Cyberith Virtualizer steps onto Kickstarter
Oculus Rift just found its new BFF. This is the treadmill that will make virtual reality mainstream.
Off the back of this flourishing new games industry, we’ve also seen a flurry of new devices built to work with VR headsets, from vests that simulate in-game bullet wounds to the holy grail of immersive gaming: 360 degree treadmills that let you physically walk, run and even jump across game worlds.
We’ve seen a few of these innovative peripherals hit Kickstarteralready, including the Virtuix Omni, but now there’s a new competitor lining up on the starting blocks: the Cyberith Virtualizer, which promises to revolutionize the concept of headset plus treadmill thanks to its small footprint and flat plate (rather than the bulky trampoline style bowl of some rivals). It can handle weights of up to 120kg, you can run on it without shoes and as a result it’s quiet – just 60 decibels when you’re running at full pelt. Ahead of Cyberith’s Kickstarter campaign for the Virtualizer, which kicks off this week, we caught up with the company’s founder, Austrian physicist Tuncay Cakmak, to find out exclusively how the Virtualizer was born and what to expect from this bold new venture.
Exclusive video: Cyberith launches on Kickstarter
Exclusive video: Cyberith launches on Kickstarter
How did Cyberith start out, and how many people are working on the Virtualizer right now? Originally we were just two, Holger Hager and myself. We met while studying physics in Vienna and soon came to realize that both of us were very interested in virtual reality technologies. So I showed him my first ideas and construction plans of the Virtualizer and that was enough to get him excited. We decided to team up and take the whole idea to the next level by founding a company, instead of just using it for a master’s thesis. We knew though, that a company requires way more work than the two of us were able to handle, so we started looking for other enthusiasts to add to our team and luckily enough, we didn’t have to look long. So right now, Cyberith consists of ten people, coming from various fields including software development, material sciences, economics, philosophy and many more, whom Holger and I have known for years now.
The Virtualizer is not the first 360 degree treadmill to work with Oculus Rift that we’ve seen on Kickstarter. What makes your product better and helps it to stand out? I’d say what sets us apart is our striving for maximum immersion. From the first prototype onward I always felt that a virtual reality treadmill would only make sense if it allowed you to mimic as many different movements as possible, at least if it wants to be more than just a new form of controller. That’s why even the first prototype possessed a moveable ring construction, to allow for jumping, ducking and sitting, so that driving a vehicle in-game would feel as natural as possible. Due to its integrated sensors, we’re also able to pick up the user’s exact crouching and jumping height. It’s important to understand that these features aren’t just nice-to-haves, they are vital in terms of immersion. Each and every time your in-game movements aren’t in accordance with your real-world body movements, the illusion of you being present in the virtual world is broken and that presence is what we at Cyberith are aiming for with the Virtualizer. Combined with the fact that you don’t need any extra equipment like shoes to operate the Virtualizer and as a result, the reduced level of noise, I’d say the Virtualizer is a pretty unique product.
What inspired you to create this? Honestly, what inspired me the most was an experience I had with a Nintendo Wii Remote. My brother had one at his place and when hanging out, we often played with it, and I completely loved it. But since I’m more of a PC gamer I always wondered what it would be like to play games like Quake 3 with a Wiimote. So I borrowed one of his and managed to get it working with my computer and most importantly, with Quake. And once I was able to control the crosshair with it, I was just blown away by the experience. It was way more immersive than anything else I played before and I wanted more of that feeling. So I thought about ways to increase immersion and that’s when I came up with the Virtualizer.
How long did it take to make the first prototype? Were there any treadmill 'accidents' along the way? That immersive feeling really got me hooked, but I thought, what really mattered in terms of immersion is not just using hand motions to control a gun, but to actually walk inside virtual space. So back in July 2012, I began designing what we now call the Prototype Zero. It was just a proof of concept, it couldn’t really support my weight for long. But the only thing that really interested me at that point was: it worked. It was actually built using water pipes and had some major flaws concerning the vertical movement of the ring construction. At one point it even landed me in hospital, because while building it I cut one of my fingers pretty bad. But I figured that’s just the price you pay if you want to invent stuff, so I began building Prototype I and after finishing it, I thought ‘It’s time to show it to the public’. I just posted some videos on YouTube of me playing Half-Life 2 with the Virtualizer and people got really interested. I received tons and tons of comments and suggestions on how to improve it. The feedback was great and I tried to implement as much of it as possible: for example, someone asked me one day if it was possible to sit down in the device, so one day later I integrated a sitting function and posted a video of it. Prototype II was actually built for the Gamescom trade fair in Germany in quite a rush. The painting was finished the same day we headed to Cologne and the software coded on the way there. But again, the feedback at the Gamescom was just amazing, so we raised the stakes and founded a company, to really get things moving.
