After years in the wilderness, interest is growing in virtual reality. The turnaround has happened with the rising popularity of the Oculus Rift headset from Oculus VR, which raised $75 million from Netscape founder Marc Andreessen’s venture capital fund.
Jan Goetgeluk is the chief executive of Virtuix, the creator of the Omni virtual reality treadmill, and he hopes his company can catch some of Rift’s momentum.
But the $300 Oculus Rift isn’t necessarily the only thing you’ll need for virtual reality. The Omni treadmill helps you steady yourself and run around in 360 degrees of freedom inside a virtual world. It’s just one of the peripherals that could benefit if demand for the Rift really takes off when a consumer version of it launches.
Goetgeluk spoke in a session at our recent GamesBeat 2013 conference, and we also caught up with him for a chat after Oculus got its funding. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What are you doing that’s new and interesting with virtual reality?
Jan Goetgeluk: It’s been a good ride. We went to GamesBeat, which was a fun conference. We’ve done a couple of trade shows while continuing our development. Right now we’re doing a tour of Silicon Valley. We’re at NBC right now. We met with Robert Scoble. He loved the Omni. He and his crew are very excited. So far, so good.
GamesBeat: What stage are you at with the business?
Goetgeluk: Right now we’re raising up our production in south China. We’re about to start design for the tooling, get everything produced. We plan to ship the first unit some time in May of next year.
GamesBeat: How many of those are already preordered, going to the Kickstarter people?
Goetgeluk: Right now we’ve sold close to 3,000 at $499. A lot of that is from the Kickstarter, but we’re also selling Omnis every day on our website, funded preorders. Every day people pay the full amount for the Omni, even though we tell them they’ll have to wait another six months.
GamesBeat: Everyone must be getting an Oculus Rift as well, then.
Goetgeluk: It’s a good question. Some of our backers haven’t bought the Oculus yet. They plan to just use the Omni with a screen in front of them. They’re waiting for the retail Oculus. But the Omni could work with any headset. There are probably going to be others coming to the market in the next 12 months, and the Omni will be compatible with any one of those.
GamesBeat: Are you showing anything new at CES?
Goetgeluk: If all goes well, we’ll show our integrated tracking solution there for the first time. Until now, we were still using the Kinect for motion tracking. The final product will have integrated capacitive sensors in the base, and we’ll do a sneak preview of that at CES. That determines the position of both feet on the Omni at any given time. You won’t need a Kinect anymore.
GamesBeat: What does the feet-sensing do? Does it determine your position in the world?
Goetgeluk: The Omni tracks your walking movement and channels that movement to your movement in the game. The Oculus, or any other headset, tracks the movement of your head, and we’ll track the movement of your feet. Whenever you’re walking or running or jumping on the Omni, all that gets translated to the movement of your avatar in the game.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen a lot of excitement about virtual reality lately. You saw the big investment in Oculus. What are you sensing about the overall market right now?
Goetgeluk: We were very happy to see the investment Oculus got. For those who don’t get believe in it, [the truth is] virtual reality is here to stay. It’s a very neat experience – not just having the Rift, but having the Omni and walking around in a virtual world. It’s a leap in entertainment, that VR dream we’ve had for the last 20 years. The technology is ready.
Last week just shows that venture capitalists and big names in the tech space believe that, yes, virtual reality is not a fad this time. [Venture capitalist] Marc Andreessen was quoted about the amazing experience he saw at Oculus. It’s a great endorsement for virtual reality.
GamesBeat: Does that give you any new opportunities for Virtuix itself? Do you want to raise more money or otherwise take advantage of this optimism right now?
Goetgeluk: Certainly. We had a $1.1 million Kickstarter campaign, so we made money there, but we’re talking to investors. That’s always important for a startup. We see a lot of interest in the Omni and virtual reality in general. Investors are starting to realize this might be the next big thing. We had the internet in the ‘90s and then social and mobile. Now we have this virtual reality wave, the next big wave of innovation.
GamesBeat: Do you see this thing staying on the PC, or could move to other platforms?
