The mobile hand-tracking module is running the ‘Orion’ branch of Leap Motion’s hand-tracking engine, which brought major improvements to the hand-tracking performance when used for VR.
In the Qualcomm VRDK I got to try the familiar ‘Blocks’ demo (above), which allowed me to use my hands to spawn shapes of varying sizes, which could be stacked, thrown or smacked. This time however, the demo was paired with the inside-out tracking of the Qualcomm VRDK, allowing me to physically walk around the virtual space to grab out-of-reach blocks. I could see my hands tracked well inside the headset, and in addition to being able to spawn shapes, I could also flip my hand palm-up to make a floating interface appear attached to that hand, and I could use the pointer finger on my other hand to tap various icons that impacted the experience.
I was really impressed with the intuitiveness and functionality of this hand-based interface; it felt like an incredibly easy and natural way to use my own two hands to control my VR experience, likely because it kept the interface mounted to me, and used one of the most simple gestures known to humankind—the point/poke—to initiate actions. It felt very good and I’d love to see the idea adopted more widely, especially among mobile VR headsets which today have rather clunky interfaces.
This type of ‘hand-mounted interface’ isn’t entirely new—we’ve seen similar things in VR experiences that use VR controllers—but doing it without any controller in my hands was hands-down the more natural feel compared to pointing a laser pointer, or even to pointing your finger via Touch’s binary finger-sensing implementation (which does allow you a ‘point’ gesture).
Impressive tech, but still there’s still a number of limitations that this sort of hand-tracking tech will be hard pressed to solve. For one, physical buttons and sticks are still important input methods; I still get a more natural and immersive feeling by using a trigger to grab an object in VR than by pinching my fingers together into a ‘fake’ grabbing gesture. The increased field of view certainly helps, but there’s still times where your hand will leave the hand-tracked field of view.
Despite these challenges, when it comes to mobile VR, Leap Motion’s new mobile tracking module is a compelling addition, and, if the price is right, a seeming no-brainer. It has the potential to make the mobile VR experience much closer to the that of high-end tethered VR headsets, thanks to the ability to naturally reach into the virtual world in a way that’s much more immersive than the basic rotational controllers of today’s mobile VR headsets. Not to mention the usability factor—if mobile VR headsets are aimed at more casual users, the ability to control an interface by reaching out and touching it with your finger is something that everyone with a smartphone already knows how to do. That means mobile VR headsets equipped with hand-tracking are likely to have a much reduced learning curve compared to basic rotational controllers and to the side-head-mounted trackpad approach that we see in Gear VR and other headsets.
Qualcomm says the first VR headsets built on the VRDK are due out in 2017, but whether they will incorporate the Leap Motion mobile hand-tracking tech isn’t clear just yet.
Disclosure: Qualcomm and Road to VR co-hosted a networking event during GDC 2017.