Honda’s ‘extended reality’ is a mash-up of VR and motorized wheelchairs

Honda extended reality
It’s me, living my best life. | Image: Honda

Honda announced a new “extended reality” experience that combines virtual reality with personal mobility devices like the automaker’s self-balancing Uni-One wheelchairs. Honda said it will show off its technology at SXSW in Austin, Texas, next month.

The aim is to “elevate” the VR experience, which is largely stationary and confined to a single space, by combining it with Honda’s Segway-like Uni-One mobility device that responds to a user’s movements. In this way, Honda can simulate racing through an immersive alien landscape. The device is hands-free, allowing users the freedom to use their upper bodies to enhance the VR experience.

The Uni-One can be raised to a “high position” seat height of 27.6 inches, where the user is close to eye level with standing individuals. While seated, they can move forward, backward, diagonally, or sideways just by leaning their body in the direction they want to go and shifting their weight. In “low position,” the user is more at the level of people who are seated or small children and can move in any direction by steering with a joystick.

Just to be clear: the experience is meant to be for entertainment and not necessarily for people who are disabled or have mobility challenges. In its release, Honda makes no mention of people with disabilities.

Of course, Honda has a lot of experience in the world of robotics, including its beloved Asimo robot that was retired in 2018. Over the years, Asimo played soccer with President Barack Obama, won over Kelly Ripa, had a dancing group, and had some clumsy moments like this terrible fall while trying to walk up a flight of stairs. Last year, the company revealed an autonomous work vehicle designed to handle all the boring, repetitive tasks at airports.

Honda says the extended reality (XR) technology could be ideal for malls, theme parks, or other indoor or outdoor entertainment facilities — as long as they have lots of obstacle-free space.

The Uni-One, which will make its debut at this year’s SXSW, is based on Honda’s Uni-Cub device, which was first introduced in 2012. The unicycle-like vehicle was designed to be straddled, while being tall enough to allow people to stay at eye level with standing companions.

By comparison, the Uni-One weighs 154 pounds and can travel at a blazing top speed of 3.7mph. The chair’s replaceable lithium-ion battery can get up to five miles of range when traveling at a speed of up to 2.5mph. And it has a max weight capacity of 242 pounds.

Whether something as idiosyncratic as Honda’s XR experience ever catches on is anyone’s guess. Shopping malls certainly have their fair share of low-quality VR booths, but the vast majority are stationary or require the user to sit in a confined space. Honda is asking them to be open to creating an indoor roller rink of sorts to allow their Uni-One chairs free rein.

Would it turn into a low-speed demolition derby, with a bunch of goggle-wearing racers crashing into each other at 2mph? Or would it be more like a Ready Player One situation, where everyone gets their own personal treadmills? Either way, the future is looking pretty silly.