Room-scale tracking and motion control arrive for Oculus Rift
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