Annals Of Miscellany

“Immersive” full-body controllers may exist solely to make you look like an idiot

By John Teti • June 7, 2013

We’ve got immersion on the mind this week, so I was especially amused to see this new Kickstarter project called Omni. As you can see in the intro video above, the idea of the Omni is that you step into this octagon of humiliation wearing a pair of special shoes and (optionally) a pair of expensive nerd goggles. Then, thanks to technology, you can walk around in your game. In other words, THIS CAN BE YOU:

Guy walking on Omni

Now, I haven’t tried the thing. Judging by this Kickstarter proposal, though, the Omni looks poised to follow in a long line of “immersive” peripherals that succeed only marginally in achieving their stated goal—but succeed wildly in making you look like a doof.

The Omni reminds me of nothing more than the Activator, an infamous add-on for the Sega Genesis. (It even looks similar, with the Omni echoing the octagonal shape of the Activator.) Instead of the Omni’s inverted cupola of embarrassment, the Activator employed a ring of ignominy, but the concept was otherwise similar. Each panel of the Activator emitted an infrared beam; the sensors in the device could detect when players broke one of the beams, and this translated to a button press. As you can see in the Activator training video above, the makers of Activator made all the same claims in 1993 that the makers of the Omni are in 2013: It gets you into the game, we’re entering a whole new revolutionary groundbreaking world, and so on. They also warned users that you could not use the Activator in a room with mirrored ceilings, which meant that not a single porn magnate could purchase the device for use in his bedroom—assuring the product’s failure.

I suspect, however, that the Activator was nothing more than an elaborate prank played on our nation’s unsuspecting TV personalities. Released around the holidays in ’93, the Activator was prime fodder for “What will they think of next?” gift-guide segments. Above you see the co-hosts of ABC’s Home show, Gary Collins and Dana Fleming, fumbling with their Activator. To her credit, Fleming has a good understanding of how the device works, noting that she can hold her foot over the front edge to move forward. (In fact, she gets somewhat irritated with Gary’s inability to grasp this concept.) The peanut gallery approves, noting that they’d rather have their kids punching air than punching each other. Excellent point!

Siskel and Ebert also fell victim to the Activator, playing the same boxing game as the Home people. Is it any wonder that Ebert later declared video games to be not art? You’d hold a grudge, too, if video games once made you look like this on national TV:

Siskel & Ebert try the Activator

Another distant relative of the Omni is the Nintendo Power Pad, a floor-mat controller released in 1988. (The Power Pad was a rebranded version of an earlier Bandai product that Nintendo acquired. And the makers of the Foot Craz for the Atari 2600 had the idea before Bandai. The history of crappy game peripherals runs deep.) Nintendo’s floor pad was available as part of a larger package that included the World Class Track Meet game cartridge.

The events of World Class Track Meet are a series of thinly contrived excuses to make you run in place on the Power Pad. So, like the Omni, you control it with your feet—in theory. In practice, enterprising players figured out that you could “run” on the Power Pad much more quickly if you got down on your knees to slap the pad with your hands.

Not much ever came of the Power Pad, but the concept was revived about a decade later with Dance Dance Revolution, whose home versions employed a very similar floor mat. The genius of Revolution is that the game makes little attempt to simulate normal dancing. You just have to stomp on the pad in time with the prompts on screen—in essence, Konami invented its own simplified form of dance for Revolution.

Revolution and Wii Sports might be the only two examples of a full-body control scheme achieving any semblance of wide mainstream acceptance. Yes, Microsoft has sold many Kinects, so the device could be regarded as a commercial success, but its cultural relevance so far is practically nil. Why did they catch on where so many others failed? A couple of reasons occur to me.

The first one is pretty obvious: You’ve got to make your own killer app. Nintendo made Wii Sports for their Wiimote, and Konami made Revolution themselves, too. Video game history is littered with peripheral makers who applied the “build it and they will come” philosophy: They either attempted to recruit outside developers, or they built gadgets intended to bring a new, “better” control scheme to existing games.

