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Virtual Reality’s Next Challenge: The Perfect Controller

by Mike Futter on Sep 22, 2014 at 04:18 PM

As Oculus gets closer to its first consumer Rift model, the pieces are starting to fall into place. With the visual aspects approaching targets thanks to the new Crescent Bay prototype and audio well underway, we wanted to know what the company was planning for an input device.

Back at GDC, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey told us that input isn’t enough for virtual reality. "You don't want just an input device," he says. "Something like a Kinect or a mouse, they are very much input devices. You are making something happen in the virtual world, but nothing is coming back out. What you really want is something like the headset that allows you to manipulate the virtual world and feel sensations from and have good haptic sensations from the world."

We followed up with company CEO Brendan Iribe to discuss Oculus’ progress on in-house development of something that would fit Luckey’s specifications. “That is the next step. We’re still not ready to come out and talk about what we’re doing on input,” he says. “We’re R&Ding it, but we haven’t gotten to a place we think input is good enough to say that we’re ready to show something that we would ship. We show these feature prototypes. At some point in the future, there will be a feature prototype for some kind of input. I have no idea how long that will take. We’ve always said were R&Ding it, and when we think it’s good enough, we’ll show you a prototype, and eventually we will ship.”

There is a real chance that the first consumer model will be ready and shipped before the ideal control mechanism is developed. Iribe says that the company won’t hold back a product if that device isn’t finished, though.

“If we don’t get input right in five years, we will have shipped a consumer Rift before that,” he says. “We will not wait five years to ship a consumer product. We will not four years. We will not wait three years. We’re gonna ship something in the next few years, we’re getting much, much closer. If vision is totally nailed, and audio is nailed and it’s input and we think it’s too far away, we’re going to ship something.”

At Oculus Connect this weekend, I had the chance to try two different input mechanisms that serve very different functions in the virtual reality space. The first, Striker Virtual Recoil, is an assault rifle-shaped device originally designed for military training.

It includes an adjustable slide that can be used to simulate varying amounts of recoil. When I tried the peripheral, I was impressed by the feel of in hitting my shoulder. According to Striker’s Martin Holly, the device was set relatively low (and certainly not high enough to mimic a real assault rifle).

As interesting as the Striker is for first-person shooters and military training, it’s too focused to be the solution to a universal virtual reality controller. (Still, it’s one I would love to spend more time with in a virtual environment.)

The Tactical Haptics Reactive Grip doesn’t have the hard-hitting recoil of the Striker, but it is the best VR input I’ve used to date. Fashioned out of two Razer Hydras, the Reactive Grip features rubber coated plates around the grips.

CEO and founder William Provancher told me that using physics engines already available on the market, his device can convert on-screen action to real tactile feedback. The best part is that it works exactly as promised.

Once wearing an Oculus DK2, Provancher handed me the two devices. They are light and comfortable to hold. 

The first part of the demo put a spring in my hands. By pressing the triggers on each device, my virtual hands closed around the ends. Pulling on the spring resulted in a feeling of resistance in my palms due to the moving plates.

Next, was a piece of rubber. As I pulled it apart, twisted, and brought it back together, it felt like I was manipulating in the real world what I was visualizing in the display. Each twist and turn in all six degrees of freedom was felt instantaneously, with no lag and a deeper sense of immersion than almost any other VR demo.

We moved onto a sword and heavy bag segment. My left hand was empty, and the right held the blade. I was able to smack it against the heavy bag, which in turn swung realistically. When I reached my hand out, I felt the bag bounce back and make contact.

Finally, and most impressively, I was given a flail and told to swing it around. I felt the weight shift around as I moved my arm. Rotating it rapidly above my head felt unbelievably convincing, as the plates shifted around my thumb and palm.

I don’t know if this is the direction Oculus is headed with their input methodology, but the Reactive Grip provided feedback output unlike anything I’ve felt in a game controller before. This is far beyond simple rumbles in a gamepad, it’s authentic and lifelike, and I want to try more than a demo with the devices in-hand.

It’s important to remember that virtual reality as a viable field is just getting underway. It will grow, mature, and improve and more importantly, it will start to connect with more senses. The visuals continue to improve, audio is clearly underway, but it’s the input (and output) that is going to sell virtual reality. 

Seeing was believing. Now, for me, touching the virtual space is the hurdle I want to see Oculus jump.