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Virtual reality for beginners: Everything you need to know to wrap your head around VR

Hayden Dingman | July 20, 2015
Two years and five iterations of the Oculus Rift later, it's finally time to start writing about virtual reality as a thing that's happening, not something that will happen. Less than six months from now the first of the heavy hitter consumer-grade virtual reality sets will hit market--Valve and HTC's Vive headset--and a few months after that we'll see the Rift finally do the same.

Congrats, you now sort of understand what it's like to use the Oculus Rift with a mouse and keyboard--to say nothing of the fact that having your hands on your desk at all times limits your movement and thus limits your interaction with a VR environment.

Gamepad: The compromise most people use is the ol' Xbox 360 gamepad. At this point it's safe to assume a hefty portion of PC gaming enthusiasts own one, and for VR, it's a bit easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. There are fewer buttons to worry about, the buttons are more distinctive, and you can sit back from your desk with the controller in your lap.

This solution is so common in modern VR that Oculus partnered with Microsoft--when the Consumer Rift launches next year, it will come with an Xbox One controller.

It's a half-measure though. It's still not real on the same level as some other control schemes.

Specialist controls: Which brings us to this category, encompassing everything from racing wheels to flight sticks to that model spaceship cockpit you built in your garage.

Flight sticks, et al aren't perfect but they do bring you a measure closer to "real" controls. Playing Elite: Dangerous on the PC for instance, the best way to fly in VR is to pick up a HOTAS (hand on throttle and stick) system because it sort of mimics the controls you'll see in the virtual cockpit.

The drawback? Specialist controls are pretty much only useful in cockpit games. There are quite a few of those because the Rift is a stationary (and, until recently, seated) platform, but eventually you'll probably want to do something with your VR headset outside of "Drive a car" or "Pilot a mech" or "Fly a plane/spaceship."

Motion controls: The last, and most complicated, category is motion controls. This is a catch-all category--some of the options here are essentially retooled controllers, while others are full-body tracking.

At the lower end are "wands." Both Oculus and Valve have wand solutions (as well as Sony's console-only Project Morpheus). This is basically a glorified controller, but retrofitted for VR. If you've ever played the Nintendo Wii, you'll understand the basic concept--you're holding a controller in each hand.

These controllers are then tracked, providing one-to-one motion in a VR environment. Put simply, you can use your hands in VR. Sort of. Valve's wands, as of GDC, had only a single button governing whether your hands were opened or closed. Oculus's version, dubbed Touch, is a bit more sophisticated--but not by much.

It's enough, though. This is by far the best commercially-viable option at the moment. The major problem is that it seems only Valve will include wands in the basic kit--Oculus is content with people using an Xbox controller for now. That's a shame because adding hand-tracking into VR is enough to tip you close to the fabled "Presence," even though the ultimate goal is full-body tracking.


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