It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since the SteamVR Knuckles controllers were first revealed using a demo of our game, Call of the Starseed (2016), at Steam Devs Days 2016. Now, at the reveal of Knuckles EV2 this summer, we’ve got a whole bunch more to talk about.

Guest Article by Denny Unger

Denny is the CEO and Creative Director of Cloudhead Games. As a VR Pioneer he has spearheaded two critically acclaimed and award-winning VR experiences with The Gallery – EP1: Call of the Starseed and EP2: Heart of the Emberstone. Working closely with VR hardware leaders in the space, including Valve, HTC, and Oculus, Cloudhead Games continues to innovate, inform, and entertain.

If you’re just getting into VR, or you haven’t heard of the term ‘Knuckles’ outside of VRChat (2017), the SteamVR Knuckles is the first modern non-glove VR controller to support five-finger tracking. While Oculus Touch is known to have capacitive sensors (capsense) for the thumb and index fingers, Knuckles controllers give users tracking of all five fingers using capsense on the triggers, face buttons, and the bases of controllers. These new inputs create a more natural representation of a user’s hands in VR, and they open the door to new gameplay possibilities.

While finger tracking has many exciting implications on its own, one of the most important innovations with Knuckles is its ‘open-handed hold.’ You can fasten the controller to your hand and then let go of your grip without dropping it—you can ‘hold’ it without actually holding it.

Image courtesy Cloudhead Games

The first Knuckles prototype we received was diminutive in size compared to the EV2 we have today. The strapping mechanism was a crazy velcro wrap that you would slip into like a fingerless glove and then tighten around the palm. The controller itself was about the size of a desktop mouse with a deeply scalloped trackpad. That first prototype was an early kit for evaluation and feedback, and we wouldn’t see changes to Knuckles for nearly nine months.

The second pair of Knuckles we received (called Knuckles 1.3) focused mostly on ergonomics. We saw the velcro strap replaced by a pull-cord brace that tightened against the back of the hand instead of around the the palm; you could now slip the controller on and tighten it within a few seconds. Both the base and the sensor bar were longer for variable hand sizes and improved tracking.

But some of the biggest changes since the controller’s initial reveal came last week with Knuckles EV2.

The first thing to notice on EV2 is a completely redesigned controller face. The scalloped trackpad has gone wayward in favour of a touchstrip. The base of the controller now has grip/pressure sensitivity in addition to capsense. The redesign of the face buttons and introduction of thumbsticks align more closely with the control layout on Touch, which will make it easier to create common control schemes across platforms.

I think part of the rationale for moving from the trackpad to the thumbstick / touchstrip combo is that most trackpad interactions in VR were swiping motions rather than utilization of the full area of the pad. The new touchstrip offers the same functionality as the trackpad (lateral x-axis movement is there in a smaller footprint), plus pressure sensitivity for the thumb.

Image courtesy Cloudhead Games

As well as some major changes to input, there are also some important ergonomic changes going on in EV2. The new strap in particular is really smart; it has a push-pivot point along the top circumference so you can move it forward and back to help get ideal hand placement for the capsense. It also features a rotational pivot to seat the strap comfortably on the back of your hand; and a material change from flat-padding to a nice gripped fabric that’s much more comfortable over long periods of use—and it makes perspiration a lot less noticeable during your Beat Saber (2018) sessions.

Image courtesy Cloudhead Games

One of the more subtle changes to the hardware over time is the way in which the trigger buttons now interface with the handle of the controllers at a very slight curve. With previous iterations that curve was more dramatic, and in VR your brain had a tough time rectifying the gap between your trigger finger and the rest of your fingers. That gap has since been massaged to the point that your perception of finger separation in VR feels normalized.

Knuckles EV2 is a pretty radical shift for users coming from the Vive wands or even Oculus Touch. Vive users will find that teleportation and free locomotion is a much more comfortable experience with thumbsticks than with the old trackpad.

SEE ALSO
Cloudhead Games – Lessons Learned From Five Years of VR Locomotion Experiments

One question we get a lot is whether we prefer Touch or Knuckles, and the simple answer is that it’s not fair to compare them.

Touch comes from an Xbox origin with a goal to emulate the traditional mapping of a gamepad, while also introducing the concept of basic finger tracking. Knuckles is a next-gen solution with the goal of removing the abstractions of holding a gamepad or thinking about hand poses. These controllers are two different approaches built at two different times, and both companies have the right idea—using fingers and hands in a more intuitive way is the future of VR.

Which leads to another question: is Knuckles truly next-gen VR?

