Omnidirectional treadmill technology allows you to turn, walk, run, crouch, and sometimes even jump in VR without any space limits or danger of tripping over your cat. Unfortunately, the promise of practical, affordable VR treadmills still seems some way off.
How Omnidirectional Treadmills Work
The treadmill design everyone’s familiar with uses a belt stretched between two rollers. Exercise treadmills are usually powered by a motor so that the user can adjust the walking or running speed, but they can also be passive, driven by friction from your feet.
Omnidirectional treadmills, on the other hand, allow the user to walk or run in any direction. They all look pretty different, though; there isn’t a single universal design for omnidirectional treadmills. We’ve seen examples that use a moving deck that moves over rollers and arranges all around its frame. Then there are treadmills where there are no moving parts at all. Instead, the user puts on special slippery shoes and runs in a low-friction “bowl” of sorts, with the electronics of the treadmill sensing the speed and direction your feet are moving.
Most treadmills, especially ones that allow for running, have a safety system where the user is held up by a belt or other suspension system. The belt or ring can act as a height sensor, so if you crouch, your in-game avatar will crouch as well. This isn’t a necessity, since virtually all modern VR headsets can tell whether you’re standing or crouching, but this solution is more accurate.
The Downsides of Omnidirectional Treadmills
The benefits omnidirectional treadmills bring to VR should be obvious, enabling a more fully immersive experience, but do those benefits outweigh the downsides? Sadly the current state of this technology comes with a lengthy list of issues that don’t make them appealing to anyone but hardcore VR fans.
The issue of cost is a big one, and the full-fat high-end treadmills can hit wallet-tearing prices in excess of $50,000! While that’s an extreme case, treadmills aimed at the consumer market are priced in the thousands rather than hundreds of dollars, although, as with anything in the technology world, prices are coming down.
While the cost issue is one that’s likely to solve itself over time, the elephant in the room is literally the treadmill itself. One of the great things about some modern VR systems such as the Quest 2 is that you can set up shop anywhere. You don’t need dedicated space for your VR experiences and games.
VR treadmills take over a part of your home. Even the ones that can be stowed only change your options to either sacrificing space or adding more friction to getting into your VR experience. Most people will likely prefer to leave the treadmill set up in place, so a big downside is making VR a permanent fixture of your life even when you’re not using it.
The final major downside worth mentioning is simply the physical aspect of using a treadmill. It comes with an inherent risk of injury either from the exertion of tripping or falling. Of course, VR as a whole has this risk, but there’s more kinetic energy in play with a treadmill.
Omnidirectional Treadmills You Can (Maybe) Buy
So, assuming you’re OK with those downsides, what are your real-world options?
There aren’t many VR treadmills out there, but a few are worth mentioning as great examples of what’s out there, some of which you might even consider buying.
The Virtuix Omni is the VR treadmill that popularized the idea of these devices in the first place. It started out as a crowd-funded project, but the first-generation Omni was too large and expensive for home use. It did however find a home in VR arcades. The Omni One is a compact home model that’s not yet up for pre-order at the time of writing but promises a device that allows full VR movement while being small enough for home use.
The KAT Walk C2 is the closest thing to a practical consumer-grade VR treadmill with its sub-$1000 price and relatively small footprint, it’s a promising device that might be out by the time you read this. If it’s not out yet, there’s a (super) early-bird discount that might interest you.
The Infinadeck isn’t for sale exactly, but its price has been pegged at somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000! This is the only treadmill among these three that has actual moving parts, rather than a low-friction surface you slide your feet across. One significant advantage is that you don’t need to be strapped in, with a basic safety ring around the treadmill and not your body. However, this is better for enterprise or business VR installations.
Alternatives to Omnidirectional Treadmills
Those sub-$1,000 “compact” treadmills that are coming do look enticing, especially if you’re the kind of VR enthusiast who already has a room set aside for VR using something like the Valve Index and laser-based external tracking stations mounted to the wall. That doesn’t mean these are the ultimate solution for VR mobility, though.
Apart from the VR locomotion we all use (e.g. teleportation or using the controller sticks), there are ways to move around the VR world using your feet that don’t require a big treadmill. Room-scale movement with headsets like the Quest 2 is now par for the course. If you have a very large indoor space, you can walk quite far before having to stop for real-world obstacles.
There’s also the option of a “walking in-place” solution. These are sensor systems that let you walk or run in place and then translate that movement to VR. The KAT Loco S is just such a solution. You put one sensor on each foot and one on a belt and then walk in-place in whatever direction you want to go. While this isn’t as immersive as a treadmill, it’s far more practical and gets you most of the way there for natural locomotion. These are the best solutions we’ll have until the day we can “jack-in” Matrix-style and get the full experience, for better or worse!