When the Oculus Rift reawakened our fascination with virtual reality in 2012, it was largely a visual medium. People imagined their average VR experience as a more exciting and immersive version of a traditional game or movie, something that gave the same familiar interactions a whole new feel. So controllers that mimicked movable virtual hands, like the Razer Hydra, just seemed like a fascinating but even geekier sub-field of an already geeky technology. But a few years later, motion controls have reinvented VR, and Oculus’ new Touch controllers are turning the Rift into the system it was always meant to be.
Touch, which ships to preorder customers December 6th, is Oculus playing catch-up. The HTC Vive put motion controls front and center in early 2015, transforming how people thought about VR. Suddenly, holding a gamepad paled next to painting, shooting, making sandwiches, or catching cute animals with your own two hands. Motion controls turned out to be one of the best arguments for calling virtual reality a new medium, not just a new kind of screen.
Oculus unveiled Touch a few months after the Vive appeared, but it wasn’t ready to ship with the Rift. Instead, Oculus included an Xbox One gamepad. It was everything the company had originally promised, but by then, that didn’t feel like enough. Although I loved the Rift’s hardware design, it was relegated to second-class status at some point after the Vive’s official consumer release, and third-class once PlayStation VR came out with a strong slate of both gamepad and motion-control titles.
This week, that could change. The $199 Oculus Touch package, which includes two controllers and an additional tracking camera, is a pricey addition to the $599 Rift. But it’s exactly what the Rift needs to retake its place as one of the most interesting and innovative VR headsets.
"VR SOLVES HAND TRACKING’S SENSE OF ALIENATION"
Hand-tracking peripherals like Microsoft’s Kinect, Nintendo’s Wiimote, and Sony’s (pre-VR) PlayStation Move are nothing new. But matching your movements to a separate screen is usually a little alienating, and most games never passed the novelty stage. Virtual reality removes that layer of abstraction, because it makes perfect sense to reach out and grab things that look like they really exist. Some products use pure Minority Report-style hand tracking, but physical controllers still tend to provide better feedback and greater reliability.
Touch stands out as a particularly good iteration of this. The contoured controllers fit firmly in the palm, guiding your forefinger over a springy trigger and curling the rest of your fingers around a large lower grip button that depresses when you make a fist. An invisible panel on one side slides off to reveal a single AA battery for each controller.
This grip provides something that VR has sorely needed: a button obviously dedicated to picking things up. Most non-Touch games make do with clicking a trigger, which is serviceable. The Vive has a grip, although the controller’s wand-like shape makes pressing it awkward and artificial — its palm-squeeze gesture just isn’t something I normally do with hands. But closing your fingers around the Touch grip clearly evokes the feeling of grabbing an object, while leaving your trigger finger free for other interactions.
"TOUCH DOESN’T REFLECT YOUR HANDS, IT STYLIZES THEM"
The controllers’ single coolest feature, though, may be a set of capacitive sensors that detect how you’re holding them. Touch doesn’t offer finger-by-finger articulation, but it can give you surprisingly responsive virtual hands. If your forefinger isn’t on the trigger, for example, Touch intuits that you’re pointing it outward. It can tell precisely where on the top panel you’ve rested your thumb, and if it’s raised, put your virtual hand in a thumbs-up position. The options vary a little by experience, but they create a totally new set of very natural gestures.
I’m less enamored of the top panel, which draws heavily from an Xbox gamepad. Each controller has one analog stick and two black face buttons — labeled as X/Y on the left hand and A/B on the right — as well as smaller menu and home buttons off to the side. Having all these buttons is great. Referring to them with labels people can’t actually see, unless they take off the headset, is not. And although I’d love to be able to actually use Touch as a bifurcated gamepad, they’re not interchangeable, since Touch has no D-pad.
Overall, though, Touch strikes a great balance between being full-featured and streamlined. It doesn’t load you down with inputs, but you’re not left grasping for options that aren’t there. It won’t reflect your hands perfectly, but it stylizes them in a way that feels intuitively correct.
