The first thing everyone wants to do when they step into virtual reality is, well, take a step. It’s such a strange and exciting experience that just being able to turn your head isn’t always enough to fully satisfy your curiosity about your surroundings; You need to be able to move.
One of the emerging ways to get around in virtual reality is the treadmill–generally a small, slippery platform that allows you to “walk” while actually staying in place.
I tried my first treadmill Thursday night. The Cyberith Virtualizer, which is nearing $300,000 in funding with a week left in its Kickstarter campaign, is a sensor-studded platform that sits between three posts.
After taking off my shoes and pulling on a pair of thick ski socks, I stepped through the metal ring in the Virtualizer’s center and strapped my waist and legs into a harness.
The ring, which attaches into the three posts, can move up, down and around, allowing you to turn in any direction. You can also jump, crouch and sit. Sensors in the Virtualizer pick up on your pose and reflect it in virtual reality.
“When you … push buttons to move around, there is a problem between the signals. One signal is from the eyes to the brain. The other is the kinesthetic sense from your body. Your body knows that you are sitting, but your eyes say that you are walking. This leads to a discrepancy,” Cyberith CEO and founder Tuncay Cakmak said in an interview. “People … want to walk around because it feels much more immersive. The realism is higher.”
Before I strapped on an Oculus Rift headset, I tried kneeling and jumping. The Virtualizer really doesn’t impede you–the ring feels weightless and moves smoothly no matter how fast your motions. But before I headed into virtual reality, we locked the ring at standing height. The platform is very slippery, and it takes some time to trust yourself enough to walk on it unsupported. I put on the Rift and a pair of headphones and began working my way through a haunted house: a game called Affected by Fallen Planets Studios.
As I wound my way through dimly lit rooms and hallways peppered with the occasional ghost, I spent the first 5 minutes clutching the ring to be sure I wasn’t going to fall. Walking on the Virtualizer isn’t exactly natural. You step forward and then drag your foot back along the platform to make sure the sensors catch the full step. It feels more like scooting than walking.
At first, it’s very distracting. You need to relearn how to walk, and it’s hard to concentrate on the game when you’re focusing on getting each step right. But after a while the feeling fades to the background. What continued to bother me is your steps are not recreated exactly in the game: strides were sometimes longer or shorter. And readjusting a few inches to accurately walk toward a target felt difficult.
I only spent 10 minutes in the Virtualizer, so I’d expect that it becomes much easier to use with time. The Kickstarter video shows Cakmak running and jumping, and the rest of his team confirmed that he is capable of some athletic feats on the machine.
But I doubt that the Virtualizer is any better than a joystick. My experiences using Sixense Razer Hydra and other controllers have convinced me that it’s not that hard to convince your brain you are actually moving. What matters more is the haptic experience–vibrations when something explodes, resistance when you run into things. Our brains are surprisingly eager to accept that virtual reality is real.
I have also learned that virtual reality should rarely be about traveling long distances. One of the best experiences I’ve had was while using Survios, which uses sensors to translate body movement into virtual reality. There is no machine required; you just walk around like you normally would. Quick motions like turning, leaning and crouching felt very natural in Survios. Actual walking made me feel nauseous (a sensation I surprisingly never had while using the Virtualizer).
That, for me, is the sweet spot in virtual reality. I want to be able to use my body to turn, lean and make other natural movements. But I’m perfectly happy using a controller to travel longer distances. Many of the best games and other virtual experiences may actually design for this; the Survios games I tried all took place in small arenas that limited how far you needed to move.
Adventure games are, of course, a great fit for virtual reality. And for those who insist on simulating walking and running, the Virtualizer and its competitors will probably be a good fit. Cakmak also named training, real estate and therapy as potential big applications. Firefighters can practice putting out a blaze or someone afraid of spiders can walk through an arachnid-infested house.
I personally see big fitness applications for treadmills. Tens of millions of Wii Fit units have been sold; imagine if the fitness games you played were actually fun.