The Virtualizer plugs in just via a single USB cable, but is there any other software needed to get going? As of now, you still need one extra application: after plugging the Virtualizer in via USB you need to start our own software to choose if you want to emulate a controller or a keyboard. But once our SDK (software development kit) is finished and integrated in games and mods it will be enough to just plug the Virtualizer in and let the game do the rest.
What sort of games are experienced best with the Virtualizer? What are your favourites? There are a couple of aspects games have to fulfil to really make an amazing Virtual Reality experience. For one, they should be playable from first person perspective because only then you really immerse into the game with a Head-Mounted Display. Plus, the engine should support decoupled direction of movement and viewing, so that you are able to control your direction with your body, not the HMD. Personally I’ve really enjoyed Battlefield 4, because in it you constantly switch between walking, running and driving vehicles and since you’re able to perform all these moves with the Virtualizer it’s just an awesome and completely immersive experience.
What kind of applications can we see the Virtualizer being used with aside from games? The Virtualizer is a great tool to workout, especially for people living in cities or anyone who wants to add some extra excitement to his workout routine. Imagine specifically designed futuristic obstacle courses, or a recreation of something like the Yellowstone National Park to go for a run every morning, instead of just running around a couple of blocks near your home. With the right software you could even meet with friends from all over the world to go for a run, to make it a more social experience. Besides health and fitness the Virtualizer is also very handy for architecture. We’ve already teamed up with SIGNA, Austria’s biggest real estate company, to deliver realistic impressions of unfinished buildings to their potential customers, and the feedback has been great so far. You get a very different sense of space when you’re able to actually walk through a building in comparison to just seeing its visualization on a screen, so that’s definitely something we want to explore more in the future.
Are there any limitations with the Virtualizer? The thing one has to keep in mind is that consumer ready virtual reality is a fairly new sector. Basically it all started with the Oculus Rift boom because without sophisticated HMDs it’s impossible to offer virtual reality due to problems like cybersickness. So understandably until then game developers had no interest in designing games suitable for VR hardware, but luckily that’s about to change and we here at Cyberith are really looking forward to those changes, because so far the software side of things limits the Virtualizer in a way. First of all most games don’t offer decoupled movement and viewing direction, and they don’t support analog crouching and jumping. That’s why we are currently working on our Software Development Kit, so game developers are able to easily integrate full Virtualizer support into their game engines.
You guys are keen to stress the flat base that the Virtualizer has – does it really improve on the immersion, compared to a bowl? When we first came up with the idea of the Virtualizer we had the choice to either go for a bowl-shaped or a flat base-plate. We quickly dismissed the bowl-shaped platform after we ran our first motion analyses for a simple reason: it inherently breaks immersion. When you run or walk on an even ground in-game your brain expects that your feet touch the ground exactly the moment your feet would do in reality. But with a bowl your feet touch the slope of the bowl earlier than they should. Therefore every step becomes a reminder for you that you are not really inside Virtual Reality, you are in fact just using a controller. So we are convinced that a flat base is the way to go for omnidirectional treadmills – the tricky part is to find the right material for it, and we’ve made great strides in the last couple of months to find one that suits our needs.
Does it take long to get to grips with? What controller do you guys recommend to play with the Virtualizer? Usually people learn to move very quickly, after 10 minutes most people feel very comfortable walking and running in the Virtualizer. We’ve also added a ‘beginner’ function to ease the learning curve. With it you’re able to lock the ring construction at a certain height to really lock you in while you get used to the Virtualizer. Currently we’re using Wii Remotes because they are easy to program and their tracking system allows you to use specific motions as input. What we’re really looking forward to though are tracking suits like PrioVR or Control VR. With those suits you’ll be able to track your arm, leg and upper body motions, so combined with the Virtualizer they should really make for an awesome VR experience.
What’s the recommended amount of time spent with the gear? What’s the longest session you’ve had with the Virtualizer? Naturally using your own body to play games is a bit more tiring than just using a controller. But, it’s also a lot more fun and action packed than to just sit around moving your thumbs. So there’s no time limit except maybe your stamina and personally, I’ve spent whole afternoons in the Virtualizer playing Battlefield.
How much space is typically needed for the kit? Is it something you’d be able to set up in the bedroom? You roughly need 2.5 metres squared to set up the Virtualizer, so yes: it will fit in most bedrooms. Plus, the Virtualizer is easily storable if you should need the space for something else. Once you’ve tried the Virtualizer chances are the chair that you used to sit on while playing on your computer will become your new clothes hanger!
What are your thoughts and plans for Project Morpheus? Could we see the Virtualizer work with the PS4 eventually? What about Xbox One? Project Morpheus really seems like a great product and we would love to combine it with the Virtualizer one day. Unfortunately it isn’t as easy to offer console support for external devices like it is with PCs because of driver restrictions. But hopefully we’re able to collaborate with developers like Sony and Microsoft in the future to integrate the Virtualizer with recent consoles.
The Cyberith Virtualizer debuts on Kickstarter tomorrow – if the funding goal is met, the first Virtualizers will ship to backers in March next year.
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