While I’m a huge virtual reality proponent, I’ll be the first to tell you that I suffer horribly from ‘simulation sickness’, an unpleasant sensation akin to motion sickness that occurs due to a disconnect between your movement in the VR world and the real one; your brain struggles to process the fact that you’re not actually moving when it thinks you should be.
Although the HTC Vive goes some way to alleviate this with its room-scale tracking technology, not everyone has perfectly square, empty rooms to play in, nor do developers want to limit their game worlds to room-scale areas, and this is where peripherals such as the WizDish ROVR come into play. Effectively a VR treadmill, the ROVR allows players to move around in the games you are playing using a pair special shoes. I’m reticent to actually say walk, as the ROVR only works when your feet don’t leave its surface, effectively forcing you to adopt a style of movement which can be best described as a kind of ice-skating.
Excitingly, the ROVR is platform-agnostic, which means it can be used into the vast majority of PC or mobile game with VR support – regardless of the headset used – and map its treadmill system to keyboard or joystick inputs. Combined with the headset you’re using, the ROVR effectively allows you to walk wherever you’re looking.
Thrust into a short demo of Fallout 4 running on the Oculus Rift, my movement initially felt a little awkward and slippery, although as I immersed myself more in the game I was soon able to become acclimatised to the motions necessary to traverse in the game world. Eventually, my movement began to feel more natural and responsive, although several occasions when I needed to backtrack proved difficult and momentarily broke my immersion in the game.
Furthermore, any actual interactivity with in-game objects and characters was handled by my demo supervisor, so it’ll be interesting to see how well the peripheral fares when you’ve got one or two Move, Touch or Vive controllers in your hands. I’m also curious to know how inclines and stairs will be handled by the kit.
Following my hands – or should that be feet – on time, I sat down with WizDish CEO Charles King to ask a few pressing questions I had about the technology.
Chris Mawson: Firstly, I just wanted to ask you how ROVR came to be. Could you tell me a little about its inception and what inspired you guys to create a virtual reality treadmill?
Charles King: The company started in 2009, although the inception of the idea was way back in 2001, so it’s truly prescient, if you will. My colleague Julian Williams, who’s the founder of the company, came up with the idea. We filed for a patent in 2003 in the States, and got that granted in 2008. And yet Palmer Luckey with the Oculus – what really started this latest VR revolution – only really came about in 2012. So we could see that if you really want VR to work, you need to be able to walk around. Because we do drive, and we do fly – but predominantly we know what the world is like because we explore it by walking. And it’s not only good for real life, but if you really want to be immersed in the virtual world, being able to move around normally in that environment helps considerably.
It does two things: one is, it massively improves immersion. If you can move in that world, the more physical you can be within that world; moving arms, legs and whatever it might be, the more you get immersed. And the second thing, and a really critical one for VR, is that it avoids the stimuli/visual mismatch which causes simulation sickness. What that means is what you see and what you feel aren’t matched together and this overcomes that problem.
Our first major outing for this product was at the 2014 Paris Motor Show with Nissan. About 6,000 people went through there and there were four VR experiences; Nissan’s was the only one which was running around. You became Iron Man and you were encouraged to run after a Nissan Juke. And that was great fun, crashing over buildings and so forth. Since then, it’s been a very wide variety of uses, particularly in the commercial area. And the reason for that is that it was only this year that headsets really became available to the general public; the consumer versions. Prior to that, you had to be a pretty techy individual to cope with either the Oculus or the HTC Vive in order to make it all work. They were the developer kits, and it was with those developer kits which the industry with the tech and the finance were able to deal with.
Now it’s becoming a bit more democratised, as people have got capable mobile phones through the Gear VR; the Oculus CD1 and the HTC Vive are available; and of course other ones that are coming onto the market as we speak: OSVR for instance.
CM: Compared to the Vive’s room-scale tracking technology, I’d imagine the ROVR is a much more accessible way for people to move around without being confined to large, empty, square rooms?
CK: There’s an element of that, very much so. This bit of kit here weighs 15 kilos, the whole thing can collapse down to 12cm and slide under a bed; it’s the type of thing you can set up in five minutes and have available. It’s agnostic to any of the headsets, and it really only has to interface with the game. And so long as that game has a WASD input, then we would generate a W key, or we would generate a joystick forward command, and then the platform allows you to move around.
Your direction is where you look; you walk – which is good advice from our parents: look where you walk! And for the vast majority of the time, that’s what you do. And we rely on a very simple, self-evident truth but one which people are not typically aware of, and that is that when you walk, you don’t carry memories of how you moved your legs; what you remember is what you saw and what you heard. Particularly if you’re mildly threatened, it’s very quick to learn the movement on here! So when you’re not mildly threatened you’re certainly aware of what you’re doing; in Fallout 4, you’d have certainly been aware that you were sliding your legs, but after around about 10 minutes, you’ll start to think: hell, I know how to do that. But that was the first time you’d ever done that?
