Hands-on: ‘Kat Walk’ Proves That VR Treadmills Are Getting Better, but Still Aren’t Perfect

    Categories: Gamescom 2017hardware previewNewsOmni-Directional TreadmillsVR Treadmill

Despite completing a successful Kickstarter back in August 2015, there still aren’t many Kat Walk VR treadmills outside of Asia, let alone the premium version specially built for out-of-home facilities like theme parks, malls, and cruise ships. The short reason: it’s just too damn heavy, and shipping it from the manufacturing plant in China isn’t easy. Acting as the sole distributor for Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, the Netherland-based reseller Virtuo VR took to this year’s Gamescom to show off their flagship product, the Kat Walk Premium VR Treadmill and Kat PC Control Station combo, a hefty all-in-one commercial unit built with high traffic, as well as a high price (€11,900) in mind. As a note, both the smaller consumer version and the commercial version sans computer retail for significantly less.

I was greeted by Virtuo VR founder and owner Ali Cakan, an ex-military member turned tech distributor looking for the next big thing. Cakan opened two of the heavy-duty treadmills to the Gamescom-going public, along with a few motion platforms playing racing games tossed in for good measure. Clearly, the impressive-looking Kat Walk treadmills were the crowd favorite, as a long line snaked around the booth populated with German teenagers sitting on boxes and fold-out chairs awaiting their turn for what promised to be a unique experience.

Slipping a pair of webbed rubber booties over my shoes, the bottoms studded with a hard, but very slick plastic, I was instructed to lift myself up using a safety bar positioned overhead. Cakan instantly read my hesitation, and did a one-handed pull up on the bar. “It’s totally safe. See?” He then slipped on a Bluetooth-connected inertial measurement unit (IMU) to each rubber bootie that would register a step forward whenever I swung my leg. Getting into the dish-shaped walking area, I could feel the low friction surface as I wiggled my feet around as I waited to start.

Strapping in with a WWE championship-sized safety belt and two thick leg straps, I donned the Vive headset and was given my two motion controllers. An attendant dialed up a shooting game using the unit’s built-in computer with a touch screen monitor. Taking me through the menu, which was entirely in Chinese, I was plopped in a low rent version of CS:GO—a bit like the game below.

Moving wasn’t easy, certainly not as easy as walking normally. Because the footprint of the parabolic walking surface isn’t that large, you have to do a sort of baby half-step to get anywhere. Overshoot your mark, and you’ll slip out of the smooth surface of the parabola and hit the edge, something that left me feeling a bit wary after the first time I did it. The vertical stabilization bar and strap system kept me from going anywhere though, and thankfully caught me from falling flat on my ass. The bar, which stays behind you the entire time, doesn’t get in the way of natural hand movements either, so you can swing the gun around without worrying about knocking into support beams or containment rings like on Virtuix Omni or Cyberith Virtualizer.

Predictably, the stability of the unit is rock solid. After having both seen Cakan yank down on the horizontal beam and having nearly fallen on my ass were it not for the support bar, there’s no doubt in mind as to the safety of the device.

image courtesy Kat VRmore
image courtesy Kat VRmore

Walking away from the 10-minute experience, I felt like I just didn’t do it right, and that I would need more practice to nail down the strange half-step gait. It was also much more laborious than I though it would be, which I suppose you can chalk up somewhat to the rubber booties. The treadmill ships with dedicated shoes as well that have a small roller in the heels that are supposed to reduce friction and make walking easier—maybe not more natural, but easier. For the sake of keeping the line moving though, the small pile of different-sized shoes was left untouched as Gamescom-goers slipped in an out of the booties for the sake of brevity. I can see the addition of the shoes making it a less tiring experience.

Walking accuracy was also an issue. In real life, we don’t always line up our legs and body exactly to face the direction we want to go, and unfortunately this is all Kat Walk understands, i.e. no strafing or any other movement that isn’t directly forward or backwards. So if you want to walk around an object, you have to sort of box your way around it in a way that doesn’t really feel natural, leaving you with the clear suspicion that you’re trying your darndest to control a device to get where you want to go, and not really going there with your own two feet.

In the end, the learning curve may scare away a lot of first-timers from returning, leaving them with the impression that VR treadmills just aren’t for them, which is a shame, because Kat VR’s build quality is excellent, and I think a few more sessions would prove that all you need is a little perseverance to nail down what essentially is an entirely different type of controller.