When the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset launched earlier this year, our reviewer noted that it was expensive and awkward to use—yet “too cool to ignore.” New hand controllers to be released by Oculus in December could go a long way toward helping to realize the potential of virtual reality as a new medium for entertainment, art, and education.
Oculus, a division of Facebook, released the Rift headset in March with only a simple remote and conventional game pad, leaving the device seriously compromised. Whether you’re knifing mutant humans, spraying graffiti, shooting three pointers, or defusing bombs, getting hands-on with virtual reality makes it much more powerful and interesting.
At first glance and touch, the Oculus hand controls, known as Oculus Touch and priced at $199, are bewildering. They don’t look like any conventional remote, game pad, or joystick, and have buttons in odd places.
The first time you try a new game or experience, you have to figure out how holding, tapping, and pressing the different controls translates into picking up or interacting with objects. Even how you rest your fingers is important, because the buttons can tell when you’re touching them.
That can lead to some overwhelming moments the first time you try to set up a professional basketball player for an alley-oop, as in the forthcoming title VR Sports Challenge, or find yourself trying to shoot an approaching zombie with a flashlight, not your pistol, in Killing Floor: Incursion.
But even when sampling six different games and experiences in the space of a few hours, picking up a new control scheme takes less time than you might expect. Content makers are already converging on some standard control methods that work between games. And being more physically engaged with a virtual environment helps you lose yourself in the experience. You more easily forget that you have a heavy gadget strapped onto your head and an LCD within a couple of inches of your eyes.
The benefits of being physically present in VR are particularly obvious when you’re playing with someone else. In Killing Floor: Incursion, I worked with another heavily armed player to clear an abandoned house of mutants. In The Unspoken I was destroyed by another wizard in a magical duel. (Learning the hand and finger movements needed to cast spells was the trickiest control scheme I encountered, perhaps because it doesn’t have an analog with movements from real life.)
In some games you see other players as full-size characters. In others you just see ghostly disembodied heads and hands. Working with someone else to graffiti a wall or waste the undead hinted at how being able to physically act in virtual space could lead to some interesting social experiences.
Despite their clear benefits, the Oculus Touch controllers won’t turn virtual reality into a mass market phenomenon overnight. So far the experiences designed for them mostly come from the video-game industry. And Oculus Touch makes an already expensive system more costly. To buy a Rift headset, a PC powerful enough to drive it, and the controllers will set you back more than $1,500.
But using Oculus’s new controllers feels like a partial glimpse of the future. (HTC’s motion controllers for its less prominent Vive headset, available since April, underline that feeling.) Something like this—but cheaper and ideally easier to use—is needed if many or most people are to see the value in spending time in virtual reality.
Oculus Touch feels like a missing piece needed for the Rift to really make sense. Using it makes efforts by Oculus and others to develop more intuitive ways to grab hold of virtual space using gloves or cameras feel crucial to this new medium’s future (see “The Step Needed to Make Virtual Reality More Real”).