If virtual reality is ever going to become the immersive, holodeck-style platform that we all dream of, someone is going to have to figure out locomotion. Today, you can strap on a Vive or Oculus headset and more or less be visually transported to a virtual world, but the reality of, well, reality, means you can usually only take a few steps before you bump into your coffee table.
So far, we’ve seen a few solutions that take aim at VR’s “limited space” problem. On the simpler side of the spectrum, one option has you stick a motion tracker in your pants and jog in place. On the more complicated end, there’s the “VR treadmill” solution, which has you strap into a big plastic platform that keeps you in place with slippery footwear and a waist harness. Neither option is quite the same as natural walking, but a new patent from Google puts forth an interesting idea: what about motorized VR shoes?
Google’s patent describes what are essentially motorized VR roller skates that will let the user walk normally while the motors and wheels work to negate your natural locomotion and keep you inside the VR safe zone. As the patent puts it, Google’s new kicks will let you walk “seemingly endlessly in the virtual environment” while keeping you in one spot in real life. Google’s shoe solution would track the user’s feet, just like how VR controllers are tracked today. The tracking would know when you’re too close to the virtual walls of your VR area, and the system would wheel you back into place.
Patents are always written to give the broadest possible coverage of an idea, but Google’s patent shows normal wheels, tracks, and even omnidirectional mecanum wheels as possible wheels for the VR shoe bottoms. Omnidirectional wheels would be great, as they would allow you to do things like sidestep, while still having your position corrected by the shoes.
This is just a patent and not a product, but we’re still curious if Google can do this without the user falling over. Walking around in VR, where you are blind to the real world, is already a strange sensation that can mess with your balance. All the VR treadmills out there have a rigid waist support, in part to keep users upright if they stumble. Adding a set of wheels to the bottom of your shoes, which could start and stop unpredictably, may make staying upright a challenge. That said, if Google gets everything right, strapping on a pair of compact VR shoes sounds a lot easier than having to store a giant treadmill somewhere.