For gamers, vir­tual re­al­ity within reach

Big com­pa­nies and start-ups alike are let­ting play­ers ma­nip­u­late dig­i­tal realms with their own hands and arms.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Paresh Dave paresh.dave@latimes.com Twit­ter: @peard33

De­vel­op­ers of vir­tual re­al­ity games have im­mersed play­ers in dig­i­tal worlds, filled with com­puter-ren­dered space­ships, land­scapes and mon­sters.

Now they’re let­ting play­ers ma­nip­u­late those realms with their own hands and arms.

At the Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo this week in Los An­ge­les, big com­pa­nies and start-ups alike showed how they are trans­lat­ing play­ers’ real-world hand and fin­ger ges­tures into equiv­a­lent vir­tual ac­tions us­ing rings, ba­tons and gloves.

For more than two decades, mak­ers of vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets had been plagued by tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions that pro­duced vis­ually un­ap­peal­ing im­ages, in­duced nau­sea and kept the de­vices bulky and thus un­wear­able for long pe­ri­ods. But com­put­ers have grown more pow­er­ful, and elec­tri­cal com­po­nents smaller and more af­ford­able.

With the vis­ual com­po­nent fi­nally re­fined, pro­vid­ing a sense of touch rep­re­sents the next crit­i­cal step to­ward con­vinc­ing peo­ple that they’ve en­tered another world.

Sev­eral new sets of VR gog­gles — a dis­play held in front of the eyes by a har­ness — will go on sale next win­ter or spring with con­trols de­signed to make the ex­pe­ri­ence feel more real.

Prices for most of the prod­ucts haven’t been an­nounced.

Ocu­lus VR — the Irvine start-up that was ac­quired by Face­book last year for $2 bil­lion — will start selling its Rift head­set early next year.

Af­ter putting on the Rift hel­met — and wedg­ing an open, half-moon-shaped de­vice be­tween the thumb and in­dex fin­ger on each hand — peo­ple at the L.A. expo could see ghost-like im­ages of their hands ap­pear in a lightly dec­o­rated vir­tual room. They could clench their fist, de­press­ing a but­ton in the process, to pick up a vir­tual block and re­lax their grip to drop it.

The sys­tem works be­cause a wall-mounted sen­sor tracks the move­ment of the light­weight rings, known as Ocu­lus Touch.

First-time Rift users of­ten look around and ex­claim, “This is amaz­ing. I’m fi­nally here,” said Ocu­lus Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Bren­dan Iribe.

But the sec­ond thought, he said, is: “When am I go­ing to see my hands?”

Wear­ing the Touch, testers could load a sling­shot, pick up a lighter, hold a fire­cracker or bounce a ping­pong ball on a pad­dle. A cou­ple of min­utes into a 10-minute demon­stra­tion, the Touch and Rift start to feel real — es­pe­cially when in­ter­act­ing with other vir­tual be­ings, pok­ing them or hand­ing them items. The Rift’s main con­troller will be a Mi­crosoft Xbox One game pad, while the Touch re­mains a pro­to­type and will sell as an add-on a few months af­ter the head­set launches. Pric­ing hasn’t been set.

Gam­ing gi­ant Sony Corp.’s vir­tual re­al­ity head­set, code-named Pro­ject Mor­pheus, is ex­pected to pro­vide at least three ways for play­ers to con­trol their en­vi­ron­ment.

In one game, users play the role of a big beast and shake their heads to knock down sky­scrapers and bridges. In a 3D ver­sion of Tetris, tap­ping on Sony’s tra­di­tional PlayS­ta­tion game pad ro­tates blocks. In a bad-guy get­away game, play­ers hold a ba­ton-like PlayS­ta­tion Move con­troller in each hand. One hand would hold the gun with the other free to open the door or reload the gun with fresh mag­a­zines.

Moun­tain View start-up Nod Labs has a sen­sor-filled ring that sends a dig­i­tal boy run­ning across roofs in one game as the player swivels his hand slightly, as if do­ing a wrist ex­er­cise. In a sec­ond game, us­ing the thumb to tap on the bot­tom of the ring, worn on the in­dex fin­ger, fires lasers at col­or­ful mon­sters. Un­like Ocu­lus Touch, a player doesn’t have to stand in the path of a sen­sor for the mo­tion con­trol to work.

Manus Machina, a Dutch start-up, is de­vel­op­ing sen­sor-laden gloves. To make the ex­pe­ri­ence feel au­then­tic, users might hold a rolling pin to sim­u­late a steer­ing wheel in a driv­ing game or a banana in place of a gun.

So what’s next to con­quer in vir­tual re­al­ity? The nose? “We’re at the very be­gin­ning,” Iribe said of smell in VR. “Right now, we’re fo­cused on the vi­sion, the au­dio and now the hands.”

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