The Omni folks appear to be taking the latter tack—they hype the possibility of jogging through Skyrim, for instance. This bolt-on approach never works as well as everyone hopes, because control schemes are an integral part of game design. It’s a tall order to slide new controls in there after the fact and expect it to work. (Although when the players themselves try it, the results can be pretty entertaining.) You need controls to be baked in from the beginning. Case in point: Action games designed for the hard buttons of a gamepad tend to feel lousy when they’re ported to a touchscreen device like the iPhone, unless the developer reworks the game from the ground up.

The second key to wacky-game-gadget success is to make a game that stays well within the capabilities of the gadget. Wii Sports and Revolution are clever games but they are not ambitious in terms of exploiting technology. Wii Sports is simple enough that you rarely run up against the limitations of the Wiimote. (The boxing mode might be an exception.) When you’re hitting dingers in the baseball game, it doesn’t typically occur to you that your on-screen avatar isn’t matching your movements exactly. You swing, the guy on the TV swings, and it feels cool. Precision doesn’t much enter into it.

Wii Sports doesn’t even come close to exploring the full potential of the Wiimote. Neither does Revolution do much to push the potential of its floor mat. That is a good thing. Because as soon as we run up against the limits of a gizmo, we become highly conscious of its failings. When you play a swordfighting game on the Wii, it’s neat at first, but that initial delight gives way to irritation that the controller doesn’t sense your movement as precisely as the swordfighting context demands.

Again, this is pretty obvious to us as players. But it’s not how most device makers think. Their instinct is to exploit their invention to its limits and overwhelm you with its coolness. They fail to account for this key truth: If we become aware of what their widget can’t do, that irritation will always overwhelm our awareness of what it can do. Over time, the wow factor never beats the “this sucks” factor. It’s cruel but true.

When Gameological assistant editor Matt Gerardi first watched the video of the Omni, his reaction was, “Can you walk backward?” After all, walking backward is something you do all the time in the first-person games that the Omni folks use to demo their wares. Yet not one person in the video walks backward, and it doesn’t seem possible with their setup. So let’s assume you can’t. For a new user of the Omni, it might be a few minutes before you noticed that limitation. But once you do, you won’t be able to un-notice it. The Omni, like so many similar add-ons before it, operates on the assumption that the coolness of the thing will outshine its frustrations. Not so. “Immersion” is a fragile thing.

Still, if the Omni ends up producing the present-day equivalent of Roger Ebert doing a spastic Chubby Checker impersonation, I’m all for it.

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20 Responses to ““Immersive” full-body controllers may exist solely to make you look like an idiot”

  1. Chalkdust says:

    One time, out of curiosity, I used my DDR mat to play Dragon Quest VII.  I lasted about 20 minutes.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      I got the chance to try playing Super Mario Bros with a Power Glove once.  That lasted five minutes.

  2. William Burr says:

    I was lucky enough to try MetaMersion back in 2006 when it was raising venture capital and trying to market. It didn’t manage to get off the ground, but It. Was. Awesome.  This thing looks like the same idea, but solving the “what to do with your feet” problem.

  3. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I would really love a system that translated full-body motion into a game, but this doesn’t look like the one I’m waiting for.

    I’m still excited about the Oculus Rift though.  I hope it sticks around for more than a year or so once it’s released to the public.  I’m still ticked about the 3D glasses I bought for the PC from eDimensional that they’d stopped creating drivers for about three years prior.  If the support isn’t there for the hardware, it’ll die twice as fast.

  4. OrangeLazarus says:

    The guy who changed the placement of the double and triple spaces in Scrabble and put it online endorses the Omni. It must be innovative!

    It looks like it has potential but it seem  provide the mobility you need in most games. Going forward is fine but strafing, jumping, crouching, walking backwards, etc. And mostly FPS.

