You know those bouncy things people occasionally stick their babies in? The ones that sit in a door frame, with baby in a harness jumping around? Yeah, you know the things! Have you also ever seen a dog try and run really fast on a wooden floor? Where they accelerate so quickly they can’t get any traction and are kind of folding in on themselves from slipping so much? Well using a Virtuix Omni feels like both of those things bound together by overwhelming nausea. Now let’s give all that some context by starting at the beginning.
The world of VR is well and truly upon us, PAX Aus 2016 this year was a smorgasbord of virtual realities, some of them amazing, others not so much. I’m a bit conflicted about VR as a gaming medium, I am mostly impressed by what I see, but can’t quite imagine it becoming a viable gaming platform. But that’s because I’m the sort of person who likes to spend weekends in a dark room playing Gwent until my eyes crust over and the universe loses all meaning.
The main draw back for me is that VR experiences are generally so fleeting, you do something cool for 15 or so minutes, and then it’s done. However one company has used that to their advantage, VR Arena have come up with the idea to set up group VR experiences, in which 12 people can face off against each other in a VR FPS showdown. It’s kind of like paintball, but without crippling anxiety and pain. But wait, there’s more *insert inflatable flailing arm guy*, it’s not just VR! The players are strapped into a Virtuix Omni, meaning they actually run around… sort of. Here’s a trailer of their set up.
On paper I was so ready for this idea. I love FPS and I was so so keen to see what this variation to VR could open up in terms of longevity for the medium. So at PAX I signed up to enter into the Arena, where I would be playing for two minutes against members of the VR Arena team.
As I sat waiting for my turn I watched the players before me, and to say the least my excitement soon turned into dread. One guy, who was extremely tall, looked like a flamingo having a seizure using the contraption. To be fair, this guy over committed to the cause, and was throwing his body around with very little concern for physical safety or how he looked. At one point he even knocked over some gear, it was pretty much the end scene of King Kong where the ape trashes shit in the theatre, but instead of running away screaming I was sitting in line waiting for that to be me.
Gearing up required strapping on a pair of shoes, which were surprisingly comfortable, if they didn’t have strips of slippery plastic underneath I’d consider getting a pair. However that slippery plastic is integral to making the Omni work, as moving in the device is essentially intentional slipping. The base of the system is a curved dome that is like a joystick receiver, strapped into the harness you have 360 degrees of movement to scuttle around on to propel your in-game character.
Once I stepped onto the platform it felt like standing on ice, luckily once strapped in and buckled up the overwhelming fear of breaking my legs diminished.
Practicing the movement I instantly felt uncomfortable, the harness was sort of supporting my weight, but not enough for me to commit to running like the seizure flamingo before me. I had to prop my elbows up on the side of the Omni to stop the feeling like I was about to be involved in a strap related castration.
The VR unit itself was a HTC Vive with Vive controllers, which, on a side note, are fucking glorious to use, so there were no surprises there. I’ve used the Vive quite a few times and personally it’s my favourite headset, only once have I felt sick using VR, but that was due to the amount of toxins my body was trying to flush (wine, it was lots of wine), so when the headset came down I felt it would be my friend, unlike the ice skates of doom on my feet.
So not the best start, however when the shooting mechanics started it felt pretty good. As I said before, I adore the Vive and its controllers, so the tutorial shooting range felt natural. In my left hand I had a shield, and in my right a pistol that could turn into a sword if I squeezed the controller. All in all pretty cool stuff. Once the practicing was out the way it was time to face off against two VR Arena dudes using PCs to control their players.
The second I started trying to traverse around the map I noticed I really needed to embrace the movement and scrape away at the platform with my shoes to trigger the slightest momentum. This was awful for two reasons, the first was that I had to exercise, the second was that it felt extremely futile expending mass energy for little output.
The first thing I did was get stuck in a doorway, so I had to slap my feet around to correct this. Straight after liberation I saw an enemy and had to switch from “OMG how do I not be stuck” mode to combat mode, it was overwhelming to say the least. The vigorous movement made me feel a pang of nausea, my hands became drenched and my mouth was thick with saliva. To boot, the harness had lifted my shirt up making me feel naked IRL. Note: all of these things are not ideal when in front of hundreds of swarms of strangers at a convention.
Despite all this I managed to kill the first enemy, and another soon popped up keeping me busy with shooting. I was enjoying the combat, but I just couldn’t shake how truly awful my body felt every time I had to move. I honestly can’t really describe how the rest of my two minute session played out, but you can watch some of it here including what I already described:
I can tell you when it was time to stop I was extremely sweaty, not hot sweat, but nausea/fever type sweat. It didn’t feel great. The guys running the booth told me I scored really well and that they weren’t going easy on me, which I’m pretty sure was them trying to make me feel better because I literally looked like a translucent wet flannel.
They were surprised when I told them I felt like battery acid personified, but said they were still trying to tweak the formula to make the game as enjoyable as possible without negative side effects. Despite the feeling of imminent demise, I was kind of keen to try it again should it be tweaked, I can imagine it being a lot of fun with friends entering six vs six battles. As for the immediate after effects of the session, I had to sit outside for a good 20 minutes lapping up air like a carp until the nausea subsided. I also passed on other VR experiences for the rest of that day.
Melbourne based readers will be interested/terrified to know that they can experience VR Arena for themselves at the team’s Clifton Hill based studio. My advice is to bring sick bags and water.