Touch is by far my favorite controller to hold, but it’s slightly less seamless as an actual motion tracker. Like the Rift, Touch is studded with infrared LEDs and monitored by cameras plugged into the computer. Oculus suggests arranging both cameras in front of you, spaced between three and seven feet apart. Its app guides you through the process of drawing a "guardian" line around your play space, similar to the Vive’s chaperone system — although the Rift doesn’t snap your drawing into a clean-edged polygon, so the edges of my virtual world look like Tron as rendered by a five-year-old.
This setup easily beats Sony’s PlayStation Move and the previous one-camera Rift in precision, range, and reliability. But it’s not quite up to the standards of the Vive, which uses a fundamentally different laser-tracking technology. With both cameras in front of you, Touch works great, unless you block the controllers with your body — something that’s easy enough to do by turning around.
"THE PC VIRTUAL REALITY WARS JUST GOT LESS FRAUGHT"
I improved this by arranging the cameras diagonally, at a closer range but roughly the same angle as my free-standing Vive lighthouses. This meant buying an extension cord to stretch a camera out from my computer, and accepting a cable across my floor. The whole setup was just inconvenient enough to make me leery of permanently adopting it. For true "room-scale" VR, Oculus recommends a third camera that it will be selling separately for $79. I haven’t tried this yet, and I’m not sure I even have enough free USB ports to do it.
A third camera probably isn’t necessary for most Oculus Store games. The review titles we got were designed to keep people generally facing forward, often in subtle and creative ways. James Bond-themed puzzle game I Expect You To Die arranges objects around you in a confined environment, while bullet-time shooter Superhot places enemies so specifically that you don’t need to turn more than 90 degrees. Some Vive games have also successfully made the switch, like the arcade-y Space Pirate Trainer and baby-catching game Rescuties.
There’s no such guarantee if you’re using the Rift as a full-time Vive substitute. You can theoretically launch almost any SteamVR Vive game on the Rift, which is excellent news for anyone who’s been agonizing about picking between them. But unless developers put some work into optimization, the controls can map awkwardly. And most Vive games, even ones that aren’t room-scale, were implicitly built for 360-degree motion. Some Vive developers have expressed hesitation about putting resources toward Oculus Rift ports, so it’s tough to say how much this situation will change — and it’s possible some games will never feel right on a Rift, at least with two cameras.
On the flip side, Oculus has produced its own set of polished exclusive titles. This includes traditional games, but also two art programs: sculpting app Medium and illustration tool Quill. Neither one captures the immediate, irresistible charm of Tilt Brush on the Vive, but they’re still rich and well-developed systems. It’s tougher to judge the lasting appeal of Oculus’ gaming slate. Superhot and I Expect You To Die are clear winners, but two of its big exclusives — spell-casting game The Unspoken and shooter Dead & Buried — are entirely multiplayer-focused. However great they look, they’ll be useless without lots of people playing, which you can’t take for granted on a small platform like the Rift. Overall, Oculus has built an impressive starting catalog, but it hasn’t reached the quantity or quality of non-VR gaming libraries.
"TOUCH DOESN’T MAKE THE RIFT ANY LESS NICHE"
Touch doesn’t make the Rift any less of a niche product, and it makes the full package as expensive as the HTC Vive, although its new minimum spec supports cheaper computers. It costs far more than PlayStation VR or some of Microsoft’s promised headsets. But after nine months, the Oculus Rift no longer feels incomplete. It’s a product that I can recommend wholeheartedly to anyone with the (considerable) money and the interest, despite the caveats above.
Every VR system is still, in some sense, a first-generation prototype. Oculus Touch doesn’t change the fact that the Rift is a bulky mask with copious wiring, running on a type of computer few people own. But with Touch, the Rift feels like it’s gone as far as its current technology can manage, and done so with aplomb. It’s not the end goal of virtual reality, but it might well be the end of the beginning.