Virtual Reality and The State of Virtual Input

The future of virtual reality is looking very promising but no one seems to be doing a good job at solving how we interact with these virtual worlds. The last month has been an impressive reveal of new technology in virtual and augmented reality. At CES the floor was full of virtual reality headsets - with lots of Samsung Gear VR clones - and two weeks later Microsoft showed off their impressive demo of Hololens. Virtual reality is improving at an impressive rate, however the way we interact with the virtual world is still a mystery.

Oculus Rift is the leading virtual reality head-mounted display. Most of the Oculus demos do not have a way for the person to interact with the world. They’re “on wheels” being guided through the world while only being able to look around. Other examples use a game controller or a keyboard to move the person through the world. Few things take you out of the virtual world experience than having to press “x” to open the door infront of you.

Microsoft’s Hololens project let’s you see holograms in the world around you. In the demo, Microsoft had a person walk around which is much more natural than using a controller to move. Wired Magazine wrote about another demo where they were walking around Mars. Unfortunately the demo of someone interacting with the world was underwhelming. The items you could interact with were large, while precise interactions weren’t shown at all. Also, the actions were very “gesture heavy” which appeared delayed and unpredictable at times. The entire event was impressive - but heavily scripted.

There are a handful of companies that are actively trying to solve how we interact with the virtual world. Leap Motion certainly is the big player making strides in this space. Leap Motion is a small USB device that has cameras that detect hands and fingers and where they are in three dimensional space. However after using Leap Motion I felt disappointed at it’s responsiveness. Reviewers have called it an “admirable distraction but not useful for truly productive usage”. I agree that it does not live up to the hype. The first version of Leap Motion was released in mid 2013 and although there hasn’t been any new hardware updates since, the Leap Motion has continued to improve upon on its software. Version 2 of their software was released for public beta in mid 2014 which boasts much faster and accurate responsiveness.

Last year a small team of four developers started Nimble VR and became the first real competitor to Leap Motion. As quickly as they appeared, they were acquired by Oculus. I hadn’t heard of Nimble VR until the acquisition. They have an impressive demo video of Nimble running beside Leap Motion and showing much more accurate hand tracking. However, I don’t believe that Nimble and Leap Motion are going about solving the problem the right way. If the problem is accuratly tracking hands in three dimensional space, then putting on electronic gloves would give you far more accurate results than using a depth-field camera (which is proving to be unreliable). If people don’t have a problem strapping a big headset on their head, like the Oculus Rift, then they wont have any problem also putting on gloves to enhance their virtual experience.

Of course, hand tracking is not the only way you could interact with the virtual world. Moving around a big world is also a problem virtual reality will face. Virtuix Omni created a multi-directional treadmill called the Omni Treadmill in 2013, but has yet to ship a final version after many months of delays. Unfortunately, the demo footage of the Omi Treadmill still appears clunky and is definately too big for maintstream use.

However, here’s the thing: there’s a very good chance that a simple Xbox controller is “good enough”. When people play video games they’re still very immersed in the world regardless of the fact they’re using a controller. Player’s are accustomed to mapping their actions to buttons on a controller. We may actually find that people prefer using a controller to using finicky gesture controls. The fact that Oculus acquired the team that built the Xbox 360 controller makes me feel like they may have reached the same conclusion.