  5. Citric says:

     I don’t think I want any controller that could easily be confused by an errant feline.

  6. Kilzor says:

    One time, I went on a cross country trip with my younger brother in order to compete in a high stakes video game tournament based around the best (most awesome) video game controller ever, the Power Glove.  After a lot of hijinks and totally kissing a girl, I got to be the first player to play Super Mario 3, at the the video game tournament!  Now I direct episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

  7. HobbesMkii says:

    The thing with this is, I don’t actually want to stand and walk around while playing. Where’s my cyberpunk VR goggles, where I can be jacked into a computer while lying on my couch?

    • CrabNaga says:

      My thoughts exactly. The whole reason people play video games is because they DON’T want to stand up and move around. Otherwise they’d all be playing sports and banging supermodels (I presume).

      If you want to move around while playing a game, just put an elliptical in your game room, jeez.

  8. ItsTheShadsy says:

    I feel like someone just needs to bring all these things together. In tandem, an Omni treadmill, a Kinect, a motion controller, and the Oculus Rift could produce some amazing things. But it’d also suck enough power to brown out the neighborhood.

  9. boardgameguy says:

    An inventory about failed peripherals could be a fun read to see just how bad some of the ideas were.

    • mizerock says:

      And how many I’ve bought!

      I consider very few of them to be “failures” though, I just get disappointed when they stop making games for my peripherals.

      My Tony Hawk “Shred” board needs more action. See also: DJ Hero mixing decks, DDR mats, a whole recording studio worth of plastic Rock Band instruments …

      Oh God, is the Wii Balance Board officially on the list of unsupported peripherals now?!?

      • boardgameguy says:

        Or then perhaps the better inventory is to list successful peripherals, although they would seem to be better known and lack some of the general sense of discovery that I find enjoyable about inventories.

  10. WarrenPeace says:

    This thing looks cool, but more as a general virtual reality thing than a gaming peripheral. I’m not really interested in playing Halo while running around and pointing a gun, but I like the stuff like jogging through a virtual environment, touring replications of locations or museums, and that sort of thing. That’s pretty neat, and maybe it could work as part of a game built around it, maybe more of an exploration game than a shooter. Eh, it depends on how excited you get about VR stuff, I guess. That sort of thing often sounds cool, like something out of science fiction, but is little more than a novelty in practice. We’ll see if stuff like this actually ends up being more than that.

  11. mizerock says:

    “You’ve got to make your own killer app”: see also Guitar Hero / Rock Band.

    Harmonix also seems to have transitioned well into the “design the game around the technology” model too, with Dance Central, one of the very few games that seems to be an ideal fit for the Kinect. And clearly they hope to do even better with the Kinect 2.0 with their just-announced title, “Fantasia: Music Evolved”.

  12. exant says:

    This device should not be marketed for games, especially as a bolt-on for TF2 (try double-jumping on that thing). It probably has its real application in medicine, physical therapy, job training for dangerous situations, or combat training. 

    It’s a missed opportunity for the creators, because hospitals and governments have a lot more money than nerds do.

  13. Gnarled Bark says:

    I’m already a little uncomfortable with how “real” combat games have become (I’m a wuss, I know), but the idea of this being billed as “immersive” and all of the demos seems to be FPS, just seems like a terrible idea.  Although motivated by my own issues playing horror shooters, which is an entire other discussion on why most AAA games are dark, creepy, and graphic, I’m genuinely concerned about the effects of long-term exposure to graphic violence.  I know video games don’t make people violent, but I still think we should be wary of being immersed in a combat zone as entertainment.  “It’s just like your really there as everyone dies around you, and when you turn to look away, more and more enemies are attacking you.”  They even promoted how this could be adjustable for children.  What could be better than putting a 10 year old into an immersive combat zone?  

    Sorry if this reading too deep.  The GS is about the only place left where we can put serious comments about the implications of advancements in games.