One of my favorite demos at AWE has been with Ekto VR boots, which have probably been the craziest devices that I’ve tried during the expo… and I totally loved them for it!
Locomotion in VR is still an unsolved problem. Apart from the software solutions (e.g. teleportation, smooth locomotion), there are a bunch of companies that are trying to solve the problem in the physical world, using some hardware to give the user the possibility of walking naturally in the real world to walk in VR. With my previous startup, for instance, we used Kinect to let the user walk in place in real life to walk in the virtual world. Another popular solution is the VR treadmills offered by Virtuix, Virtualizer, or Kat. Or the rolling shoes by Cybershoes that let you walk by swinging your feet while you are seated. No one of these solutions is perfect yet, so many other startups are coming to life proposing different approaches to offer natural locomotion in VR.
Ekto VR is one of these startups. Its idea is to offer motorized shoes that perform an inverse motion to the one you are performing while walking, so that you can walk with a total natural movement in real life and see yourself walking in VR, but without physically moving in the space. Since the shoes make you return back while you are moving forward, you can walk naturally but without advancing forward. You walk in the place, but in the right way and not with the knees-up movement of the walk-in-place locomotion mechanic.
The startup has received a bit of funding, the minimum to create the first prototype of its shoes, which are now in a pre-dev-kit stage. The real devkit should be available in Q1 2022, and the company hopes to secure further investments to be able to continue the development of the hardware, improving the walking detection and especially miniaturizing the hardware of the shoes. If you are a VR investor, keep an eye on it.
Hands-on Ekto VR shoes
When I arrived at the Ekto VR private demo room at AWE, I did not know what to expect. Once I entered, I immediately noticed a large empty room-scale area with in the middle a chair and some big robotic boots next to it. My first thought has been: “This looks like something crazy, I am in!”
Brad Factor, the CEO of the company, welcomed me, and after a quick chat to explain to me what Ekto was, he asked me to sign a waiver that basically said that I was trying his experimental hardware under my responsibility. This was a clear sign that what I was going to use could have been hacky and dangerous. Maybe you think that this should have scared me, but instead, I immediately signed it, because I thought that dying by trying experimental hardware would have been a glorious death for a VR enthusiast like me.
Ready to accept my fate, I sat down on the chair in the middle of the room-scale area, that was equipped with SteamVR lighthouses. Brad told me that we would have performed a bit of training together, letting me gain confidence with the shoes before making me jump into VR with them.
He helped me wear the shoes, one after the other. Seeing them close, they are like pretty big boots made in plastic with a lot of electromechanical stuff. They are not soft like shoes but are solid and sturdy. And I had not to wear them as shoes on top of my socks, but as an add-on to the shoes, so I kept wearing my shoes and the boots were installed over them. I got shoes for my shoes. Yo dawg.
To install every boot, Brad made me put my foot inside, then he made some components to slide until the internal part of the boot fit completely the length of my foot, then he tightened everything closing some straps so that to secure the boot to my foot. Once it was installed, I could feel that the booth was stiff, so it prevented some of my foot movement, and was big, and heavy. To much of my surprise, though, it was not completely rigid: the sole of the booth was divided into two parts so that the boot could bend to follow the bending of the foot that happens when you walk naturally.
The boots were equipped with a Vive Tracker each. Other trackers were installed on my ankle, and I was given a little gilet with another tracker for my back. All these trackers were fundamental for the VR demo that I had to try.
Wearing the shoes was a pretty slow process, and if we add to it the time to install all the trackers, we obtain a very long onboarding time for this experimental device. It took 10 minutes on my watch, but consider that this time was longer than the actual necessary because I have spent part of it asking questions to the Ekto VR team and shooting photos and videos. I would say that in a normal scenario probably 5 minutes would have been sufficient to onboard a new user.
Brad gave me some time to make confidence with the shoes. I stood with them on, and I could feel their clunkiness. Then he explained to me that there are two modes in which these boots can work: the first one, the treadmill mode, has the shoes simply applying a fixed velocity to counteract your walking speed. The second one, instead, triggers the motors of the shoes only when you are at a certain distance from the center of your play area, and then it applies an inverse speed superior to your walking one so that to make you return to the center of the play area. This is the mode that was used in the subsequent demos, and it is interesting because it doesn’t trigger the shoes immediately, so you have the possibility of moving in room-scale mode like in a standard VR setup, but then when you move too much far from the starting point, you are driven back to the origin.
He made me try both modes without VR, and I thank him for this because these shoes are still very experimental, so having the possibility of trying them while I was aware of my surroundings made me feel much safer. After that, he explained to me that these shoes don’t make your move only forward, but you can actually steer your body while wearing them. The fact is that you can’t perform an abrupt rotation movement like in real life, because at this stage the booths are still a prototype, so you have to perform a slow and constant rotation movement of your waist while you walk until you reach the desired rotation. He made me try also this movement without VR, making me slowly follow the movements of Robert, the engineer that was with him.
