While there was lots of great info to come out of our Gamecom 2014 interview with Oculus VR, perhaps the most telling bit was the way the Oculus founder Palmer Luckey answered the question about an unconfirmed VR input device that the company is reportedly working on.
The raw transcript itself doesn’t sound exciting, at 0:32 in the video. The telling part came from Nate Mitchell (right) Oculus VR’s VP of Product. His reaction (below), which appeared to be along the lines of “I didn’t know we were saying that yet,” spoke volumes more than the words alone.
Paul James: “How likely is it we’re hear more about your unconfirmed work with VR input devices at Oculus Connect?
Palmer Luckey: “You’ll probably hear more about it, we’re going to be talking about everything we’re doing at Connect.”
For some time now Oculus VR has said that they’ve been researching VR input devices, but whether or not they’d be making their own has been a long-dodged question. The company has only ever shown their VR headset, the Rift DK1 and DK2, played with keyboard and mouse or a wireless Xbox 360 controller. Once Sony announced Morpheus with a heavy emphasis on the PlayStation Move controller as a natural input device, the pressure began to build for how Oculus would respond.
And for good reason. Using a natural input controller is far more immersive than an abstract controller like a keyboard and mouse. Even though many of us are right at home with such devices, they aren’t actually intuitive; interacting inside of a 3D virtual world will always be easier and more natural when it can be done with an input method that that is tracked with 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF). In my experience with the Oculus Rift, many of the most immersive experiences make use of the Razer Hydra controller to put your hands in VR. Many of my favorites—from the original Sixense Tuscany VR demo to the HL2VR mod with Hydra support to Crashland—use it very effectively.
I’ve had the opportunity to see many people experience Sony’s Morpheus for the first time in the Castle demo where they use the Move controller to attack an armored mannequin with fists, swords, and crossbows. Every time—experienced gamers or not—they jump right in, immediately throwing a flurry of punches, often with a big smile on their face. There’s no learning to be done, no ‘pull the trigger to hit,’ they jump right into it because they can rely on their natural human motion for input.
Oculus is well aware of the need for a proper natural input solution, they’re also well aware of the existing solutions out there—STEM, PrioVR, and Control VR, to name a few. At the SVVR 2014 Conference & Expo, Luckey sat in on the Rev VR ‘Ubercast’ episode and answered some questions on the input topic:
At Oculus we try not to do things unless we can do them the best and I do think that 6 DOF input is very critical to virtual reality but I think that inputs need to be more than just input devices, they need to be input and output devices and this is true of the headset. The Rift wouldn’t be useful if it was just an output device, it wouldn’t be useful as only an input devices, because they work together that you’re able to have this incredible system. I think the same goes for input… having something that allows you to reach into a virtual world is pretty cool but you need to be able to… at least to a certain degree, feel things in that virtual world. Shaking hands is not feeling things. Shaking hands is not next-gen… I think that there’s a long way to go for VR input before it’s able to hold up to that level of quality where people try it and they say ‘this is blowing my mind, it’s like I’m actually reaching out into a virtual world’, not just ‘I’m moving a ghostly apparition of a hand’… we’ve done a lot of R&D around virtual reality input and our conclusion has been that it’s very very hard to do, it’s not something you can just say ‘have a wand moving through space, call it a day’.
For pure input, systems like STEM appear to be well on their way to providing a great low latency option for virtual reality. But Oculus seems quite concerned about haptics—the ability to feel the virtual world. It sounds like they want something more than rumble.
The problem with haptics is that existing solutions are mechanically complex, often contributing to bulk, increased need for maintenance, and cost. A high-end system like the CyberGlove CyberForce might do everything you’d ever dream for haptic VR input, but its size and cost isn’t viable for the consumer market:
Tactical Haptics was an early player in the consumer VR space that sought to bring an innovative form of haptic feedback to VR controllers, but hasn’t been able to catch on thus far. Team GauntL33t is working on a per-finger haptic feedback device, but there’s clearly a lot of refinement that needs to be done.
What will Oculus consider the minimum viable ‘hatpic-ness’ for consumer VR? Rumble? Finger resistance? Hand resistance? Palm forces? The key, with any consumer product, is to balance the experience with practicality and cost. Whatever the company ends up doing, it sounds quite certain that we’ll be hearing about it next month at Oculus’ Connect developer conference next month.