A NEW SEN­SA­TION IN VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY

Fast Company - - Innovation By Design - —MW

VR tech­nol­ogy lets you travel from the bot­tom of the ocean to the top of Mount Ever­est, glimps­ing some of the planet’s most re­mote sites along the way. And yet it’s al­ways had a short­com­ing: You can look, but you can’t touch. Ap­ple vet Caitlin Kali­nowski (she helped de­sign the Mac­book Air and Mac Pro), who now heads prod­uct de­sign en­gi­neer­ing at the Face­book-owned VR firm Ocu­lus, has reme­died this. She and her team have de­vel­oped wire­less con­trollers that give you func­tional hands in vir­tual re­al­ity for the first time, al­low­ing you to feel as if you’re throw­ing ob­jects and mak­ing ac­tual ges­tures. Called the Ocu­lus Touch, the $100 de­vices—which started ship­ping in De­cem­ber 2016 and have won nearly uni­ver­sal ac­claim—bal­ance in your palm and fea­ture squeez­able grips that can sense when you are try­ing to reach and grasp ob­jects, while me­chan­i­cal but­tons can de­tect the pres­ence of your fin­gers, much like an iphone screen. This means Touch can mir­ror your hand move­ments, how­ever sub­tle, in the vir­tual world. Sure, you still can’t feel vir­tual tex­tures or the weight of ob­jects. But you can grasp a soda can, light fire­crack­ers, and (ad­ven­ture-game play­ers, take note) sat­is­fy­ingly pull a sling­shot.

Touch looks a lot like plas­tic brass knuck­les. Did you have this shape in mind from the start?

We had to get ev­ery­thing wrong over and over to get the right thing. We tried [mak­ing it] a sport wrap around the palm, and that didn’t have the right feel. We didn’t have a place where you could rest your thumb, so you’d have your thumb up all the time, which got re­ally tir­ing. Over a lot of it­er­a­tions, we de­vel­oped this yoke on your hand, so you can open and close your fin­gers with­out drop­ping it. Peter Bris­tol’s in­dus­trial de­sign team and our team worked closely on that.

There’s also a ring en­cir­cling your hand, like a halo, which is tracked by a sen­sor con­nected to your com­puter. Was that as com­pli­cated to de­sign as it looks?

When you open and close your hand, you don’t hit that ring. The po­si­tion of it, the lo­ca­tion of the in­frared LEDS, the way the shape wraps around your hand, and the geom­e­try was a break­through. No ques­tion. Fig­ur­ing out a way to do that in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the bal­ance, too. Ev­ery tiny change has a mil­lion ef­fects for the rest of the de­vice.

How did you get touch-screen-like ca­pac­i­tive sen­sors into the me­chan­i­cal but­tons?

There was a time where we weren’t sure we could do it, to be hon­est. [But] when we ex­pe­ri­enced it in pro­to­type, that’s when sev­eral of us be­came con­vinced that we had to do it. With my back­ground, I had some real con­cerns. I hadn’t seen a mass-pro­duced prod­uct that had good ca­pac­i­tive re­sponse. But we went for it.

Pho­to­graph by Chloe Af­tel

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