After years in development and constant reassurances that no, really, it’s going to happen, virtual reality is finally becoming a practical reality.
The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have gone through rounds of preorders, PlayStation VR finally has a release date set for October of this year and the public will finally get to see that VR isn’t just an elaborate prank by the tech industry. Soon it’ll be common knowledge what separates VR from traditional gaming.
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But the headset alone isn’t enough to totally set it apart. When you’re playing VR games with standard devices like Oculus Touch, the Xbox One controller, Vive controllers and PS VR Move, chances are you still won’t be fully immersed in the experience. They’re great devices but your hands are still only controlling digital hands.
That’s a problem peripheral makers across the world are trying to solve, with controllers that add to VR gaming in different ways. There’s Manus VR that wants to put both hands into the game but it’s not quite out yet, and Virtuix Omni which is a treadmill that allows you to run around in VR – except it’s a pretty big setup.
We got the chance to look at a few more lesser known, but still impressive peripherals at GDC 2016, and we can only imagine what they’re really going to mean for the VR experience (at least for now).
This unassuming little device might be the most unique and slightly terrifying VR peripheral coming to market. The UnlimitedHand, a forearm band programmed with haptic feedback technology that interfaces with the Oculus and HTC Vive via Bluetooth, can both detect and influence your movements while playing a VR game. Move your fingers in real life, and the UnlimitedHand will convert that information, making your digital, in-game version do the same; form a gun shape with your hand, and the UnlimitedHand will detect that too, letting you use your new finger-gun in a familiar FPS match.
This is where it gets fascinating and a little frightening: fire that gun, and the UnlimitedHand will send a pulse into your arm, making you feel the kick as if it were real. Beyond that, it can manipulate your movements according to the needs of the program.
CEO Kenichiro Iwasaki demonstrated that functionality himself, showing how the UnlimitedHand was able to independently move his wrist for him. Effectively, this allows you to ‘feel’ objects in the game, as the band simulates the feeling of touching an object in the real world and meeting with resistance. Coupled with VR, it creates an extra layer of immersion by making the effects of the game world on you feel real, rather than something your mind invents to fill in gaps.
Thankfully we’re not about to step into The Matrix quite yet – the UnlimitedHand affects only the one of the wearer’s hands and arms in its current form. But the fact that it works as well as it does and is headed toward retail release this April says we should probably get started on building Zion at some point in the near future.
As VR seeks to become more immersive with each new hardware upgrade, peripheral designers are making a serious effort to disguise the fact that you’re holding a controller. But when it comes to moving your feet, aside from the Virtuix Omni treadmill, most peripherals are stuck in traditional gaming mode: you jump with A or use a joystick to walk, ignoring immersive motion from the waist down. Believing VR should have some more mobility options, the folks at 3DRudder created a VR footpad that allows the user to control all movement – horizontal, vertical and turning – using only their feet. (No word on realistically jerky jumping as of yet, though.)
According to CEO Stanislas Chesnais, the 3DRudder was designed for “existing games where two hands aren’t enough VR, where you don’t actually have any solutions today to move in a nice way while sitting.” A circular device that you control with both feet by tilting in the direction you want to move, the 3DRudder’s latency-free design means that response to your movements is instant and requires little thought. “It’s like in real life,” says Chesnais. “When you do something set the table…you don’t think about your feet moving around. Your hands are what matter.”
The downside to the 3DRudder is the possibility of experiencing motion-sickness. Because the player will likely be less aware of what their feet are doing as opposed to their hands, they might move up and down or drift by accident, which can end in headaches when you’re not expecting it. However, mastering that movement comes down to practice, and how the device is configured plug-and-play for the Rift and Vive and totally customizable, it can be mapped like any other controller or gaming peripheral. If you’re prone to sickness, you can avoid games with soaring upward movement (or just don’t configure that part), and save yourself the ache.
Reactive Grip Motion Controller
Haptic feedback is one of gaming’s oldest show ponies, kicking off with Sega Moto-Cross’ shaking handlebars in 1976 and living on in forty years’ worth of rumble technology. While the Reactive Grip Motion Controller from Tactical Haptics fits neatly into that same category of tactile peripherals, it represents a more precise evolution, one with all three major VR headsets firmly in mind.
As opposed to creating a general ‘rumble’ throughout the whole device, the Reactive Grip uses four thin plates inside the handle to apply pressure to the player’s palm consistent with the object they’re holding in-game. Hitting an object with a sword causes the front-facing panel to pull back, simulating resistance against the blade; swinging a mace, meanwhile, triggers all four panels to move up and down in sequence, so you can feel the pressure of the ball as it spins.
While the Reactive Grip has been under development and out in the public eye for several years, as of GDC 2016 we’re finally getting a good idea of how it would work with the current crop of VR headsets. According to Tactical Haptics’ VR demos, the team expects the Reactive Grip to work with everything from obvious first-person shooters to sport-fishing games, and could create a truly satisfying control scheme for the oft-ignored first-person melee genre. Plus, this demo straight-up promises that a VR Gravity Gun would be possible. Half-Life 3 confirmed.