After head mounted displays, one of the obvious next steps for virtual reality immersion is to find a way to physically walk around a VR environment without walking into objects in the real world. A myriad of solutions (falling under the category of ‘locomotion device’ ) have been put forth. Take, for instance, omni-directional treadmills (ODT); the majority of which are big, expensive, and impractical for home use. The first person to crack the code — to create an affordable and reasonably sized device for VR locomotion — could revolutionize how and where people experience virtual reality. I recently spoke with Julian Williams, the creator of WizDish, whose product might be the first VR locomotion device to find its way into your living room.
Walking with WizDish
The WizDish throws out the complicated mechanics of omni-directional treadmills and instead goes for a completely passive device with no moving parts. The unit is a small concave disk which is no bigger than a small circular rug. To use the WizDish, the user puts on a special shoe called the WizShoe (naturally) and performs a skating motion which Julian Williams, the creator of the WizDish, says closely mimics walking.
“The WizDish exploits the fact that you have 29 bones in each foot to balance with. You slide your feet over a slick concave surface in a simulation of walking that gives surprisingly similar proprioceptive cues to real walking. Once you can see where you are going [using an HMD] you take more confident strides and quickly forget it’s a simulated walk. The key advantages of the WizDish are that you can start, stop and turn with absolute ease…,” said Williams.
He tells me that he was originally drawn to create a locomotion device as a means of immersing players into a virtual world for a game show. Though the show never made it far out of the concept stage, Williams never lost a passion for finding a way to immerse players in virtual worlds.
“…one night with lights out playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein with headphones on loud. I couldn’t believe as a grown man I could feel apprehensive about pressing a ‘w’ key to walk through catacombs. When I thought I’d completed the level I turned round to face an unseen skeletal soldier and was so shocked I fell off my chair pulling the PC on top of me. Sprawled on the floor I realised I’d never had an experience like that watching TV, and started to think how I could really experience being ‘inside the game’,” said Williams. “In 2001, inspired by Half Life, I thought of ways to put a live contestant inside a video game as a TV gameshow idea, but found commissioners have been burned trying this before. I discovered VR in my research and have been passionate about it ever since.”
Williams began work on a locomotion device after this eye-opening experience . He knew he needed a solution that was cost-effective, lightweight, and portable. After devising a number of solutions but finding them already patented Williams settled on the concept that would eventually become the WizDish. After filing a provisional patent, Williams brought on board Dr. Charles King, a chartered physicist and Fellow of the Institute of Materials, to help fine tune the friction between the WizDish and WizShoe. Williams now has a full patent on the design.
Williams recently engaged with some of the folks over at the MTBS3D VR forums in a thread regarding the WizDish and created a short demo video showing the range of motions possible with the unit:
As per the objective of its design, the WizDish itself doesn’t actually detect motion. Another solution needs to be used in conjunction with the unit to recognize the gestures as strides, turns, strafes, jumps, and more.
Based in the UK, Williams has spent much of his career as a media engineer for the BBC. He holds an MSc in Computing and tells me that apprenticeship on railways has taught him about safety critical mechanical and electrical engineering. As such, Williams and King carefully tuned the friction of the WizDish surface.
“We’ve had to get the amount of friction exactly right to stop it being too tiring or so slick that you lose control or can’t grip enough to step around,” Williams said. “There is skill involved [in the skating motion] but most people seem to be able to manage straight away, although practice and sporting ability no doubt help. It is nothing like as difficult as other forms of skating. It’s even easier wearing an HMD as the proprioception then matches the vision.”
Mainstream VR Locomotion
The WizDish might be one of the first VR locomotion devices to find a consumer market. While other solutions are quite massive, very expensive, and require maintenance, the WizDish has no moving parts, weighs just 14 pounds (6.3kg), and perhaps most important of all, can be mass produced at an affordable price.
Williams has spent years perfecting the WizDish and although it isn’t yet for sale he tells me that he is interested in doing a WizDish Kickstarter in the near future. With the right number of orders he expects that units could be priced at “just a few hundred dollars each” which puts it within the realm of affordability for mainstream gamers — an important distinction from most VR locomotion devices.
Bridging the Gap
A virtual reality locomotion device like the WizDish bridges the gap between other peripherals to bring us one step closer to fully immersive VR. For instance, it isn’t hard to imagine how the WizDish would benefit the impressive full body tracking setup from YEI that we saw recently.
Then there’s Hesham Wahba’s virtual reality desktop environment called Ibex. Wahba imagines, “…a virtual world around it so you can work in a beautiful field with a river flowing by and actually get up and go there to think or take a break…” Physically walking around that environment, rather than navigating with your keyboard, would bring immersion to a whole new level.
There might be more at hand than mere entertainment to be transformed by the WizDish and other virtual reality components. Williams also notes that engaging people physically with games is worthwhile for the health benefits.
“This is all being done to make gaming more fun, but there are health benefits too. A lot of people who currently think games are wasting time will think differently of them, and maybe see active gaming as better value than gym membership,” he said. “The media isn’t exaggerating when they predict serious problems with obesity, diabetes etc. Before TV people were fit due to work, having to walk and sport. Gaming is making it worse but technology can just as easily be the cure instead, and without making exercise feel like a chore. I would stress that health is a happy byproduct of having more fun.”
Impact on Game Design
One thing that you might note is that there isn’t a way to run using the WizDish. While it is easy to simply tell a game to interpret a walk as a run for ease-of-use, I think the inability to physically sprint on the WizDish poses an interesting challenge for the future of virtual reality games.
I’ve always disliked playing what are supposed to be life-like RPGs (GTA, Shenmue, Skyrim, etc.) where your player-character is constantly sprinting from one place to the next. Most of the time the character is sprinting through houses or other places where in real-life people wouldn’t sprint.
By coupling your physical motion to your character’s movements in the game I can’t imagine we’ll be sprinting from A to B unless absolutely necessary. Instead, the pace of games designed with locmotion devices in mind will likely slow down. More details will be present around the player because it’ll be possible to get up close and personal with the environment and harder to cover huge swaths of land on foot.
I can easily imagine a horror game in which you search through an abandoned haunted house with a flashlight. Rather than sprinting from room to room as you might in a contemporary game, you’ll walk carefully from one room to the next with opportunities for fright at every corner. Thanks to the slowed pace, each room can be intimately detailed for exploration. This opens the door for immersion and deep narrative which I would absolutely welcome in forthcoming virtual reality games.
See the WizDish official site for more.