The VirtuSphere looks a lot like a giant mouse ball, or hamster wheel. However,
this human-computer interface device is anything but humourous. One of the great
issues with immersive VR has always been allowing natural movement in enclosed
spaces. The last attempt to allow for natural walking, the CirculaFloor, consisted
of moving panels which detected foot pressure, and detached themselves from
the path behind you, scooting forwards to catch your next footfall. A great
idea, but limited your movement to a snail's pace.
VirtuSphere does not suffer from multiple moving parts. Users stand inside
the main sphere, which itself rests on twenty-six detector-wheels, splayed out
to allow for huge strides if necessary. Any movement inside the sphere, is picked
up by these detectors - or as the company refers to them, docators - which work
through ultrasonic detection of doppler motion, detecting the force and direction
as the sphere rolls against them, and translating it directly into X, Y, Z,
roll, pitch and yaw with extreme precision. Walk at any pace, jog, run, squat
down and roll, the VirtuaSphere will pick up your precise movements, and translate
them to the simulation in real time.
Because of the way it works, the system will even pick up small jumps - as
bouncing in the sphere, and a slight roll in any given direction. Fall over,
and the resultant movement of the sphere shows you some visual feedback - although
admittedly it won't show you falling over, just shaking and moving back a bit.
The VirtuSphere is an input device only. Because of its construction and the
way it is constantly moving, there is nowhere to back-project an image like
you would in a CUBE, CAVE or hemisphere. The sphere makes up for this by employing
a head mounted display unit or HMD for visual feedback. The sphere is supplied
with a HMD device, although the manufacturer would not comment on the specs
of this display unit. However, any HMD will work.
All positional changes are replicated immediately back to the HMD's display
screen(s) for maximum immersion. Because of this, VirtuSphere environments predispose
well to augmenting via haptic gloves, suits and the like as they have no physical
elements to interfere beyond the sphere itself. Additionally, it is possible
to mount the sphere inside a CAVE VR system, instead of using a HMD, and the
two devices will sync happilly together.
VirtuSpheres are still very new - as of writing they have only recently entered
the market - and so VirtuSphere systems are individually tailor-made to client
specifications. The sphere itself flat-packs to a surprising degree for storage.
Images reproduced with permission, VirtuSphere
As the sphere does closely resemble a mouse or trackball taken to a huge scale,
it is not actually that difficult to interface it to many existing applications.
Several packages have also been custom-modified to work flawlessly with the
sphere. These include the Cortona VRML browser from Parallel Graphics - one
of a precious few VRML browsers that does not insist on Internet Explorer in
order to run. Additionally, it will quite happilly hook up to a standard PC,
Playstation or X-box, for immersive VR at home.
At a cost of $50,000 - $100,000usd for an installation, the VirtuSphere is
not a cheap interface, and likely a little outside the average gamer's budget
at the moment. However, like all new VR technologies, the price starts to drop
as it begins to prove itself, and more are requested.