My answer is “absolutely.” I can interact in an open-handed manner with my environment; all of my fingers are unobstructed; and I don’t have to think about any hand poses, my hands just do what comes naturally. And when I need something in my hand, a controller is still there. If I grip an object or a gun, or do any other gross interaction in the environment, there is always something to meet my hand with haptics and pressure and tactility.

Obviously Knuckles is not the final step for VR input. Looking further into the future at the next four to five years, a lot of work is being done to provide exoskeleton inputs and per-finger haptics. But to get there with any success, we need to start here with hardware and software that enables developers to create new interactions with the entire hand considered.

Knuckles EV2 is a next-generation step toward whatever that future may be, and we’re so excited to be building our next VR experience toward that future too.

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  • Can’t wait for these to become available to consumers. I’m ready to put an order in ASAP. Despite having no hands-on experience with the Oculus Touch controllers, grip-based actions are very odd with the current Vive wands. I don’t love it.

  • RavnosCC

    “Touch comes from an Xbox origin with a goal to emulate the traditional mapping of a gamepad, while also introducing the concept of basic finger tracking. Knuckles is a next-gen solution with the goal of removing the abstractions of holding a gamepad or thinking about hand poses. These controllers are two different approaches built at two different times, and both companies have the right idea—using fingers and hands in a more intuitive way is the future of VR.”

    My anticipation is growing intense. Can’t wait to be able to “throw” something and actually let go of it… next gen indeed.

    • Zachary Scott Dickerson

      YES, I never got the hang of throwing weapons in VR on the VIVE. I got used to everything else though, so that is the only excitement I have so far.

  • Filmgeek47

    Has anyone discussed how these will work with existing games? How easy/hard will it be for devs to add support for finger sensing ], etc?

    • HybridEnergy

      I’m imagining they will work fine by mimicking the old controller, and maybe you can map the grip buttons to actual touch grip…but for individual fingers the support will have to be patched most likely. My guess.

    • MosBen

      Specifically, I’m wondering about something like Star Trek Bridge Crew, where using hands to touch in-game displays is the primary interaction. Having much more detailed hand presence would be pretty awesome.

    • anon

      Worst case scenario, Valve added a feature called Steam Input for custom controls.

      • Whats the worse that can happen w/ that?

    • I assume it will be fully backwards compatible with Wands for input. Newer or patched games could add the extra functionality for finger sensed interactions too. Best of both worlds.

  • Zachary Scott Dickerson

    I love the idea of throwing, but I wonder how I will hold a physical rifle stock (protubeVR) now?

    • Sh1neSp4rk

      Well with the improvements we’re seeing with virtual stocks I imagine at some point you simply won’t have to. I’ve already abandoned my physical stock for the virtual one provided in Pavlov. It’s not perfect but it gives me 95% of the consistency and accuracy I got with a physical stock with none of the encumbrance. Reloads are easy as fast as they can be and headshots by feel are easy as pie.

      • Zachary Scott Dickerson

        I play a lot of Onward and Standout, which have much long range sniping. I have yet to figure out how to shoulder virtual stock and keep very steady aim with free floating hands compared to a stock. Maybe with the finger sensors I would just hold an object, but curious how the trigger will work in this case?

        • Sh1neSp4rk

          Well neither of those have proper virtual stocks last I checked. I know onward has an option to tell it you’re using a physical stock which as I recall changes the angle of one of the grips. I haven’t launched onward in a few weeks but the last time I did I found it almost impossible to play because of the lack of a virtual stock. If you own Pavlov I’d recommend you just launch it up and enable it in the settings to see what I mean. Also if you’ve played Duckseason it does a similar thing.

          In case you’ve not seen it there’s a pretty good video explaining how it’s done. It uses Pavlov old (ans still default) system as an example of bad handling. Admittedly you can’t really blind fire with a virtual stock but I don’t really see that as a down side.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYrkXK3V2ik

  • Zachary Scott Dickerson

    How will trigger pulls in a shooter feel with no tactile click/feedback on press? Just squeeze and rapidly tap my finger on a pressure/cap pad? I wonder if that will feel good in that scenario vs. the old button styles?

    • muchrockness

      Huh? It has a physical trigger.

      • Zachary Scott Dickerson

        OK, did not see that in video until now, I thought it was cap sense only for fingers and buttons for thumbs.

  • VR4EVER

    Knuckles will make me buy the Vive2 or whatever its called by then and as long as Valve is behind the HMD. They fairly take their time but in the end, it‘s really great stuff they are putting out. Even revolutionary, sometimes.

