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VR Interfaces: CyberWalk


Overview of CyberWalk

In early 2008, the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics researchers developed an omnidirectional treadmill to facilitate unconstrained walking in all directions through large-scale virtual environments.

As the project blurb itself states:

Despite recent improvements in Virtual Reality technology hardly any satisfactory solutions exist that enable users to physically walk through virtual environments in a natural way. In this project our goal is to significantly advance the scientific and technological state-of-the-art by enabling quasi-natural, unconstrained, and omni-directional walking in virtual worlds.

The researchers had to address five key issues: providing a surface to walk on, controlling the surface in a way that minimized forces on the user, developing a non-intrusive tracking system, displaying a high-quality visualization, and ensuring a natural human perception of the virtual environment.

It is not a small interface, the Cyberwalk, being a cuoid interface, ten feet to a side. The floor is much like a caterpillar tread, with parts continually moving, dropping off the edge, running underneath and appearing back on the other side, where they interlock if on a flat surface. The CyberWalk tries to ascertain the single user's walking speed by tracking the movement of their feet. It needs to be so large, because the user can take several steps before the system aclimatizes to their movement speed, and adjusts, bringing them back towards the middle again.

The treadmill itself only moves side to side. For front-back movement, the user is strapped into a harness attached to an overhead beam, which lifts their bodyweight off the tradmill such that the pads oftheir feet are only lightly touching. It additionally pulls them backwards as they try to walk forwards, with a gentile tactile force. This combined with the moving floor gives an impression of walking forwards or backwwards when in physical space no movement progress is made beyond the constrains of the interface, no matter how hard a person might try.

Apart from delivering a better walking experience, this feature feels more natural, and users require less time to adapt to the system.

Initially, the Cyberwalk treadmill will allow people to stroll through the streets of ancient Pompeii and Rome and explore buildings before they are built. Other uses include gaming, training firemen in dangerous scenarios, and medical rehabilitation for people with Parkinson's disease, after a stroke, or to help them overcome phobias.

Due to its size, complexity, and power requirements, however, it is unlikely the Cyberwalk will ever find usage in more mundane interfaces, and for group work, one per user would be required. It is a promising interface, but for large scale projects with considerable space and power capabilities only.

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