Humans are built to walk in VR : We’re building the solution.
Before we begin to talk, or read, or post cat memes, we feel the irresistible urge to break free of Earth’s gravity and pull ourselves up, at least a short distance, so we can move around and explore. The universe is too big to crawl around with our noses in the mud, and humans evolved into bipeds leaving our hands to use tools, make fire and to build rockets to Mars. We skip, dance, run and roll around the playground before settling into a more sedate adult walk for the rest of our lives, but the freedom to express ourselves through our feet is always there, waiting to break free.
In virtual reality most people are still babies. We’ve learned to open these new eyes and hear the worlds we create, we can reach out clumsy, ghostlike hands and swing at hanging baubles that we still can’t quite grasp, but we’re still pretty much trapped in the virtual crib. We can take only a few faltering steps before the walls of our physical world push us back since we’re still trapped in a room even if our avatars are standing on the edge of a never ending vista. We’ll never truly begin to feel true presence until we can move through virtual worlds just as naturally as we can in the real one. Just like babies we can strap ourselves into baby walker frames like the Omni, and like a baby our slippy feet can scramble for purchase, but this is no replacement for real walking.
If we wish to use technology to move around upright we have a few choices, but they’re all expensive, heavy and slow. The 3x3m Cyberwalk weighs several tons, and would be too slow for VR even if you could afford the multi-million dollar price and had somewhere to put it. The infinadeck has a more palatable footprint but still seems too small to even break into a fast walk before your feet approach the edge of the platform. You might consider the virtusphere with a laptop in your backpack, if you could still find one, but tracking might be a little unreliable since you’re in a 3m high giant hamster ball. The Virtuix Omni is now thousands of dollars, if you’re a deep pocketed VR Arcade at least, and the KatWalk weighs over 200kg and is 2.2 meters tall. Game support is mostly limited to keyboard emulation, you need to wear special shoes and there is no chance you’ll get your Grandma into the harness.
For those of you complaining that your Grandma probably isn’t in the market for a VR walking solution, you’d be right. Odds on your average Grandma sits in the ‘laggard’ section of the technology adoption bell curve, but if you can’t get her to at least try something once, your task of reaching the early and late majority is all but impossible. Which is a shame because your Grandma might love to go walking through the wheat fields of her youth with an friend who is in Australia, using Virtual Reality, but she’ll never even put on the shoes.
Most people in the industry place more faith on the locomotion issue being solved with software. Why walk when you can teleport instantly anywhere? You don’t need more than a square meter of play space when you can stand and use your controller to zoom through a game. But then why stand if you’re not really walking, just sit on your couch…. Give the players a button to reload and a laser sight and they only need to move their wrist to shoot things. But if developers make it easy for players to avoid the physical motions, virtual reality can quickly move from a visceral mind expanding experience to really just having a huge 3D TV in front of your face and you’re just back on the couch where you may as well be playing Fifa 2017 instead of actual football.
At Oculus Connect 4 we attended a very interesting talk on locomotion hoping to hear how a multibillion dollar company was solving the issue but instead saw they still really have no idea how to truly solve the problem. Dozens of experiments were shown which let the player see through into static worlds beneath the game or pull themselves along with virtual ski poles. All interesting but bizarre solutions to a problem that we’re not really sure of the cause. Software locomotion that uses an unnatural fix, such as teleportation, only makes the experience less compelling when all we want is to forget reality and believe we’re somewhere else.
VR should be about the unknown corners of the experience and the scale of the world. Even amazing monitor games can impress players with the reach of their world size, imagine playing Journey and blink teleporting across the map as quickly as you could click a button. The game is so moving because you see your character take each step and experience the mountain peak you’re trying to reach slowly grow in size. Teleporting also feels unnatural in combat. Where is the thrill of trying to sneak up on an enemy when I can just teleport behind them and shoot them in the back? Multiplayer skill becomes a prediction of where the enemy will instantly appear so it’s safer to ambush them rather than move yourself, or you just blink silently through space with no regard for physics or obstacles. Teleportation is a horrible bandaid, but its better than making your players sick.
Nausea is the true bane of VR and bad locomotion is often the cause. If you move the players view unexpectedly, bob their head as they’re moving, or visually mess with the world, people can get sick. VR sickness is like car or sea sickness, the inner ear tells you you’re moving, but your visual view, blocked by the vehicle you’re in informs you (incorrectly) that the world is not moving. Early adopters who see the promise of VR know the drill : when you feel funny, you get out of VR right away and wait for it to pass. It will and your immunity is slightly increased. Grandpa might be having a great time in Onward for the first hour but if he spends the next 24 hours with a headache and the nagging desire to throw up he’ll not only never try VR again, but he’ll tell everyone he knows that VR made him sick.
