Virtual reality (VR) could prove a world-changing technology. There’s just one little problem: with a VR headset strapped to your face, immersing you in a virtual world, you have a lot of trouble judging your real-world position. Nothing will break the illusion of VR like accidentally breaking your toe against a cabinet, or tripping over the edge of a rug.
Early VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have attempted to sidestep this issue via handheld controllers; but using your thumbs to “walk” through a virtual environment also has a tendency to ruin the illusion. Some companies have pushed a “VR treadmill,” complete with restraints so you don’t accidentally fly off it, but that’s a lot of additional infrastructure to install in your home or office.
But Google may have a solution to all these VR conundrums: motorized shoes.
That’s right, friends and neighbors: Google’s patent, published Nov. 15, describes footwear that “may allow the user to walk, seemingly endlessly in the virtual environment, while remaining within a defined physical space in the physical environment.” (Hat tip to Ars Technica for the link to the patent filing.)
In other words, little motorized wheels would reposition your feet so you never left an “operational zone.” Within the VR environment, you’d slip into the illusion of walking from Point A to B, perhaps over enormous distance; but in the real world, you would be walking in place.
Whether or not Google produces cybernetic sneakers, the big question is whether VR can break out of its current sub-niche. Although Google, Facebook, HTC, and other firms have collectively poured billions into evolving the technology, it largely remains the providence of high-end gamers.
Indeed, Facebook’s new Oculus Quest, which will retail for $399 once it ships early next year, is positioned as primarily a gaming platform. From the upper end of the market (represented by headsets such as the HTC Vive) to the lower (Google Daydream, which relies on the user’s smartphone for the screen), games remain a key focus—despite reports of game developers fleeing the VR market due to lack of demand.
Earlier this year, research firm IDC reported that shipments of VR and augmented reality (AR) headsets plunged 30.5 percent between the first quarters of 2017 and 2018. Will games alone reverse that decline? Or do headset manufacturers and developers need to focus on new kinds of applications and use-cases?
Whatever happens to VR in the long term, it probably won’t be saved or doomed by a pair of motorized shoes. But if Google makes this patent a reality, VR users will be able to complement their bulky headsets with equally bulky footwear.