After this training session, it was time for the real demo. Brad made me wear an HTC Vive Pro headset and put me in a demo where I had to walk around an oil installation in the desert to close some valves. It was a training experience to showcase the business potential of these shoes. He knew that I had already signed the waiver, so he was ready to let me try my fate of walking in VR with this experimental hardware while being completely isolated from my real surroundings.
I did the demo, and if I’m writing this article, it’s because I’m still alive. Let me tell you what has been my impressions while using these boots.
The first thing I noticed while wearing them is that they are uncomfortable. The boots feel rigid because they are all made of plastic, and so the foot can’t move and bend as it wants. The fact that the sole is divided into two parts helps a lot, but it is the minimum to let you walk. Then they are incredibly heavy: at the end of my session with Ekto, which lasted probably 15-20 minutes, the lower part of my legs was incredibly tired, like if I had a session at the gym. The fact that they are heavy means that it is also impossible to perform a completely natural walking movement: you walk like if you had lead shoes, so you perform the first part of the walking movement in the usual way, by raising your feet, but then you make it fall quite vertically instead of performing a vertical+forward movement. You end up performing baby heavy steps.
The shoes are also super clunky, so your proprioception feels that you have pretty big feet. And apart from this being weird, it implies some safety problems: sometimes it happens that while you walk, the shoes touch each other, and this can give you the sensation that you are going to trip to the floor. To avoid this, I started walking with the legs a bit spread out, but this is not how I naturally walk every day.
The worst moment anyway is when the shoes make you return back to the center of the area, and when they arrive there, they stop. At that moment, you may have an abrupt change of speed for your body, and you may feel like if you had to fall back to the floor. It’s a bit weird when you walk and then you stop because the shoes keep driving you back to the center of the area, while in those moments you would like to feel that you are still.
Just to be clear: I have not fallen to the floor, and probably the force is not enough to make you fall to the floor, but you have the sensation it may happen, and this is enough to put your brain in an alarming state. I felt like I could fall backward probably three times in my demo, and during that moment I thought that with Ekto if you die in VR, you die in real life.
Steering by slowly rotating your waist works, but it’s slow to perform and gives a bit the impression that you are sliding laterally on the floor, a bit like skating. It doesn’t feel completely natural.
Let me also mention briefly the big noise that these boots emit: you constantly hear their motors grinding, and this is a bit of a nuisance.
So basically everything felt very experimental, clunky, sometimes also a bit unsafe. But I have to tell you that when I managed to walk in VR in the demo and the system had no glitches, I had really the sensation of walking naturally. And of course with no motion sickness. It took me a while to get used to the shoes, but after a few minutes, I was performing a natural walking movement, and the virtual environment around me was reacting accordingly. In all its craziness, the system somewhat worked. It was a bit like when I tried the Cybershoes, that in the online videos looked like total nonsense, but then I tried them and noticed that they are not perfect, but make sense for walking in VR. Here I had a similar impression: in the online videos, Ekto looked like a crazy project, and for sure it is still in a prototypical stage, but its idea makes sense. If I ignored all the discomfort sensations, I could feel myself walking naturally in virtual reality.
I also preferred this kind of locomotion to the one of the omnidirectional threadmills like Virtuix Omni, because with the latter, I have the sensation of slipping on ice while I am walking, while this motorized shoes give me more the sensation I am walking naturally.
After the demo, I felt like having been at the gym: my legs were pretty tired, but I had fun with it. Plus I have not dead, that is always a pro.
Ekto VR boots are still in a prototypical stage, so it has little sense judging them for what they are now and they should be considered for their perspectives. Currently, they are clunky, uncomfortable, and a bit unsafe: the onboarding time is long, the walking movement with them is difficult and tiresome, and the engines can give you the sensation of tripping to the floor.
But the idea behind them makes sense because with them you can actually perform the standard locomotion movement with your legs and feet while the boots prevent you from walking away from your play space. The moments it worked and I could concentrate on the VR experience, I could feel myself walking naturally in VR with no sickness at all. This especially after some minutes, when I got more confidence with the system, and I walked much better with the shoes on.
Of course, there are lots of problems to solve, both on the hardware side (make the boots smaller and more comfortable) and on the software side (better detection of the walking speed, better management of what happens when the user stops walking, etc…), but I think that the idea may be worth exploring to see what is the potential it can reach. Because now it is a promising technology, and the only way to see if this path is really viable for locomotion in VR or there are unsolvable problems in front of it, is actually to keep developing the technology and see what is the maximum it can reach.
I think that Ekto has done a good job until now with the means at its disposal. And I totally love how they are doing something this crazy and experimental: as a developer, I like when someone tries a new road, even if it looks insane. I hope this startup will get additional funding, so maybe in 1-2 years I can try it again and see how it has evolved. I am very curious and intrigued by this product and I want to follow its evolution. Good luck Ekto VR!
Disclaimer: this blog contains advertisement and affiliate links to sustain itself. If you click on an affiliate link, I’ll be very happy because I’ll earn a small commission on your purchase. You can find my boring full disclosure here.