THE TOY OF THE BEHOLDER
Up close with Touch
Due for release later this year, the Touch hardware essentially merges the function and form of motion controllers and a traditional pad, breaking the latter in two so that each half can be used independently. Its constellation tracking reads hand movements with striking precision, using the same sensor that tracks the Rift user’s head position. Traditional fascia buttons, thumbsticks and triggers, meanwhile, let players grab, press and select. “I don’t think the question is about if there are going to be a lot more hand controller games and tools for VR,” says Colin Northway. “It’s about if there’s going to be any non- hand-controlled games and tools.”
then motion controllers such as Touch will be fundamental in establishing the medium. It’s a concept that has been a talking point within the academic community for some time.
“As humans we have a visceral desire to reach out and interact with the world,” says VR researcher Jason Jerald, echoing Northway’s observations. “A relatively large portion of the sensory and motor cortex is devoted to the hands. Without our hands, we’re confined to a largely passive experience of both the real world and virtual worlds, and acting with our hands enables us to feel like we’re more part of the world.”
The Touch controller’s ability to make the VR experience feel more real is a powerful one, but what does it actually mean for gameplay? The simple answer is tangibility and immediacy. Played with Touch controllers, Bullet Train evokes the feel of Time Crisis and its lightgun ilk but plunges the form into a completely 3D world, where grabbing bullets from the air or crossing arms to fire two guns in opposite directions is equal parts instinctive and exciting. In Rock Band VR, meanwhile, a Touch controller clamped to a traditional Rock Band guitar controller allows you to take your plastic axe with you as you move from the physical realm to a virtual one, in the process rendering those air-guitar fantasies more convincing than ever before.
“In our case, the guitar is the channel through which the player impacts the world, so for us, having a virtual guitar as a bridge between the physical and virtual is incredibly powerful,” says Harmonix creative lead Greg LoPiccolo. “It lets us fulfil players’ fantasies about what it might be like to actually play onstage, but connected directly to their hands and motion in a way that’s very intuitive and powerful. For instance, we can visually render the freestyle guitar solos with crazy visual pyrotechnics, but since the visuals are flying out of the controller the player is holding, it grounds the experience and makes it very real and evocative.”
Implementing Oculus Touch in these ways has naturally come with its own set of challenges, and the experimental ideas being explored by developers are indicative of the uncharted space they’re moving into.
“We had to be careful to keep things simple in Bullet Train,” says project lead designer Nick Donaldson. “To start with, we had slow-motion and teleport on two different Touch buttons, but people would find themselves touching different buttons. That wasn’t quite right, so we made all the buttons teleport. We had to find a balance of complexity around Touch, and that was a very organic, natural process.”
Thus far, the development community seems happy with the technical process of bringing Touch into games – LoPiccolo’s assertion that it is “pretty straightforward” is entirely typical – but there’s little sense that the traditional gamepad is in any danger of being replaced.
“The part of our brain that our hands use is really good at helping us use tools,” says Northway Games co-founder Sarah Northway. “And something like an Xbox One controller is a really good tool for doing certain complex jobs.”
But one area where Touch outstrips gamepads is in its potential for communication and expression. HTC’s Vive controllers, and the Move controllers that are compatible with PlayStation VR, also extend the player’s reach into a game environment, but the Touch solution offers a more instinctive interface. While the option to naturally extend your thumb or forefinger in a game may seem little more than a frivolous gimmick on paper, it’s a remarkably powerful – and efficient – way to express yourself to other players. Why trawl through an emote menu when you can give two thumbs up to your fellow avatars? (It’s no surprise that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg picks social VR as the most valuable avenue for Oculus Rift’s future.) And the additional nuance of control this aspect encourages means developers can create puzzles and challenges that can distinguish between a fist and a prodding digit – one behind-closed-doors demo we tried at GDC had us working through the processes of turning door knobs, flicking light switches and punching through glass.
As for the future Touch and its contemporaries are heralding, there’s an awful lot to look forward to.
Sam Watts of Tammeka Games has experimented with Touch control for the studio’s futuristic racer,
Radial-G, and while the system may never be the default for the game, he remains convinced that it has powerful potential.
“Oculus Touch and motion controls add a level of immersion that’s not possible with a gamepad,” he notes. “And Touch especially, for interactions that are hand-based – rather than, say, holding a weapon or tool – feels much more natural to use, allowing users to really feel connected to the virtual world. That’s at a base level, but combined with tracking a standing or moving user in VR, then whole new genres emerge that haven’t necessarily been prototyped or even designed yet.”
It’s no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg picks social VR as the most valuable avenue for Oculus Rift’s future
Full hand tracking is the ultimate goal in VR interaction, but for the time being Touch represents the most comprehensively featured controller. The tech won’t be available to Rift owners until later in 2016, however
FROM TOP Jason Jerald, Nick Donaldson and Greg LoPiccolo