Hand Physics Lab is all about hand-tracking, and this over 80-level game aims to throw you head first into a whimsical series of seemingly simple tasks. Quest can offer mixed results when it comes to hand-tracking fidelity though, so if you’re not careful, it can be extremely frustrating for all the wrong reasons.

Hand Physics Lab Details:

Available On: Oculus Quest
Release Date: April 1st, 2021
Price: $10
Developer: Dennys Kuhnert – Holonautic
Reviewed On: Quest 2

Gameplay

Messing around with hand-tracking is really fun the first couple times you try it, and seeing my twiddling fingers represented in VR really served up some of the first ‘wow’ moments for me. Despite the promise of controller-less interactions, hand-tracking on Quest hasn’t been adopted by game developers across the board for a few reasons, a major one being that it offers lower fidelity input in comparison to Touch.

Note: If you haven’t given hand-tracking a spin on either Quest headset, you just need regular indoor lighting for optimal results. I found closing my shades and turning on all my interior lights provided adequate tracking. Still, it’s not uncommon to see your virtual hands completely wig out, or not track all of your fingers correctly—it just doesn’t feature the rock-solid tracking and button inputs of Touch.

Because Hand Physics Lab has virtualized your hands into physics-based objects, it’s less about directly interacting with objects and more about carefully miming actions and piloting a pair of decidedly much less capable limbs. It feels a bit like playing Surgeon Simulator at times, except the fidelity of input is constantly changing. It’s hard to predict when hand-tracking will fail and that lightbulb you tried to screw in for the past five minutes gets launched into the stratosphere.

Hand-tracking funkiness is an Oculus problem, but Hand Physics Lab seems to be leaning into it with mixed results. Even in the best case, this is the level of jitter you should expect. Keep an eye on the left hand as the fingers and whole hand pulse. In the worst case, your hand won’t work. Like at all.

Ok, so maybe it’s comically difficult by design because the hand-tracking control scheme isn’t precise. Hand Physics Lab also offers Touch controls, but that feels a bit like cheating because it lowers the skill ceiling so low that it’s not really even worth playing at that point. The creator assumes you’ll want to play with hand-tracking, so I did.

And like Surgeon Simulator, it definitely results in some madcap things like getting your virtual arm stuck in a tube while your physical hand moves through space unimpeded. When it’s working well enough it can be really fun, but when you’re not sure why hand-tracking is failing and it just does, playing the game can feel like trying to punch someone in your dreams. Totally ineffectual for no discernible reason.

Image courtesy Dennys Kuhnert, Holonautic

In Hand Physics Lab you run through about 80 tasks, most of which are regular things even chimps are expected to be able to do: Press these buttons. Sort these colored blocks. Stack these colored blocks. Paint these eggs different colors. And although only some that can be considered puzzles as such, there are a few really interesting tasks in the bunch that take some patience and attention to accomplish, like having to snatch target blocks out of a tumble dryer, or using a sort of grip-based telepathy to guide blocks through a series of tubes.

After completing the final sequential task, I was pretty much done with Hand Physics Lab though. Its more of a quirky, bright smorgasbord of tech demo stuff than a full-featured game as such. I say that full-well knowing that there’s actually a fair bit of content here; you play sequential levels to earn stars in order to unlock sandbox activities.

Putting hand funkiness aside, I wished offered bigger and better puzzles. There was a glimmer of some really interesting tasks that very briefly ramped up to real puzzle territory, and I would have loved to see those teased out more.

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Immersion

At risk of repeating myself, I’ll put it this way: hand-tracking funkiness really inhibits the promise of this game. If hand-tracking on Quest were hypothetically rock solid, and this game intentionally made it tremble and wig out for comedic effect, you might appraise it differently.

Anyway, I typically would play around 10 minutes at a time, but after playing for an hour straight, I got extremely frustrated with the game (read: I rage quit I tactically regrouped) and I had to write down my immediate impressions:

I feel like I have a wasting disease writing this. I just played Hand Physics Lab for an hour straight, and now my hands feel like weak meat puppets.

I’m having to concentrate very hard to coordinate my hands to type this correctly, and my arms feel extra heavy and useless.

