Touch sen­si­tive

Room-scale track­ing and mo­tion con­trol ar­rive for Ocu­lus Rift

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They say change never comes easy, so per­haps it’s no sur­prise that the first year of con­sumer VR has been some­what rocky. The prom­ise, and ap­peal, of SteamVR and HTC Vive were rather un­der­mined by the lat­ter’s pric­etag and the for­mer’s pref­er­ence for quan­tity over qual­ity – a glance at user re­views on Steam sug­gests many would pre­fer it the other way round. Sony may have launched PSVR with one of the big­gest and broad­est launch line­ups in videogame his­tory, but it has since low­ered its es­ti­mated sales fig­ures for what al­ways felt like VR’s most mass­mar­ket propo­si­tion. Then, a per­ceived lack of fo­cus on new VR ti­tles at De­cem­ber’s PlayS­ta­tion Ex­pe­ri­ence had many fear­ing that Sony’s ex­pertly en­gi­neered head­set was des­tined to go the way of Vita: loved by those who owned it, but un­der­val­ued by its maker.

And Ocu­lus? There were man­u­fac­tur­ing and ship­ping de­lays that meant those who had pre­ordered di­rectly through Ocu­lus were still wait­ing for their Rift when the head­set started pitch­ing up at re­tail. There was the un­palat­able con­tro­versy around the per­sonal pol­i­tics, and open cheque­book, of founder Palmer Luckey. The com­pany has had to counter the per­cep­tion that it’s try­ing to stran­gle the com­pe­ti­tion by sign­ing up a host of plat­form ex­clu­sives. Per­haps most trou­blingly of all, Rift has been left in an awk­ward mid­dle ground be­tween PSVR’s af­ford­abil­ity and Vive’s lav­ish, but costly, room-scale VR. Rift may have kicked off the VR re­vival, and been first to reach store shelves and play­ers’ heads, but it has al­ways seemed to be lack­ing some­thing com­pared to its com­peti­tors.

Well, no longer. The launch of Ocu­lus Touch feels like the launch of Rift proper, giv­ing it a much-needed point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion from the com­pe­ti­tion, while also mak­ing it com­pat­i­ble with a host of games that were pre­vi­ously only playable via Vive’s wand con­trollers or PlayS­ta­tion Move. More than 50 Touch-en­abled games and apps were re­leased day and date with the con­troller, dwarf­ing even PSVR’s en­vi­able launch lineup. It meant that the com­pany that led the charge

to­wards con­sumer VR ended 2016 feel­ing much closer to the com­pe­ti­tion, and in some ar­eas even sur­pass­ing it.

Those who have spent much time with Rift’s com­peti­tors will be for­given for think­ing they’ve seen it all be­fore – or most of it, at least. The Touch setup process will cer­tainly be fa­mil­iar to Vive own­ers, with its re­quire­ment that you trace the out­line of your play space with the con­troller in hand and the trig­ger pressed down. There’s a sim­i­larly play­ful in­tro­duc­tion, too, to Valve’s The Lab, with Ocu­lus Touch: First Con­tact, in which a wel­com­ing Wall-E-style robot looks on as you learn what your new con­trollers are ca­pa­ble of. Else­where, apps such as Medium and Quill are the Tilt Brush equiv­a­lents – flex­i­ble, play­ful and qui­etly re­mark­able sculpt­ing and paint­ing tools. Then there are the games that launched along­side Vive that can now be played us­ing Rift’s mo­tion con­trollers, such as

Fi­nal Ap­proach, Job Sim­u­la­tor and Fan­tas­tic Con­trap­tion. So far, so fa­mil­iar. In truth, Touch’s real USP – which Ocu­lus rather awk­wardly calls ‘hand pres­ence’ – is some­what un­ex­plored by most of the launch lineup. Per­haps that’s be­cause the game­play ap­pli­ca­tions of giv­ing a thumbs-up or point­ing at some­thing are, in truth, more mi­nor than Ocu­lus had sug­gested. VR Sports

Chal­lenge, in the­ory the Wii Sports equiv­a­lent of the launch lineup, would work just fine on Vive or Move, apart from the abil­ity to use a pointed in­dex fin­ger to hit but­tons on the menu screen. Like much of the Touch launch lineup, it’s a fine en­dorse­ment of mo­tion con­trols in VR, but not nec­es­sar­ily of Touch it­self.

No doubt that will come in time, but for now even that vaunted hand pres­ence is less in­tu­itive than we’d like. Clench your fist and the ac­tion will only be repli­cated by your vir­tual hand if you’re squeez­ing the grip but­ton on the side of the con­troller; you can only point a fin­ger if you’re mak­ing a fist. Hand ges­tures are bi­nary – your in­dex fin­ger is ei­ther fully ex­tended or clenched to the rest of your fist – which gives the im­pres­sion, whether cor­rect or not, that track­ing is slightly less than one to one.

Room-scale VR can feel like a fudge, too. While Touch comes with a sec­ond sen­sor, the setup process rec­om­mends they be placed ei­ther side of your mon­i­tor, be­tween three and seven feet apart. For us, that meant that the cam­eras lost sight of us when we were mark­ing out the far cor­ners of our play space, since we were phys­i­cally oc­clud­ing the sen­sors’ line of sight to the con­troller. This isn’t a prob­lem with Vive, since sen­sors are placed di­ag­o­nally op­po­site each other, and con­nect wire­lessly; the Rift sen­sors’ USB cables aren’t long enough to do this with­out the use of ex­ten­ders. Early adopters, hav­ing al­ready spent four fig­ures on a pow­er­ful PC and al­most as much again on a Rift and Touch setup, might con­sider the £80 in­vest­ment for a third sen­sor a rel­a­tive drop in the ocean.

Where Touch is most suc­cess­ful is in the games Ocu­lus has funded it­self – and par­tic­u­larly third­party games it’s backed in ex­change for ex­clu­siv­ity.

Su­per­hot VR is a rev­e­la­tion – one of the finest VR games we’ve played to date, cer­tainly, but also one whose ef­fec­tive­ness would be undimmed were it also to have been re­leased for Vive and PSVR. Yet with­out Ocu­lus’s fund­ing, its de­vel­op­ers have ad­mit­ted, it would sim­ply never have ex­isted.

With DayZ de­vel­oper Dean Hall re­cently speak­ing out about how VR de­vel­op­ers are on a fi­nan­cial hid­ing to noth­ing with­out sup­port of some kind, whether from a pub­lisher or plat­form holder, it’s clear that the tide of per­cep­tion needs to turn. While Ocu­lus cer­tainly has a lot to gain from plat­form ex­clu­sives, VR as a whole is never go­ing to get so much as a sniff of mass­mar­ket reach with­out the games to back it up. In the short term, it may be painful to see your choice of one four-fig­ure in­vest­ment over an­other de­val­ued by a de­sir­able game be­ing made ex­clu­sive to an­other plat­form. But it’s a nec­es­sary grow­ing pain for VR in gen­eral. Touch may not be a rev­o­lu­tion for VR – yet – but its ef­fect on the qual­ity, diver­sity and ap­peal of its host plat­form is im­mea­sur­able.

Where Touch is most suc­cess­ful is in the third­party games it’s backed in ex­change for ex­clu­siv­ity

The Touch con­trollers fit beau­ti­fully in the hands, and once you’ve learned the face-but­ton la­belling, you’re away. One gripe: that cir­cu­lar de­sign means there’s no ele­gant way of putting the things down

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