"You have to imagine that your body is the controller. Your body is a giant joystick."
I'm getting strapped into a device that's half adult baby bouncer, half obscure exercise machine. I'm wearing a pair of shoes that have also been on the last three people to have tried out the Virtuix Omni, shoes that make your feet slip and slide on the Omni's baseplate as though it's made of ice. I'm living the dream — full body VR immersion. I look pretty damn stupid.
Yes, I strapped myself into the Virtuix Omni's padded-yet-uncomfortable embrace to experience the way we all might be playing games in a few years. But probably not.
The Omni is a part of PAX's VR freeplay area, in this case brought in by the VR Arena arcade, who own one of only two Omnis in the country. The game I was playing was one of VR Arena's as well, created bespoke for their arcade. It's a TRON-inspired arcade shooter, and the demo only goes for around 2 minutes, all the better to fit in more of the people crowding around the VR freeplay for a try of their own. I'm kind of glad it's so short, though — the demo is exhausting.
Getting into the Omni is kind of like suiting up for rock climbing or a high ropes course. Step into the device, firstly, and try not to slip over. A big, padded belt gets wrapped around your waist, then you clip a loop around each leg. Everything has to be pulled extra tight, or else it doesn't quite work. The specialty shoes have little plastic bumps on the bottom that mean you can slide across the concave base with barely any resistance.
You can't just get in and run, however. At least, it doesn't feel like real running. Instead, you lean forward against the harness and kind of push your feet back along the floor pad. This is your input. This is you being the controller.
The game runs on Vive, so I'm kitted up as usual — headset, headphones, a controller in each hand. A short 'training' exercise — shoot the targets — and then you're ready to run.
The arena materialises around me, all neon purple wireframe over dark greys and blacks. It's a small area we have to play in, though there are a couple of levels, plenty of platforms and bridges and corners to hide around. If the Omni lets me be that subtle with my movements.
I see my opponents and then I'm off. Fast. Really fast. Luckily I'm strapped in pretty tight, or I might have fallen over. I shoot a couple of times, miss (whoops) and then promptly get stuck in a corner. Whoops again. It takes a while to find my feet, but once I do I try out the light blade. It should feel cool, but instead I'm just flailing at one of my opponents who's using a PC to play. I think the PC guys have it a little easier.
I'll be honest. using the Omni feels weird. I also had something odd happen where my character would always run a little off — diagonally instead of straight ahead, though others didn't seem to have the same problem. Once I managed to actually run in a straight line, it was fun. It doesn't feel at all like running, mind you, but it's fun. I also managed to jump once accidentally while orienting myself, but didn't actually try to do it purposefully.
The Omni is probably the closest to consumer-ready tech that exists within this concept, though I'm not sure it's quite there yet. Running full tilt in the Omni is pretty damn fun, mind you, but walking, turning and other fairly vital abilities are not so intuitive. It's difficult to account for the human body's full range of movement, so at the moment it can only really account for the big, obvious moves.
There's also the problem that no one looks good playing it. Given, no one really looks good playing regular VR, but this is a step above again. I consider myself fairly coordinated, but I flailed around in that thing like I was still learning to walk. Which, technically, I was.
Every new type of VR controller is a step towards being more intuitive, more natural, more immersive. The Omni is a step in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go. Still, if you're at PAX you should definitely give this thing a try — or, better yet, make one of your friends do it and have a good laugh.