Room scale VR doesn’t make people sick, location based VR such as the Void where people can explore multiple rooms doesn’t make people sick, and all the current treadmills and slipmills, for all their faults, give at least the inner ear a big notice that your body is moving through the environment that your eyes are seeing. Even jogging on the spot can help. It’s impossible with current tech to reliably create the true feeling of acceleration when someone moves around, but if we could approximate it and allow unfettered natural movement we could create an solution that reduces sickness to a tiny percentage of the population, if it did not solve it altogether. All the software solutions are quite immersion breaking, and untethered inside out tracked HMDs, while a great step forward, still limit you to the constraints of your play space.
Humans in VR need to be able to just walk.
And run… And crawl… And roll over if they want… in one direction, for as long as the game level lasts. Claiming we can do this without a physical component and make it feel real is like saying we can have VR without something in front of our eyes. We need to put one foot in front of the other to move around in VR, but with no special shoes, or safety harness, in the spare room, without having to take out a second mortgage. Simple!
We were enthralled with the single publicity shot for Ready Player One shown at the top of this article. 2018 will be the year when people want a locomotion solution for VR that’s affordable, responsive with a size that suits their home. Warner Bros might be able to make it work on green screen but we can’t stand on CGI so we’re building a solution that you can actually use.
Our solution seems so simple that it’s amazing no one else has done it, so for now we still need to keep our design secret, so please don’t ask for pictures or renders, but without showing hardware we can still share some of what we’re planning and building. When you see it you’ll think ‘of course!’, since we haven’t invented levitation, but the secret to the simple design will stay ours until we’re ready (and the patents are filed).
You can start with a mini 1.5m² version if you don’t have much space, about the same as an infinadeck, but only about 20cm high. This is good for walking around slowly but you may need to adjust your gait since there isn’t much room for sudden changes in movement. You’ll probably want to spend a little time in training before you head into the virtual world, but we know where you are so well that we know where you’ll be faster than you do, so it’s nearly impossible to fall over, even without a harness, which we don’t need. Fits under a bed and costs less than a good gaming PC.
If you have a little more space you should really opt for the small 3.3m² size. The extra size gives you much more room to wiggle your virtual toes, so you can not only lie down and crawl in VR, but jog and change direction more quickly. VR comes alive when you need to spend energy to get somewhere, and you’ll think about your next move more when you might need to make a quick getaway on foot. If you can’t quite fit this under a double bed then it fits nicely up against a wall.
The 5.8m² option is the standard size, this is like 4 infinadecks together, without the gaps. Again you can upgrade (from small or mini), and now only athletes need to worry about the speed they can move at. The ‘dead zone’ is good, so users shouldn’t feel an slight movement they didn’t anticipate. Unless you’re very tall you shouldn’t be able to reach the side of the base, even when crawling. The larger sizes cost a little more, but you can upgrade when you want and don’t need to sell off the smaller version.
The design is very simple and the base reasonably light, for the size. Users should be aware that the standard size and up might not fit through a door after construction and although the devices are fairly easy to build, they’re not designed to be constantly disassembled. These are really ideal for a VR basement, attic or spare room. While some games might present issues we have a universal solution that lets users move naturally in just about any title, so you can walk through virtually any game without restriction, and we’ll have an Unreal/Unity SDK for 100% support.
The infiniwalk is at the design and prototyping stage with lots of work to be done here in London, but we hope you think our goals are desirable for VR, even if they seem ambitious. This would also be a game changer for location based VR sites, since experiences could span vast areas with only a small footprint. For the naysayers that complain that the world isn’t a flat plane we will eventually be able to add gradients, and we can even potentially have stairs. Although this isn’t something your average gamer would need it would be incredible for multi level location games. Instead of being confined to a huge room you could now create experiences that span tower blocks.
If you’re interested in finding out more please join our mailing list, and we will be giving away an infiniwalk before we launch as a reward to one lucky follower. A safe, responsive solution to locomotion that anyone can afford is the next big challenge for VR, but then we’ll truly be free in our digital creations.
Thanks for reading, we’ll meet for a walk in the Oasis.