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Virtual Reality Gets a Move On With Strider VR Treadmill

With the announcement of the Strider VR treadmill, the VR world gained yet another device that allows users to move around while in the headset. There are already numerous bikes, haptic cars and chairs that support VR, as well as the more DIY hack of just wearing a Samsung Gear headset on the exercise bike at the gym.

Pros? Your workout gets a lot more interesting. Cons: Everyone at the gym will think you are a lunatic.

Because the in-home VR market remains relatively small, none of these devices have moved massive numbers — but that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future, and that developers shouldn’t start thinking about how to incorporate different forms of movement into their work.

If you’re working on a big installation piece, smart use of haptic technology should always be part of the conversation. It won’t always make sense. But generally, great VR pieces incorporate some other sense, whether it’s smell or touch or motion. A good piece at CES earlier this year involved subtle floor haptics to simulate the feeling of being in an elevator — anything aggressive would have been too noticeable and distracted from the experience, so the movement needed to be almost imperceptible.

Indeed, imperceptibility is probably the gold standard for this, but that’s also nearly impossible to pull off.

When you step onto the Strider, for instance, you know full well that you’re on a treadmill, and that can get inside your head. In the video accompanying the original announcement, the user initially appears nervous, and for good reason. While they are perfectly safe, losing the sense of sight, in a way, can throw everything else off. When designing or developing for these experiences, it’s important to keep that in mind — and keep everything else about the experience a little more familiar.

Another issue is that you are almost too aware of the device powering the haptics. The Subpac vest is fun and cool, but you can’t help but be aware of the fact that you’re dancing while wearing a giant vest. That makes it hard to feel like you’re really just feeling the vibrations of music you would to at a dance party. It also makes the margin of error ridiculously small — one slightly off beat and it takes the user out of the experience.

Some of these problems will solve themselves as headset technology advances, especially when more wireless room-scale headsets hit the market. Part of the need for these devices is driven by the fact that most people in immersive experiences are still tethered, and that simply limits how much they can move while attached to a device. Perhaps we’ll see the rise of the padded VR room in homes, where users can move around and crash into walls if they want to run in an experience — but that’s probably far off (and somewhat dystopian).

In the short term, the important takeaway from creators and developers is that more people are interested in motion in VR, and careful thought needs to be put into designing for that. The last thing you want is a user hopping on an expensive piece of haptic equipment, putting on headset, and puking all over everything a few minutes later.