CM: Oh, yeah. And probably within a couple of minutes it didn’t feel like I was awkwardly ice-skating, I just came to accept it as the way in which I move in the game world.
CK: Of course, in the Pac-Man-style demo, in which you are immediately threatened by a pink ghost, that comes very quickly. You very quickly move into the ‘let me get out of here’ mode; ‘legs do what you need to do, just take me away!’
We don’t replace any of the other peripherals; we are an important addition to the way in which VR will actually be taken forward. And without locomotion, I think that’s a challenge for VR. I think it’s really difficult; the brain is very susceptible to mismatch between what you’re seeing and what you’re doing. And this is a way of overcoming that.
We’ve got big business working with this, so along with Nissan, Wells-Fargo are using it – last year they saw about 9,000 people on their kit last year – and they wouldn’t do that unless it was working. They’re going through the history of Wells-Fargo in VR and taking people off the streets at big events. These are not specially trained individuals; there is no special harness to put on – you just slip on a pair of shoes, and you’re away, really.
CM: You’ve mentioned a lot about events and corporate usage for the ROVR. Is it something we might see at a consumer level any time soon?
CK: Absolutely. The idea of making it as easy to work and as light and collapsable as it is, you wouldn’t normally do that for a corporate; it was designed around the consumer. But the people who take these first are not the consumer, because you need to develop the tech around what we’ve got for it all to come together. So what we see is the consumer market growing – there are consumers who would love that now – but the larger consumer market will arrive during 2017.
Christmas this year will see the Sony VR come out along with other great titles and other great content coming forward, but the big games manufacturers and content providers, they’re looking for what they call ‘Holiday 2017’, because by that stage, Windows 10 will have settled down a little bit… this is a perfect storm for bringing out VR. You’ve got people still on Windows 7 all the way through to Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, and you’ve got the guys making the headsets trying to make their runtimes work with all those different things. So by the end of 2017, it will have settled down, and then you can be more assured that when you buy content, it will work on the hardware you’ve got. And while our hardware is agnostic to all of those so it doesn’t really matter, other people’s hardware needs to to work.
CM: Can you go into a bit more depth about how the ROVR is able to work with the majority of existing VR games?
CK: There’s an analogy there between a mouse and a screen. If you want to move your cursor around on the screen you’ll use the mouse, and essentially that’s what we’re doing with the ROVR. If you want to be mobile in VR worlds and walk around and run, then you need to be able to navigate that world and the ROVR allows you to do that. That’s all it does.
Where you navigate is provided by the headset, because that’s got the accelerometers and gyroscopes to know where you are within the context of the game. So when you move your head around; where you look you can walk. In terms of how we would expect this to work, for the Samsung Gear VR for instance, we provide a joystick forward command, and that will be true for all of the games running on that.
Now, coming back to PC, and potentially consoles, those are proprietary joystick commands. We’re looking to work with those guys and have put feelers out there already. Until that time, we’ll replicate what they already do, which is a W key forward – which works fine – but it would be so much easier if we could just generate a joystick forward command and then it would be a case of a Bluetooth interface in. That’s where we’re going, but until that time it works just fine with just a W key press, which comes from our device.
CM: I believe the second model of ROVR is heading to Kickstarter?
CK: Yes, we have a Kickstarter. If you look at Kickstarters, about 70 percent of hardware campaigns never get delivered on. We don’t want to be like that; we have always delivered. Whenever we’ve said we are going to do something, we’ve always done it.
What the Kickstarter user does is buy product; what they don’t want to do is to buy tooling to make that product. So we’re in a funding round at present, and we’ll fund the tooling away from those people. Most Kickstarter campaigns at our scale would need funding to fund the tooling first. So one way or another we’ll get it out there, whether it’s through crowdfunding – it’s likely to be that – but we’ll offer it out to all of those who want to come and sign up to us. We will provide them with early access as quickly as we possibly can, but we’re not going to promise something we can’t deliver; that’s bad news for everybody.
CM: Will the success of the crowdfunding campaign ultimately impact on the end-user cost?
CK: Less so, because of the issue of funding the tooling first off. We’ll be offering this at a commensurate price to what the Wii Fit board was sold for. Those were down in the region of £120, but this is a bit more techy so it’ll be a bit higher – but it not’s going to be up at the £400-500 mark which it’s currently up at our website at, because that’s not consumer pricing. But in order to get to that consumer pricing, you have to be able to place orders with people for 10,000 units up. That means working capital. To promise that you can deliver to a consumer at a price before you know you can do it, you’re not treating them very kindly, and I think that’s unfair.
For more information on the WizDish ROVR, including a link to purchase its developer model, you can visit the company’s official website. We’ll continue to bring you news on the ROVR, including the launch of its Kickstarter campaign, as soon as we hear more.
How do you think the WizDish ROVR will fare with regards to solving the issue of locomotion in virtual reality games? Sound off in the comments below or hit us up on Twitter, @PowerUpGamingUK.