Virtual reality is going to require tracking a lot of things: hands, feet, eyes, facial expressions — it all needs to be there to be convincing. Now a new startup wants to bring something new into VR: your bicycle.
VR locomotion is a huge, unsolved problem. The very best VR tracking system we know about right now, Valve’s “Lighthouse” system, lets you walk around a living-room-sized space. There’s a lot you can do with that, and there are clever tricks you can use to stretch the virtual space a bit. Still, there are limits.
Right now, if you want to walk freely across a large world, you have to fall back to cruder methods, like moving around with a thumb stick. That’s less immersive than physically moving, and can cause motion sickness. Omni-treadmills may offer a solution one day, but the current technology does not provide an adequate simulation of walking.
Widerun — The Immersive Biking Experience
Widerun, a new Kickstarter project, wants to change the way people use stationary bicycles. So far, technology has done wonders for people who use their bikes outdoors. Stationary bicycles are another story. The most advanced of them log how far you’ve traveled, and that’s about it.
Widerun, in contrast, captures speed and steering data, feeds it into a computer, and dynamically adjusts resistance to simulate incline and inertia. Combined with a VR headset like the Oculus Rift DK2, this allows you to simulate biking across large virtual landscapes.
For exercise bike enthusiasts, it helps to break up the monotony of biking in front of a basement wall. A scenic virtual world is much nicer to look at while you sweat. Most of the Kickstarter is focused on this application — the product even comes bundled with a tool for creating these environments in Unity.
Biking indoors, while convenient, has always been a little bit sad. This could do a lot to fix that problem.
The Bike Controller
What’s more interesting to me, though, is the potential for the Widerun as a controller. Widerun could open up a whole new genre of bike-centric games. Hybrid games could use both the Vive and the Widerun to allow the player to bike between distant areas, and walk around once they arrive, allowing for comfortable open-world games in VR for the first time.
There’s also no reason why you couldn’t build a version of Audiosurf for Widerun, letting the player bike along procedurally generated tracks, weaving or dodging to the beat. On the flip side, there’s a whole swath of BMX bike-trick games, ranging from the realistic to the absurd. Or, you could just use mods to see your favorite games from a new perspective. They’ve already got an experimental plugin for Minecraft, and other easily-modded games like Half Life 2, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto are sure to follow.
These are just possibilities off the top of my head: there’s a lot of potential here for game designers. The bike is a great way to get around in real life, and the same might turn out to be true in VR.
My main reservation is the cost.
The Widerun, with all the bells and whistles, costs about $400 – $440 USD on Kickstarter right now, depending on when you buy. They’ve sold about fifty so far. That puts them well on their way to their Kickstarter goal, but that isn’t exactly the mass market.
Conventional exercise bike mounts top out at about $150. A DDR pad, another exercise-oriented peripheral can be had for about $30. The Widerun, in contrast, costs more than the Oculus Rift DK2, and is going to be a hard sell both for exercise fans and gamers. That’s unfortunate, because big sales are necessary to get content made for a new peripheral.
It’s possible that this price is justified by the complexity of the hardware, but I don’t think we’ll see the full potential of the device realized until the price comes down. That said, this Kickstarter is still an interesting experiment, and I wish them well — it may well open the door to a cheaper, more accessible version of the device down the road.
If you’d like to pick up a Widerun, go to their Kickstarter project page.
Disclaimer: This is a Kickstarter project, and I can’t vouch for its success. As with any Kickstarter, the company running it may eventually lose steam due to lack of funding. Don’t spend money you aren’t prepared to lose. That said, if you do wind up getting a unit, shoot me an email and let me know how it is!
Do you want to bike in VR? Which game would you most like to see modded with bicycle integration?