At EGX this year I was fortunate enough to be able to charm my way into a go on the new ‘WizDish’ omnidirectional treadmill – the supposed revolutionary next step in virtual reality, and currently retailing for around £500 upwards.
I eagerly stepped into the bizarre croc-flip-flop slipper things that everyone else had struggled into to remove the friction from their own shoes. With these huge and rather cumbersome shoes now affixed to my feet, I hopped onto the circular platform, desperate to see if all the hysteria and hyperbole about omnidirectional treadmills was right. I put on the Oculus Rift and was greeted with the familiar sight of the Fallout 4 introduction. The first thing that struck me was how unstable I felt. Seconds after being put into the ring, I was uneasy in moving my feet even an inch, and my hands were gripping the circular support ring with considerable force.
To cut a short story even shorter, within moments I was frantically flailing my feet to opposite ends of the black slippery platform, occasionally changing direction, and always holding onto the rickety lifesaving circle of metal pole for dear, dear life. Far from being the surreal, immersive experience its being billed as all over the internet and beyond, I was stunned by how completely inept the system seemed to be. I’m not a light guy, but the platform still had a lot of trouble picking up my feet movement. Of course, the obvious problem with these treadmills is that they remove the possibility of hands being able to control anything in the game environment. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the feet movement felt natural and intuitive, but it was far from being either of those things. After a while, I figured out that for the system to register any consistent movement, you are forced to kick the sides of the circle – this not only feels unnecessary, but further unbalances you and forces you to once again resort to gripping the support bar. If the WizDish is trying to simulate scootering around the neighbourhood while leaning on a Zimmer frame, they absolutely nailed it. This bar, by the by, is low; especially if you’re 6” plus.
Back to the lack of hands, however, as these are taken up by the natural impulse to not fall flat on your face. This obviously leaves no free limbs with which to use a controller, which makes it somewhat bizarre that I was playing Fallout 4 with no way of pressing A, X, triggers, or any other kind of button. This quickly made it obvious why the demonstration was using the prologue for Fallout 4, and not another section in the game. Firstly, the prologue is a walking simulator – suitable for obvious reasons, and secondly, no buttons need to be pressed. They can be, naturally, but they don’t need to be. Then something else occurred to me: the staff were holding the controllers whilst I was throwing my weight around on the platform.
Surely this makes the WizDish inappropriate for games, in its current form? If your peripheral, specifically designed for games, makes the player unable to play a game, then it has, in its very essence, failed to achieve its aim. If the aim of devices like the WizDish is to make gaming more immersive, more stunningly realistic, then surely it is underachieving in a spectacular fashion if it prevents the player from playing the game at all? This is a problem I have with VR in general at the present moment. It is inevitable that any new technology is going to have continuous and radical revolutions in direction and purpose as it finds its feet in a chaotic and fast-moving market, but why along the way does it feel the need to try and sell itself as just another peripheral for another young and quickly developing product. Because that is what the WizDish is – completely dependent on the Oculus Rift. I’m unsure as to whether it can be used with another VR brand. I can’t see why it shouldn’t be able to, but still, the fact that the WizDish is so reliant on a piece of technology that is still developing so quickly and so unpredictably speaks volumes about its ability to provide a genuinely worthwhile addition to VR at this point. Once the Oculus is a refined and well established commercial product with its own solutions for the problems of dual-tasking that arise from demanding the player use a controller to move and their head to direct the camera, then the WizDish may prove a well-timed and exciting next step. But until that day, be very sceptical of these ‘advances’.
If you decide to install the WizDish into your games room, you’ll have some fun, you might even have some pretty cool moments if you can find a walking simulator that you can calibrate well enough with the platform. At any rate, if you happen to find some promotional material that depicts players having a rip-roaringly good time with the platform, holding a controller and shuffling around in their croc-slippers, don’t trust it further than you can throw it.
Fundamentally, my advice for the time being would be to take the hype around omnidirectional treadmills with more than a few pinches of salt. The idea is evidently a cool one, and one that with the right tech might come about sooner than we think, but in its current iteration the WizDish is the VR equivalent of ROB the Robot. It’s nothing more than a woefully overpriced gimmick that will disappoint any user who wants to experience walking around in a game.