After years of development kits and prototype demos, Oculus finally launched the first consumer version of its Rift VR headset in March. But even as a real product for people to buy, the first consumer version of the Rift was incomplete when it launched. That’s because, unlike competing high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, the Oculus Rift didn’t have an integrated method of tracking your hands in virtual space.
Sure, you can do a lot of cool things in virtual reality with the kind of standard, handheld, button-based controller that’s been accompanying games on 2D screens for decades. But when faced with a stereoscopic 3D world that completely surrounds you, as happens in the Rift headset, your first instinct is to touch the things in that world. As we noted with disappointment in our first review of the Rift, without hand-tracking controllers, “this brave new display technology is a strict ‘look, don’t touch’ affair.'”
Now, after months of waiting, Oculus owners have a chance to pay $200 to give in to that urge to “reach out and touch something” that they’ve been suppressing for months. The wait may pay off in the long run, as the Oculus Touch controllers offer best-in-class comfort, excellent tracking, and some intriguing, exclusive games to showcase that potential.
Loosen that fist
From the Nintendo Wii Remote to the PlayStation Move controller to the HTC Vive Magic Wand, great motion controllers have had one major problem until now: the need to hold a closed fist around the vaguely cylindrical piece of plastic in your hands. Yes, you may have some freedom to wiggle an index finger or thumb to tap a button or trigger, but these controllers require the rest of your hand to maintain a deadly grip around the base to avoid accidentally letting go. falling or throwing (so many broken wristbands…). With previous motion controllers, interacting with the virtual world is like poking around with a stick in a clenched fist.
The Oculus Touch solves this with an ingenious design that curves inward a bit. The controller’s handle curves to sit slightly under a large, flat surface that holds three thumb buttons and one analog stick per hand. This design balances the controller’s weight so it rests naturally in the top of the palm or the crook of your fingers, even when you’re holding it with a grip loose enough to drop other controllers.
In fact, unless you turn your wrist completely upside down, the Touch controller is hard to drop. If you try to open your hand all the way while holding the controller normally, your fingers will catch on the follower ring and still support the weight of the controller (however, the controller can still accidentally fly out of the top of your grip if you use powerful force. making upward movements).
This may sound like a small thing, but it makes a huge difference when you want to interact with the virtual world. With other motion controllers, you may clumsily tap your trigger finger to mimic picking something up, fearing that a larger movement will make the controller less secure in your hand. The Touch controller allows you to make a complete, natural gripping motion, confident that the light touch under your index and ring finger will pick up the input and that the controller will remain stable. You won’t forget the controller is there – you can still feel the sometimes sweaty plastic in your palm – but you won’t have to worry about closing your fingers to support as you twist and move your hand and fingers.
The Touch controller’s design also encourages this kind of finger movement, with built-in sensors that can partially detect where your fingers are even if you don’t press a button or trigger. It’s a strictly digital feature (pun intended); either your finger is on the button, or it is off, with no intermediate detection. This can be unpleasant in the virtual world, for example when your VR thumb zombie-like clicks from a “thumbs up” pose to a closed fist while resting on the joystick. That said, the fact that the controller can detect a thumbs-up movement — or an index finger, for that matter — makes non-verbal communication and fine control much better in VR.
About that second camera
I appreciate the inclusion of traditional analog sticks on the surface of the Touch controller. These sticks provide more tactile feedback than the functionless thumbpad on the HTC Vive controllers and much more accurate than the tiny face buttons on PlayStation Move. You can feel the buttons on the side of that analog stick without looking, although I found myself accidentally pausing my game by tapping the small menu button with the inside of my thumb.
But for the most part, moving your hand through space with the Touch is the most intuitive and effective interface in virtual reality. Simply pressing a virtual button, grabbing a virtual object, or turning your virtual hand to direct a laser pointer (or gun barrel) offers far more flexibility than sticks or buttons ever could. For the most part, the tracking that allows for this kind of hand movement is just as smooth and stable as it is for the Rift headset itself. However, getting that smooth tracking requires a second Oculus camera, included in the $200 box with the controllers.