your home will need their own pair of shoes if they want to go into virtual reality.

I'm not sure if I'd want my wife and kids to have to run from monsters during their first experience of the technology.

"Having a clip-on makes us lose so much control over the functionality," Goetgeluk explained. "With fixed shoes we're sure they're going to work, they work great, they're comfortable; that's why we start with full shoes. We'll see in the future what we come up with." He mentioned that the military was interested in some form of clip-on solution to this problem, as soldiers who use the equipment for training would want to use their own boots.

The Omni can be pre-ordered now for $499.99, which isn't exactly inexpensive, but for the size of the unit and the technology included inside it's also not unreasonable. The whole thing connects to your PC with a single USB connection. This won't be for everyone, and it's impossible to strap into the harness and step onto the Omni and run around without looking slightly goofy, but I did have fun with my time on the hardware.

The Omni requires a PC, an Oculus Rift and some form of controller to work, and 3,000 units is still a modest amount, even for a $500 piece of equipment. Of all the virtual reality hardware we've tried this week, and that's an extensive list, the size and intricacy of this product might be the hardest sell for a mainstream audience.

Goetgeluk is hopeful. "We're very happy with the demand for our product so far," he told me. The line to try to technology, and the crowd watching me play, proves that interest is high among developers. The question is whether that will translate into sales.

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