Virtual reality has become a very real startup niche for Jan Goetgeluk.
Six months ago, the Belgian immigrant left his job at J.P. Morgan in Houston to focus full-time on Virtuix, a startup that makes the Omni, a 360-degree treadmill that creates virtual environments for gamers. In July, he launched a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $150,000 to supplement the $250,000 of his own savings he was putting into Virtuix.
The campaign ended up raising more than $1 million in 45 days, and he says it is still “selling Omnis every day.” Next week, he travels to China to present at Digital Taipei. From there, he will travel with his newly hired chief operating officer, a China market veteran, where they will scout manufacturing companies to fulfill orders for the Omni by early 2014.
“I’m really living my American dream,” Goetgeluk says.
The Omni is a 360-degree treadmill that allows users to use natural movement—walking, running, crouching, jumping—in a virtual reality environment. The motions are then patched on to those of an avatar in a virtual world. A harness at the waist keeps users tethered to the device for stability and safety but without restricting movement. (It can hold up to 285 pounds.)
“Moving naturally creates an unprecedented immersion that can’t be experienced sitting down,” Goetgeluk says.
The Omni is designed to be paired with the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality gaming headset that is only currently available as a prototype kit intended for game developers, which is sold separately for $300.
Virtuix is selling the Omni for $500, but it also offers a “dual pack” for $1,019 which has two treadmills and a second pair of shoes. Goetgeluk says he can keep the cost of the Omni down because it has no motors or moving parts. The surface of the “treadmill” has been designed to have low friction and users wear special sneaker-like shoes that have a small pin attached to the bottom. This allows the shoes to fit into the grooves and prevents sliding from side to side. The height of the waist-high harness can be adjusted, and the top taken off for easy storage, like home-exercise equipment.
And, just like your regular treadmill or stairmaster, the Omni software tracks distance traveled and calories burned, should you want to make the game a part of your workout routine.
After debuts at trade shows such as PAX Prime in Seattle earlier this month, Goetgeluk says he’s focusing on setting up agreements with manufacturers in China. Virtuix’s new COO, David Allan, has lived in China and Taiwan for 20 years, speaks fluent Mandarin, and previously managed manufacturing and operations for Flextronics, a Houston-based manufacturing logistics and business services company.
Goetgeluk is progressing cautiously, he says, well aware that the pitfalls of doing business in China can be just as great as the promise. In the meantime, he’s using the Kickstarter funds to help pay for new office space and to hire new software and hardware engineers to help put together an Omni 2.0, an industrial version that would be attractive to customers such as the military, oil and gas companies, or architectural firms.
“Imagine taking a tour of your future house on the Omni,” Goetgeluk says. He envisions its use in virtual tourism or school curriculums, where students might travel back thousands of years to learn about ancient civilizations.
Goetgeluk says he’s been interested in gaming since childhood. “I think virtual reality speaks to the imagination of a lot of people,” he says. “I think it is something that will change the world.”