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

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