One of the biggest hurdles facing immersive VR is freedom of movement. While we can easily make someone see and hear a large space around them, any attempt to actually move through that space will end in disaster if you aren’t careful.
At first, the easiest solution was to use a gamepad,a device most people either have or can buy cheaply off the shelf. This neatly took care of locomotion and interaction duties. Soon, touch motion controllers took over as the best way to interact with the VR world, so now our heads and hands were immersed. Sadly, our feet remain planted in place, which is why the idea of a VR treadmill is so appealing.
If you’ve been holding out for a solution like this, then you’ll be excited to know that a VR startup named Kar VR has just finalised KickStarter funding for $1.6M in order to produce the KAT Walk C. A consumer-oriented VR treadmill that looks pretty impressive on paper and in the promo video. But wait, haven’t we already been through this before?
Treading Over Past Failures
Kat VR isn’t the first company to try their hand at making a consumer VR treadmill. All the way back in 2013 Virtuix pitched its Omni treadmill to the world. This device would let you walk, run, crouch and generally move around the world.
The Omni was undoubtedly an incredibly impressive device and something that got me personally excited about VR back when it was first shown off. However, the realities of such a device in the consumer space soon kicked in. It was too big, too expensive and too complicated for a mainstream audience to buy in. Ultimately, Omni had to change tack and pitch their treadmill at VR arcades and other commercial enterprises.
So what’s changed? Why does Kat VR think they have a chance where Virtuix didn’t reach the finish line?
The Kat VR Sales Pitch
The first thing you probably want to know is how much Kat VR wants for a unit. The Kickstarter price was $999 and this is a “limited deal”. So expect a retail model to be more expensive than that.
It may sound like a lot of money, but in the context of mainstream VR hardware it’s not that expensive. Certainly for someone spending thousands of dollars on a high-end solution another grand or so isn’t outlandish.
Kat VR seems to know what’s needed to such a product to have any chance at being successful and they’ve designed the Kat Walk C to address those perceived issues.
First, they refer to the Kat Walk C as “moderately priced”, which we take it to mean that 1000-ish dollars is not too expensive for the class of product this is. It’s also “optimized for personal use”, which I take to mean that it doesn’t use enterprise-grade components and doesn’t require a mechanical engineering degree to maintain. The weight and footprint are also said to be practical, while letting you hide away or store the device. Which means people who can’t dedicated a permanent spot for VR
Providing us with a foot-based solution to moving around in VR isn’t the sole purview of treadmills. Other devices have come and gone that also promise to let you amble around virtual worlds.
Shoe-based sensors that work by having your walk in place seemed like a promising solution for a while, but they haven’t caught on yet. There have also been some more primitive treadmill-like solutions where you can shuffle your feet on a plate and have that translated as walking.
There are also motion-controller type movement solutions. Such as games that let you “walk” by swinging your arms. Though in practice I found this to be beyond goofy.
Kat VR themselves offer an alternative locomotion system in the form of the Kat VR Loco. This is a set of sensors that work with the movement of your feet. You can “walk”, crouch, strafe and otherwise freely move around the game world for the very reasonable price of $199.
Can VR Treadmills Really Appeal To Anyone?
We really hope that Kat VR can produce a product that’s affordable for VR users, but there’s more to the success of such a product than making it technically sound and affordable. Although Kat VR is aiming to minimize the space taken up by their treadmill. The truth is you still need a dedicated VR space to use it effectively.
This has also been true of room-scale VR for a long time. Where users had to clear a room and then install sensors on the walls to track their movements. However, times have changed. VR headsets such as the Oculus Quest now have inside-out tracking that can turn any available space into a room-scale VR zone. Without the need for wires or any sort of permanent modification. That’s a major convenience compared to a VR treadmill. Which, no matter how easy it is to break down and stow, will always offer a higher psychological barrier when all you want to do is slip into a virtual world and play. I still see this as being a very niche product, but clearly enough people believe in this new treadmill to fund its development.
VR Treadmills Will Always Have Their Downsides
If, for argument’s sake, the Kat Walk C turns out to be exactly the product we’re promised, it’s worth remembering that even the perfect VR treadmill will always have inherent downsides. Because it requires a certain level of physical exertion, it means you will have to use it in moderation. There’s always a chance of injury and abuse of the system can have serious consequences. Of course, this just means that people who buy and use one have to be properly responsible, but a VR treadmill for recreational use could be one of those things people think they want, until they have to actually walk from one end of Skyrim to the other.