The Application of XR into the attractions and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – we look at the ability to use unique attraction peripherals to fully immerse the user beyond the limitations of seated VR experiences.
In this latest column for MIXED, we look at one of the hardest endeavors that immersive technology has been challenged to achieve: That of total immersion of the players’ body within the immersive experience. In offering immersive experiences through Head-mounted displays, the ability to also hoodwink the faculties (arms and legs and the whole body) has proven a greater challenge to achieve. From the simulation of flying, or running or swimming, also requires manipulation of the body.
Separate from the seated simulators, “Virtual Body Control” can be broken into three key categories. The first is those that allow the ability to walk and run within the virtual space – defined as Omni Directional platforms. The next are those that allow the user to emulate that of flying within the space (either virtually soaring or taking part if parachuting or paragliding). And finally, so far, those platforms that offer a modularity to achieve multiple experiences through unique design.
While consumer virtual entertainment has attempted to look at offering omnidirectional treadmills to allow walking and running within the virtual world – it has only been initially in the location-based entertainment (LBE) sector that this technology has made serious inroads. The ability to have expensive hardware deployed in Out-of-Home is more achievable than trying to get consumer users to shell out thousands for VR interfaces.
How to offer a fully enclosed peripheral that achieves the needed freedom of standing mobility within a virtual environment has been a constant area of development from the earliest days of the adoption of VR.
The simulation roots of VR saw the first applications of Omni-directional treadmills. The ring enclosure concept as a VR design idea was first seen back in the 1990s with the Virtuality CS1000, though the rings were more a safety component than part of a treadmill.
It would not be until the latest phase of VR that an omnidirectional treadmill would be fielded as a viable peripheral for VR users. These early manufacturers would have to look at a business model that offered a consumer system but would also attempt to establish a strong enterprise (commercial) sales route. Along with simulation and training applications, Out-of-Home entertainment offered a new and attractive business – not only the chance to sell hardware, but the ability to use LBE as a powerful promotional tool, attracting players to what these systems can offer to the VR experience.
One of the leading providers of this approach was Virtuix – known for their treadmill offering a 360 full speed movement – employing unique shoes and the ring restraint system. The company would employ their system within their ‘Omni Arena’ VR enclosure offering, with four Virtuix units and a loading and unloading environment for arcade and entertainment sites.
More importantly, the environment offers competitive play – and a dedicated eSports stage for virtual athletes. With over seventy of these arenas operational supported by monthly contests with a $100,000 cash prize pool sponsored by Virtuix, have proven strong revenue generators. And have even been responsible for a very popular VR related meme.
Building on this success, Virtuix went back to crowdfunding to launch the next innovation in their platform, launching the ‘Omni One’ – employing lessons learned and innovation to create their new omnidirectional platform. Focused wholly on consumer deployment for the time being.
Another manufacture of omnidirectional platforms for VR looked towards a consumer and commercial sale model. Chinese manufacturer KATVR has sold their own ‘KAT Walk’ system into the home and international market. And several VR arcade operators have deployed the Chinese system in their venues as an alternative omnidirectional interface.
Another developer, Cyberith has presented their ‘Virtualizer ELITE 2’ system in VR venues using the unique foot-sliding technique. The latest version of the system placing the user on a motion-base to simulate inclines to offer an even more immersive environment.
During ChinaJoy digital entertainment expo 2023, we have seen continued investment into new mobility peripherals for the virtual environment. On the Migu booth presented what they called the “universal treadmill” was demonstrated by Yuan Sport. The platform developed by StepVR running the experience ‘The Last Navigator’. The ‘mGate Pro’ system employing a harness and foot tracking omnidirectional treadmill that was hoped to offer the most realistic navigation peripheral for VR.
The company has also demonstrated their ‘mGate Beta’. What the company calls a metaverse portal device made real – an enlarged version of their original system. The users suspended in a harness, part of the enclosure, can move the user corresponding to their virtual movements, including olfactory and haptic feedback.
This Chinese startup first previewed their system in 2022, looking to deploy the sensory system in specialist VR parlors, as well as gyms and museums.
In the Chinese VR amusement scene, the use of a body steerable system for navigation within the virtual space has been fielded. Called the ‘Virtual Marine’ by FuninVR, players strapping their feet into the simple system, with their body movement steering the user – the unit even rotating as the player turns in the VR space. Offering a simple mobility system in a small package.
The hardware has been used in the latest PVP shooting multiplayer game, offering a new level of engagement.
The creation of a dedicated space for omnidirectional control is only achievable within the commercial sector because of the expense. One such example is from Omninfinity – which was acquired in 2021 by W5 Solutions AB – the company developing their ‘Omnideck6’ – installed at several research and educational institutions such as the Mosaic Lab in Braunschweig, Germany.
The unique treadmill system and user tracking technology creates one of the most compelling immersive experiences regarding locomotion within the virtual space. And already entertainment developers are looking at applying this kind of system for attractions and game experiences.