    • brandon9271

      I want more vendors to use the lighthouse/knuckles tech. That way I can have the tech without having to deal with HTC. Maybe LG will make a move finally..

      • It is happening. Pimax for example..

        • brandon9271

          I’d love to see it happen more. I’d also love to see tracking solutions decoupled from the HMDs. So, for example, I could buy the lighthouses and controllers to use with a Samsung Odyssey. If folks can cobble together a system with PSmove controllers or Nolo and a cell phone then it should be possible with other gear. I know this is the goal of the OpenXR standard. I just wish it was here already.

  • I wonder if a new style of locomotion can be done using the trackpad to kinda flick your position around quickly.

    • Laurence Nairne

      I was thinking the same thing – a combination of teleport and free locomotion. It would be like a first person experience of instant transmission from Dragon Ball Z (yes that is a very sad analogy).

  • HybridEnergy

    Can’t wait to get my hands on these !

  • MosBen

    As someone that has a Rift, I’ve decided to just stick to this setup until a truly next generation HMD comes out. I think that that’s the right move, both from a technology and wallet perspective, but man, these controllers look awesome. I’m very jealous of whoever gets to play with these before me.

    • Jistuce

      Ditto. I don’t see a reason to buy a whole new setup at present, but damn if I don’t want me some (Sonic and) Knuckles action. I mean, Touch sort of melts into my hands most of the time, once I get my mind to start thinking three-fingered like a ninja turtle, but throwing stuff still feels just weird.

      Also, I can’t flick anyone off with Touch. Major oversight in the design.

  • Lorena

    How do i hold my beer and get drunk?

    • tyler gallagher

      Good question

    • G-man

      you mean you dont have a custom made vive headstrap made from a beer helmet already? what is this, amateur hour?

  • doug

    I just don’t get it. I’ve never been using the hand grip on the vive and wished it was per-finger, or force sensitive. The video above doesn’t show me why I should want that. It shows him grabbing rocks, with all 4 fingers. Grip button does that now, and usually with optional toggle. It doesn’t show him using scissors, playing a guitar or typing. The only new feature I see here worth any discussion is squeezing something hard for effect, a game mechanic that could only be used very sparingly. I’m reminded of the big deal analog buttons on the Playstation were going to be, and then they weren’t.

    • Don’t see where it ays you must grip them hard and the grip buttons are obnoxious.

      It’s good they got replaced w/ natuaral grip.

      Now devs won’t ever feel like using them for anything other than grip.

      Jus cant see how you equate finger motion sense w/ the need to grip all fingers to grab even the handle of a cup when no one does that….small handles that is.

    • G-man

      immersion…. squeezing a button vs just grabbing.

  • Riaan Prinsloo

    I haven’t been this excited about gaming hardware since the original Vive. Imagine a decent baseball game (a game I’ve never played IRL) with something like this, or digital Dodgeball, Discs of Tron, etc. Can’t wait!

    • G-man

      sparc and echo arena…

  • brandon9271

    I want pretty much the same but it HAS to be non fresnel lenses :)

  • Kenny Thompson

    But can you give someone the bird?

  • mirak

    It feels anachronic to track fingers to this level while most VR have almost no physical interactions.
    I mean Max Payne or Half Life 2 seemed to have better physics than current credit games.

    • JJ

      what? do you live under a rock? both of your statements are ludicrous.

      There are vr games build completely around physical interactions, like the gun manipulation in hot dogs, horseshoes, and hand grenades.

      Game physics arent that crazy until you mix in multiplayer and server/client correction. If anything car physics are the most advanced at the moment, aside from that things are kept pretty basic so that they look really good like in half life and Max Payne.

      • mirak

        The game you cite is basically a demo.
        From my mind I would rather think to job simulator or Call of starseed.
        But that’s too few games.
        Physics in Arizona Sunshine is not incredible.

        Of course Obduction mechanisms are awesome but you don’t interact with that.

        So my statement stays accurate, I still feel the hardware is ahead of the software.

        Yes it would be good with better resolution, wireless, depth of focus, but if get this right now it will not really improve the game play of games.
        I think the most margin is on the software.

  • Maciej Soinski

    Whenever I read about exciting new VR tech I ask myself: If VR is so amazing why there are usually only 5k online SteamVR users?

    • Laurence Nairne

      Because it’s also amazingly expensive and people have different value hierarchies.

      It’s also the standard funnel. To get from “how many people in VR” to “how many people in this game in VR” is quite a journey that loses many people along the way. The market is very fragmented right now, not just across hardware, but software platforms as well.

  • Cool devices