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VR Technology for Your Feet? Google Has Some Interesting Ideas

A recent patent application by Google describes VR technology that users would wear on their feet. The shoes would track movement, but would also move the user away from potential hazards in the physical world.

Right now, VR technology lets you see, hear, and interact with many elements of virtual worlds. What it hasn’t really mastered yet is the feeling of moving around in them.

Moving in most VR applications is still done much the way that it always has been. With a joystick or directional pad. The upside of this is that it allows us to play video games while remaining on the couch. The bad news is that VR technology is all about immersion; and it’s hard to feel immersed while running through Skyrim if your body is sitting in your favorite chair.

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There have been some proposed solutions to the complications of moving in VR. That omni-directional treadmill you may have seen photos of, takes up lots of space, and the cost is prohibitive for most casual users — though it has found a place in a growing number of VR arcades. More manageable options involve sensors that can detect your body’s movements in a room. Of course, you can only move so far before leaving the sensor area or encountering a physical obstacle.

Fortunately, Google is on the case.


What’s the Big Idea?

The technology giant recently filed a patent application for VR technology for your feet. The patent application includes a variety of variants on a common theme: shoes that move you.

Google's patent application for "augmented and/or virtual reality footwear"
Source: Google’s patent application for “augmented and/or virtual reality footwear”

A number of images included in the application detail a shoe that uses motorized wheels or treads in order to both track movement and move the user into a predetermined area. The text of the application also includes “balls, rods, or the like” as possible components.

The shoes will also communicate with “the [head mounted display] or another external computing device”, so that walking in the physical space will be transferable to the virtual environment. Communication with another “external computing device” may also be what allows the shoes to know when the user is approaching the end of the “operational zone”. In other words, the sensors that accompany some VR applications may allow the shoes to understand the user’s physical location. This would mean that the shoes would keep the user safe but also within the range of sensors.

Of course, another method would have to be employed for standalone VR tech that requires a headset but no “external computing device”.


How Would That Work?

Google's patent application for VR technology footwear
Source: Google’s patent application for “augmented and/or virtual reality footwear”

Most of the patent application text discusses the motors and how the shoe would communicate with itself in order to link location to movement. This leaves many, largely unanswered, tantalizing questions including whether the user would be limited to forward and backward movement.

It seems that this may be the case; as the patent application discusses the use of a system rather like the camera controls in some games. A system that would allow the user to rotate their view around a virtual point or object. This suggests that while all movement in the game would be controlled by walking forward and backward, the direction of movement would be handled through a more conventional manual control.

According to the patent application, the shoes will track the user’s natural stride so that they will operate at specific times in order to “minimize instability”. However, this opens up other questions. If the shoe is familiar with one’s stride, does that mean that one pair of the shoes would only work for one person?

According to the patent application, the ability of the shoes to understand a user’s stride will also make them usable for people with different strides, for example people of different heights. Presumably, this may also allow the user to run, although the patent application does not discuss this. One may also wonder whether the user will be able to do things like jump while wearing the shoes.


What Would This Mean for Other VR Technology?

There are other concerns with incorporating another one of our senses into VR technology. For example, some people suffer headaches when a headset lags behind in adjusting what they see to where they look. Might people be similarly affected if their movement in the physical world does not yield the expected change in their virtual position?

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The potential limitations of this VR technology are worth considering, but so too are the possibilities. If movement was controlled by walking rather than with a button or a joystick, this could allow for extra actions available on the controller. In other words, more commands may be available on controllers that do not need to dedicate space to movement.

It will likely be some time before this exciting VR technology finds its way to market. That gives us time to think about how VR technology like this could change our virtual experiences; when it does come around.

Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.