First impression of the Cyberith Virtualizer (Omnidirectional Treadmill)
I recently had a second chance of testing the Cyberith Virtualizer after a first quick run with it at gamescom in cologne earlier this year. But this time in a more relaxed environment with much more time to try it out and chat. In case you haven’t heard of the Virtualizer yet, it’s an omnidirectional treadmill meant to be used for virtual reality applications. A device which you step into to “walk” around a virtual environment (which gets presented with a head mounted display, in this case the Oculus Rift). When I say walking you have to understand that you never really move around, like on a treadmill where you can run without ever moving more than a few centimetres, you’ll basically just move your legs.
The less affordable alternative
The idea of omnidirectional treadmills is not new – there are numerous research prototypes and even commercial products already available. One for example is the Virtual Theatre from MSE – a huge platform made up of 16 segments of small barrels around a small central platform. When you move from your central starting point onto one of these segments, the barrels start moving and push you back to your starting position. While this sounds like a great way to move around in a virtual environment – it has some drawbacks. Beside being way too big for most living rooms, it’s also quite loud! When I tested it at the RWTH Aachen University (Institute Cluster IMA/ZLW & IfU) I was also quite happy to use an older HMD which didn’t shut off the surrounding perfectly. Normally you don’t want to see the real world while interacting with the virtual world but on that treadmill it helped not stepping between sections of the rolling barrels and falling down. Beside such flaws it is also most likely too expensive for the average gamer – you could easily buy a nice flat or a fast sports car for that kind of money…
Luckily the hype around the Oculus Rift started a new hype for VR in general and currently two companies try to bring the concept of the omnidirectional treadmill to the gamers – for a more affordable price. The one is the Virtuix Omni which I could not yet try out and the other is the already mentioned Cyberith Virtualizer.
Half-Life 2 in the Virtualizer
To use the Virtualizer you have to get into the lower part of a climbing harness inside of a metal ring. You stand on a flat platform in cotton socks (to get the right amount of friction) on which you then make your normal walking moves. The mounting point of the climbing harness is fully movable: you can not only rotate around but also duck and even jump just as you would do in the real world. Some practice is needed to get the right feeling for it as the surface has an unfamiliar low friction.
While I could only try out the Tuscany demo at gamescom, this time I had the chance to spend some time in City 17. Walking around in the virtual environment of Half-Life 2 and fighting Combines and Antlions with a riffle build out of a WiiMote really enhances the fun and immersion. Even compared to just using the Rift with mouse and keyboard. Controlling the character – or better: controlling yourself – in the game is a bit harder for two reasons: On the one hand the unfamiliar device you are strapped into, on the other hand the analog input into the device fitted to the digital control scheme of the game. Let me explain what I mean with this: You can move at an arbitrary speed (even run if you like) and duck to any height you are physically able to do. But the game only knows three speeds: standing, walking and running. It also only knowns two heights: standing and ducking. Games which support a more analog way of input should be even more immersive. Only with such adjusted games we will really see how good a treadmill really works.
The coupling of interaction in current games
Another key problem with current games is the coupling of the players view direction with the walking direction and the aim of the interaction (e.g.: shooting). Traditionally these three things are tightly coupled, you look around with the mouse, have your crosshair in the middle of the screen and walk in the direction you look at. With the Rift and its internal head tracking you can decouple the pointing of the mouse (or gamepad) with the viewing direction and for example shoot at a different direction as you are looking at – or look at a different direction as you are navigating at (the later works well for driving games). In a treadmill you could decouple all three orientations and look in one direction, shoot at another direction (maybe even behind you!) and walk into a third direction! Give me two independently tracked guns, a Virtualizer and an adjusted Left4Dead2 and I’ll be offline for the next weeks :-D
One thing that didn’t work well in the treadmill but is highly related to the uncoupling of motions is strafing: It’s possible but not easy to do in the device. But when you think about it: it’s also not a very natural movement to begin with. In the real world you would rather rotate your lower body to walk in the desired direction while facing (and aiming) to the side. This however is quite easy and intuitive to do in the Virtualizer.
The one interaction which still is problematic is jumping: In the current prototype you are not fixed into the harness tightly enough for precise jumps (at least in my opinion). The mechanics involved for jumps however will be completely redesigned to fix this issue with the third prototype currently under development. I’m curious how well this will work then.
All put together I have to say that the Cyberith Virtualizer makes a good first impression – it’s fun, it’s a solid build and all in all its promising. Walking forwards and backwards is quite simple thanks to a flat surface to “walk” on and real ducking for cover definitely adds some immersion to the game :-D I also like the fact that it works with arbitrary cotton socks in contrast to the special shoes of the Omni – depending on your number of friends you would need a lot of different sized shoes… (for a research institute you would need even more!).
I can’t wait to try out games that are better adjusted to the possibilities of this device – we definitely need fully adjusted demos to see all potentials – as well as drawbacks. I’m also curious if the next version gets the jumping to work better. (And I also hope to test the competitor in the future as well).