Goetgeluk: I’d be surprised if it just stays with the PC. Virtual reality can easily be extended to other platforms – consoles, mobile, SteamMachines. It takes gaming and general entertainment to this next level of immersion. I’d like to see it extend to other platforms.
GamesBeat: What sort of useful feedback are people giving you? Are there any changes to the design that you’re making, or are you sticking with what you’ve got?
Goetgeluk: So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. You saw that at GamesBeat. It speaks to the imagination of a large audience. The biggest improvement we’re making right now is with our integrated tracking solution. The Kinect works well, but it’s not flawless. Integrated tracking will be more accurate with less latency. In virtual reality, small changes make a big impact. We’ll keep improving the Omni incrementally and fine-tuning our design.
GamesBeat: What sort of technology is in the Omni?
Goetgeluk: Dozens of patents out there describe these treadmills, but none of them were viable, commercially or technologically. The majority of the Omni is just a mechanical design. It’s an omnidirectional treadmill, but we eliminated all the moving parts. It’s a low-friction surface on which a user can walk naturally, 360 degrees around. I always say that it’s easy to make a complex device. It’s more difficult to make a simple one. We tried to simplify the Omni as much as possible, to make it affordable and compact.
The electronics part is the sensing, with the capacitive sensors in the base. But the tracking itself, that problem had already been solved with different kinds of tracking technology. The real innovation is in the mechanical parts, the treadmill parts, that allows you to walk, run, and jump.
GamesBeat: The harness part, does that just have to be there for the safety side? Or does that play some other role?
Goetgeluk: The harness’s purpose is twofold. One, it does provide safety. You can’t fall off the Omni. Second, it also provides some support, so you can use the Omni hands-free. You can hold a gamepad or some other controller.
GamesBeat: Does that also help you rest a little bit as well, so you’re not always running around?
Goetgeluk: Sure, you could put your weight on the harness for a bit and catch your breath. It’s there to support your full weight.
GamesBeat: What else do you need? If you have an Oculus, if you have the Omni, if you have the peripherals you want to use like a gun you could hold, what other things would work with this? I know the Sixense guys are working on their wireless gesture-control devices. What do you think fits in to help complete the experience?
Goetgeluk: I see full virtual reality as three parts. The first part is visual, which is ready with the Rift. The second part is locomotion, which is the Omni. The third part is tracking – a device that can track your hands, the gun you’re holding, other body parts. That’s the Sixense part. I think the Sixense STEM is probably the best technology out there right now to provide that tracking part.
GamesBeat: What about the touch feedback? Is there some future frontier there as well?
Goetgeluk: Haptic feedback and touch is probably the most difficult nut to crack in an affordable way. A couple of products are trying to accomplish that. One is called Tactical Haptics. They did a Kickstarter last month, but unfortunately they were not successful. They were providing haptic feedback through the controller in your hand. Another device I tried out yesterday is called KorFX. It provides haptic feedback on your chest, simulating bullet hits or other vibrations you might feel. I don’t see this as a crucial part of the virtual reality experience, but they certainly aid in immersion.
GamesBeat: Is there anyone working on an interesting new experience to show inside something like the Omni?
Goetgeluk: Not beyond the elements I just mentioned. A couple of different people are working on headsets, in addition to the Rift. A company called Avegant has a headset that projects the image straight into your eye. I tried it out. It’s a high-definition, high-frequency solution. That’s another device coming out on the visual side.
GamesBeat: How about on the game side? Do you hear anything from game developers or publishers?
Goetgeluk: Certainly. We get a lot of communication from game developers who want to develop games for the Omni. Most of them are indies at this point. We did a survey. About 30 percent of our Kickstarter backers intended to make a game for the Omni, which is great news. We want to reach out to developers and get them excited, get our SDK introduced, and get them to make interesting applications.
One beautiful thing about the Omni is that it provides a kind of motion input that hasn’t existed before. If you think of analog walking input, you could match your speed in the game to your speed on the Omni. If you also think about absolute walking orientation, independent of where you’re looking, you can walk forward, look left, and shoot right, all at the same time. Those motion functions don’t exist yet in games, but new games can take advantage of that. That freedom of movement will be an incredible experience.