The creation of a dedicated treadmill system for immersive navigation has also been seen from Aperium and their ‘K-01 Pod’. Deployed some four years ago as a unique immersive system that allowed the users to move through the virtual space.
The system was employed in several North American entertainment venues, allowing for movement through unique environments.
While at the same time, numerous prototype concepts have seen for omnidirectional floors using exotic concepts – systems such as the Infinadeck. All hoping to create the perfect mix of immersion and mobility.
Entertainment and training / simulation are the focus for this hardware requiring experience technology, complicated operation and space that most homes could not accommodate.
While most think of traversing the virtual landscape by walking and running, another element of the immersive experience has been applied through physical systems. That of simulating the feeling of flying through space.
Several VR systems have been developed over the years to offer this ability. Developed by Somniacs is ‘Birdly’ a VR platform that has users recline on the full-body system. Able to move their hands and arms to simulate flapping wings or steering their movement in the space.
The unique platform offering a compelling virtual experience. With content created to allow the user to feel like a bird soaring through a city’s skyline, flying through a Jurassic landscape as a pterosaur, or as a heart pounding wing suit pilot. The platform has been placed in museums and entertainment spaces, represented by Barron Games for amusement deployment.
Other developers have looked at full-body flying systems, both as to offer soaring experiences, but also in active games experiences incorporating eXergaming elements, (the application of gamification to exercise).
ICAROS develops a system that uses the players’ physical movement to act like a giant body-joystick. Originally launched as an entertainment system, the company has expanded their platform into healthcare through immersive gaming. Improving motor skills and promoting a healthy back through the immersive experience.
The creation of compelling immersive experiences and attractions using new technology has driven investment in the Out-of-Home entertainment space. One of those developers has been FrontGrid with their ‘Paradrop VR’ – a suspended VR system that rises and lowers the player as they steer their virtual paraglider.
The system offers an interactive game experience that now allows multiplayer competition, supported with its own leaderboard. The platform created to be suitable as a standalone attraction or as part of an existing entertainment space. Bringing exciting virtual experiences to a wider audience, be that in museums, science centers or amusement venues.
The creation of the ultimate flying experience employing VR has seen the co-creators behind the original VOID free-roaming experience, attempt to try their hand at flying.
Located in Utah, the experience ‘JUMP’ has been developed by the company Limitless Flight – a skydiving simulator with a dedicated platform using a player suspension system, and high-end virtual immersion (employing modified Valve Index headsets).
The development of this concept has applied the theatrical experience to make this a dedicated standalone adventure. Looking at attracting thrill seekers wanting the ultimate experience. This high-level experience comes at a high price for those wanting the closest thing to really jumping off the side of a mountain. The developers hoping to roll the concept out into its own chain of venues for thrill seekers.
Another provider of a unique facility-based VR flying experience is in Paris with ‘FlyView’. Visitors can book a trip through a virtual recreation of Paris, soaring over the iconic structures of the city from the vantage point of their own personal hover-pack.
The adventure allows players to stand on a special motion platform representing the air vehicle, and then experience the virtual adventure through their headset. Drone footage specially curated for the experience to give a unique perspective on the city’s wonders. The FlyView venue hoping to be in other major cities, offering a unique alternative to the Flying Theater style attraction.
We are looking at greater investment towards pulling the VR user into the immersive experience. Much of this was fuelled by the silver screen representation of virtual navigation seen in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Ready Player One’. The VR treadmill is one example of the full-body experience, and is followed by greater investment in haptics, and special seated motion systems. New platforms planned to be launched in the coming months for home, and in pro formats for commercial application.
A unique full-body concept for total immersion was seen with the ‘EXIT Suit’. A winner of the 2023 AWE Awesome Award, the self-styled performance suit for VR, has users fully strapped into a unique full-body force-feedback module that captures every move of the users’ body, represented in the virtual environment they are navigating.
A concept that is being perfected for commercial and consumer application – the closest approach we have seen to the full “Body-Joystick”. We can expect even more immersive systems developed in the future.
Researchers are looking at total transformation floor surfaces that can adapt themselves to represent the virtual environment being experienced. Examples include the ‘CirculaFlor’ floor system, developed by the VR lab at the University of Tsukuba in Japan first presented in 2016 – autonomous tiles with the ability to arrange themselves in height and position to represent the virtual surface being traversed.
The user able to walk within the virtual space without going anywhere. A glimpse at a possible future where the whole physical space configures to simulate the users’ experience.
These movement systems have wider application beyond entertainment, used in military simulation, healthcare, and fitness. All these sectors looking at this technologies’ application for investment and wider deployment.
But it is the deep pockets for application in location-based immersive entertainment that interests many at this time – offering a unique approach that cannot be easily emulated at home. This concludes our latest snapshot of the sector, with a feature on new VR / AR and XR attractions following a major industry convention soon.