Virtual Reality Input Devices Aim for Immersion


During the course of researching Tractica’s forthcoming report on Virtual Reality for Consumer Markets, it became clear that while there is a need for users to become more immersed in games and other experiences, there is already an overabundance of accessory devices that are vying to achieve this goal. In addition to gamepads and other VR-specific controllers, there are a range of hand trackers, locomotion devices, vests, and full-body suits. Given the amount of money riding on VR, which has no universal input method, and the fact that people have become so used to the keyboard and mouse when operating PCs, standardization is inevitable. This blog post provides an overview of the different products out there vying to become one of these standard input methods.

Starting with gamepads, we already know that Project Morpheus will use the DualShock 4 gamepad familiar to PlayStation owners. Likewise, Oculus announced before E3 that the final consumer version of the Rift headset will ship with the Xbox One wireless gamepad as part of a partnership with Microsoft. HTC’s Vive head-mounted display (HMD) is compatible with the similar-looking Steam Controller from Valve. Oculus has also revealed Oculus Touch, which is comparable to the Wii Nunchuk controllers, with a ring that is used for movement-tracking encircling the finger area instead, enabling gesturing and motion in VR. The devices, which come in pairs, will be launched and sold separately from the Rift. Like Sony’s Move controllers (which will be bundled in with Project Morpheus), these wand-like products offer enhanced control so that users can have hand movements replicated in VR. The Vive will include two handheld wand-like controllers topped with sensor-studded plates that work in tandem with two motion-tracking wall sensors.

Sixense Entertainment, a company founded in 2007, in partnership with Razer, has developed the STEM (Sixense Tracking Embedded Module) tracker, which can follow up to five body parts or peripherals using sensors that can be swapped around. The centerpiece of the solution is a central base station, which emits an electromagnetic field with an 8-foot radius to detect the position of the controllers. This is in contrast to the aforementioned wand-like controllers from Sony, Oculus, and HTC, which all rely upon optical tracking technology. Other notable devices include Tactical Haptics’ Reactive Grip controller and the Bluetooth-enabled iMotion device from Intellect Motion.

Users will still have to use all of these gamepads and controllers for in-game movement and cannot rely upon physically moving forward or spinning around to effect similar movements on the in-game character without additional equipment. Indeed, John Carmack, CTO of Oculus VR, has stated that using a traditional gamepad controller to turn in VR is bad practice as it induces motion sickness. Either the gamer turns his head to change direction or uses something that allows for locomotion. Devices like Ground Control (essentially a joystick for the feet) bring foot control into the equation with the user able to remain seated. Many other solutions, however, require movement around a space or a large treadmill.

Virtuix is perhaps the most famous proponent of locomotion for VR. The company is set to start shipping its aptly-named omnidirectional treadmill, the Omni, near the end of 2015. Unlike competing products, the device has no moving parts and instead, features a concave base that houses three rings of capacitive sensors. Users must wear special low friction shoes and upon taking a step, the Omni translates the successive pressure moving between these rings to data on their position, stride length, and speed. Austria’s Cyberith has a similar timeframe for delivery of its Virtualizer treadmill. This product works in much the same way although has a flat base and users are required to wear covers for their shoes.

An interesting alternative is the Lighthouse tracking system employed by HTC’s Vive device. Using two base stations, the user’s physical location can be tracked in spaces of up to 15 feet by 15 feet. Each base station essentially sweeps the room with two infrared laser beams in much the same way as the light from a lighthouse sweeps the ocean, albeit much more quickly. These laser beams are tracked by position sensors on the Vive, which happens to feature a gyroscope and accelerometer as well. Additionally, Lighthouse can map the boundaries of a room, preventing one from walking beyond those boundaries (or a virtual representation of them). Valve says it plans to release its Lighthouse technology as a freely licensable standard that other VR manufacturers will be able to use.

Hand tracking is key to making VR experiences seem more real. People instinctively reach out to grab virtual objects when wearing an HMD for the first time and there is a demand for solutions that can track the precise movement of the hands and fingers. The Leap Motion controller, which the company hopes to have integrated into all HMDs, as well as Microsoft’s Handpose technology, are the most notable examples of optical hand tracking solutions. Another approach to hand tracking involves the use of gloves. Cyberglove Systems offers a number of solutions that use proprietary bend-sensing technology for high-accuracy measurement of joint angles. Fifth Dimension Technologies (5DT) and DGTech Engineering Solutions offer competing products. However, most glove-based hand and finger tracking systems are very costly and are generally suited to non-gaming applications such as digital prototype evaluation, biomechanics, and animation.

With hands and feet seemingly set to become a part of the VR experience for some, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that other body parts are targets for other input devices. The most notable is Immerz’s KOR-fx gaming vest, which looks a little bit like the tactical vests worn by police officers. A small transmitter box, which plugs into any audio source, wirelessly transmits the parts of an audio signal it decides should generate a “rumble” to transmitters placed over the chest cavity. This adds an extra dimension to the sense of immersion by allowing the brain to identify sounds acting on the body as opposed to those that are happening elsewhere. This means gamers are able to feel weapons being fired or bombs exploding, although it is not supposed to make you feel like you are being shot. It is also not possible for the vest to accentuate some audio sources over other. Rather, the gamer more intensely feels whatever sound happens to be the loudest.

PrioVR is a suit that enables full-body motion control in games. Instead of using a camera for tracking, the device relies on a series of inertial sensors worn on the head, torso, arms and – optionally – legs. PrioVR is available in three flavors. “Light”, the upper body-only solution, contains eight sensors allowing movements such as punching, shooting, leaning, dodging, and ducking. “Core” has 12 sensors and allows the user to kick, lie on the ground, crawl, walk, side-step, crouch, and take cover, while “Pro” is a full 17 sensor suit, which  allows gamers to point their feet, shrug the shoulders, and offers precise hip and torso positioning on top of the movement capabilities of the Light and Core versions.

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