Solving VR’s ‘infinite walking’ problem with moon boots

Brad Factor said it was about the continuity of the experience. Maintaining that immersion is what it is about. It's about ease of use and the learning curve, not needing to teach someone how to use it, but just being able to put on the headset and experience the virtual world naturally. That is a lot of what we are focused on.

Factor, the founder and CEO of Ekto VR, has invented a pair of moonwalking boots that can be used in virtual reality environments. Factor's invention is designed to allow safe travel through virtual reality, similar to the way in which dorothy wore ruby slippers to travel in safety through the magical, technicolor land of Oz in The Wizard of Oz.

Is it possible to create a realistic virtual reality scenario that will let you walk through the Sahara Desert without having to worry about hitting a wall in your apartment? Ekto VR believes it has the answer, as long as you wear a pair of simulator boots over your regular shoes and wear a virtual reality headset.

Ekto VR boots work by using motorized wheels on their underside, which spin counter to the speed that the user is walking in. The boots allow the wearer to take a few steps forward in order to avoid motion sickness. The purpose of this is to give the necessary inner- ear signals to tell their bodies to accelerate. After a few steps, the boots glide back to the center of the room so that they appear to be walking on a treadmill. The user believes that they are making forward progress based on the scene they are in.

Factor told Digital Trends that people are almost completely convinced that they are going to walk out of the room. People ask if the boots are on. Are they working? Is the edge of the room close to me? They don't have a sense of where they are. They are immersed in the environment and unsure if they are still in the room that they started.

Digital Trends has not been able to put these shoes through their paces.

Factor spent eight years building flight control systems for airplanes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner while he was employed by the company. He was responsible for some of the core technologies that allow 200-300 people at a time to sit, apparently stationary, inside a large metal tube, before emerging thousands of miles away from their destination.

Keeping people stationery while tricking their brains into thinking they are traveling great distances is the inverse of that problem. He will be the first if he can crack it on a commercial level.

There is a walking problem.

The endless walking problem in virtual reality is not the first company to attempt to solve it. Efforts to do so go back as far as the 1980s. The author of Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds and How It Promises to transform society uses a virtual reality treadmill at the University of North Carolina.

Users were able to walk through a virtual version of Sitterson Hall, the home of the computer science department at the University of North Carolina. It was possible to walk through a three-dimensional, full-sized version of a building that was still in the construction phase thanks to the virtual reality demo.

I was able to stroll the corridors of an entire building while physically never leaving one small room because I was pacing along a treadmill, holding on to a pair of handlebars. I turned the handlebars and kept walking straight when I discovered what I could see in the hallway. It took a while to get used to.

The infinite walking problem can be solved via an omnidirectional treadmill, rather than using motorized footwear.

The University of Utah developed a machine called the TreadPort, which was used to solve the endless walking problem. It featured a large treadmill with a tilt mechanism that combined a variety of senses.

The University of Tsukuba in Japan has done a lot of work. Factor said that researchers at the University of Tsukuba already tried a hardware solution. They did a treadmill. They did the same thing as we did, called powered shoes. They did a walk. They tried at least eight different approaches. I don't think they tried to push them to the point of commercialization.

The solution to the endless walking problem was developed by researchers from Unity Technologies Japan, who created an illusion of an infinite virtual corridor inside a play space that is 16 x 22 feet. The approach is called "redirected walking" and is meant to trick the brain into thinking the subject is walking in a straight line.

The eye-tracked HMD developed by researchers from Adobe, and other companies, can be used to detect users saccades, the rapid eye movements that occur when individuals are looking at different points in our field. It is possible to hack these saccades to make it easier for users to walk.

We are the most complicated biological system, right? The lead author of the study told Digital Trends. We don't use the most common, yet complicated machine to enable that type of experience because we want to solve it. That was the higher level motivation of the research.

There are many approaches to solving the endless walking challenge, but no one solution has caused researchers to scrap all others. No one has come up with a solution that will light the path to the future. There is still a lot to play for in terms of who owns this market, as well as the specifics of the approach taken.

The next big thing in virtual reality?

Is the next big thing for virtual reality locomotion interface tech? A lot depends on whether or not virtual worlds are actually created or just a new kind of interface. If it is an interface, used mostly for practical applications, this kind of realism may not matter. Being able to walk great distances in virtual reality might be a disservice to the user experience. A virtual reality version of shopping doesn't need to replicate the experience of walking up and down aisles with a heavy basket. That would be a major change from the ease of shopping on Amazon.

The locomotion problem needs to be solved if the most compelling use cases come from creating convincing virtual worlds. When subjects move around in virtual reality environments through virtual walking, they find it more realistic, with a higher subjective sense of presence, than when they use a handheld controller. A 2004 study in Japan claims that the sensation of walking affects people's cognitive maps, the way that our brains process distance and movement. Walking adds verisimilitude to virtual reality that can trick our brains into thinking it is real.

The closer the experience is to reality, the more compelling it will be. If you want to show a shopping mall design to a commercial real estate client, you can use a virtual version of the building.

Industrial applications and beyond.

Factor said that his company is initially aiming for these types of industrial applications.

People will say, "Well, we could just use an interface that teleports users around." when you get into the kind of larger [VR] training applications, talking about refineries, or pipelines, or offshore platforms, or manufacturing facilities, or airplane inspections." If you need to see areas that are completely independent of each other quickly, that is great from a throughput perspective. There are more and more scenarios where you need to do a full aircraft skin inspection or see how something at the tail wheel connects to the nose wheel. These require you to understand your surroundings better and how they relate to each other.

Ekto plans to launch its partner program in the first half of 2022. Factor said the company is still weighing up its options, from offering kits for sale or lease to selling them. An initial purchase is likely to be in the vicinity of $15,000-$20,000.

Factor said that those kinds of prices are not a good fit for most of the enterprise use cases. A lot of that is low volume. We are expecting to bring costs and prices down as we scale up.

He said that the company will aim to sell to the market for prices below $1,000, making it a more compelling proposition for everyday applications. There is the possibility of more consumer-facing use cases.

There are other missing parts of the virtual reality puzzle. Simulating touch, smell, taste, and more are some of the areas that are still to be solved. Expect to see a lot more of this in the months and years to come. The hype surrounding virtual reality hasn't been hotter in years.

It is important to get it right because we are going to be spending a lot of time in virtual worlds.