The game had screwed with my proprioception, or the sense that you know where your limbs are at any given time without looking at them. More accurately, I was actually experiencing a ‘body transfer illusion’, which can be replicated by hiding a person’s hand from sight and replacing it with a fake one. Stroking both the fake hand and the subject’s real hand with a feather actually creates something called ‘proprioceptive drift’, which essentially makes the person feel like the rubber hand is their actual hand.

Because I was so intently staring at my virtualized hands the entire time, which don’t move perfectly in concert with my physical hands, I had actually internalized that my hands had become less effective at fine coordination tasks like typing or picking things up afterwards when I left the headset. Revisiting the game for shorter periods made this less apparent, but it’s safe to say I won’t be playing for extended sessions anytime soon. I took a break after that, and my arms eventually felt normal again, which was a relief.

Smaller bites and slower, more intentional movement can lessen this, but just don’t go in expecting to interact normally.

Comfort

Hand Physics Lab can be played seated, standing, and allows for a variable amount space. Besides the intensely weird body illusion stuff, it ranks among the most comfortable VR experiences since all locomotion is physical and not artificial such as smooth turning, snap-turning, or teleporting.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Overall
5

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  • Funny, I was just saying the hand tracking for games would be most successful if used like “Surgeon Simulator”, as it’s SO INACCURATE. Even for simple things, like pushing a button, it’s a crap-shoot if any of your fingers can remain in place long enough to pull it off.

    I really hope those hand tracking cuffs Oculus is working on reach the consumer market, as we need them.

  • Hats off for talking about proprioception and what allows us to not only know where are limbs are, but allows us to find things in the dark. This has been used to good effect in the “Void” and other hybrid experiences. It also allows joysticks and other controllers to be found when a proxy matching its location in VR matches up with the real world, which I have done with Vive trackers in both Ascent: Eagle Has Left the Moon and “Only Seconds” an active shooter simulator for educational institutes which combines a tracker for gross alignment of a surface the controllers are mounted on, or to an AirSoft PP-90 handgun with microswitches to allow for trigger, cartridge ejection/insertion, safety and grip pressure. A proxy meshes was created to match the controller or handgun allowing the real world gun to be located on a table, floor or even an open drawer. Proprioception is what allows us to reach out and grab or hold something even though we cannot see it in the real world.

    • Proprioception is fascinating to study, here’s an example (taken from my ergonomics article on Index controllers for Skarredghost):

      “Proprioception relating to body image is very interesting, here is a simple experiment:

      Try closing your eyes, move your arms above your head; now try touching the end of your nose with your right index finger – I’d be very surprised if you miss?

      Another test, place a piece of paper on a table in front of you, sit and then draw an “X” in the middle of the paper.

      Take a look at the X, close your eyes, raise your pen arm up and then bring it back down to where you think the X will be, make a mark, open your eyes, try again several times and see how your accuracy improves, this is proprioception recalibration on the fly!”

  • Kevin White

    Thanks for the honest review. I still wouldn’t mind trying this, but it sounds like the technology still has some strides to make.

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  • wheeler

    Wow, the post VR proprioception issue is extremely interesting and introduces another challenge I didn’t think we would have to face.

    VR input and feedback (through the hands) constitute both the most interesting and the most problematic aspects of the medium. There are so many things devs want to do but the limited input and feedback make them clunky/impractical.

  • g-man

    That’s disappointing. I tried it via Sidequest and found it to be as described here, which is why I was surprised it was not only accepted into the store but actually costs money.

  • Lhorkan

    Too bad, it always seemed so smooth in the many clips leading up to its release. I wonder how many attempts it must’ve taken to get each shot if the tracking is this finnicky.

  • Thanks for this review. BTW as a developer I should also say that for the developer has for sure been incredibly hard to develop this physics-driven sandbox

  • Rupert Jung

    Hand tracking on the quest seems like not quite there. Was honestly surprised that it didn’t improve in Quest 2. Even latency seems the same.

  • namekuseijin

    Well, it is a tech demo for Quest hand tracking after all – and a highly amusing one. Judging it as a “game” doesn’t do it justice.

    Is it right for the price? I think so, when you consider that standing on a virtual plank is the other tech demo priced accordingly. It’s also more amusing than chopping boxes in my view and yet that’s highly expensive…

  • Mr.Philgood

    I am confused, in the Comfort paragraph, it says: “it ranks among the most comfortable VR experiences” but only gets 6 out of 10