After three years of speculation, anticipation, and experimentation, we now know what Oculus’s first consumer-focused virtual reality headset is going to look (and feel) like. This was the biggest announcement the virtual reality technology company made during a press event on Thursday, and will rightfully receive the bulk of the attention, because without the headset, the rest of Oculus’s efforts become pedestrian. But it wasn’t the most important announcement.
In very Jobsian fashion, Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey introduced a pair of motion controllers as a not-so-casual aside at the end of Oculus’s press conference. On spec–and only spec–Oculus Touch promises everything a cutting-edge accessory for the future of interactive entertainment should promise. The controller is split in two, not unlike a Wiimote, but lacks any wires, and employs a ring like shape to wrap around your hand, enabling a greater freedom of motion.
Most importantly, it will bring 1:1 motion-tracking that can accurately capture hand movements right down to your fingers. When it comes to motion controls, the ability to have your movements accurately represented in-game is the holy grail. Save for the ability to run around a room, this is everything you need for a fully immersive gaming experience.
To date, the commercial and critical success of motion control systems (think Wii, Leap Motion, etc.) has been questionable at best. If there were ever a convincing argument to be made for the validity of motion-based, gestural control, Oculus Touch is it.
What makes Oculus Touch so tantalizing is that its makers don’t just see it as another novel, gimmick-laden alternative for playing games, but rather, the core way of doing anything in the VR realm. Not only does provide Oculus with a way to differentiate itself from the orthodoxy of Playstations and Xboxes, which have found it harder to innovate with each new generation of console, but adds a certain allure to a technology for which the verdict is still out. It becomes bigger than just creating innovative display technologies, and opens up the possibility of reinventing user interfaces.
We’ve heard similar things from the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, which have tried (and failed) to peddle motion control rigs to consumers over the past decade. Those companies were attempting to weave very new ways of gaming into the decades-old, entrenched ecosystem of console gaming. Oculus, on the other hand, doesn’t have to bear that weight in quite the same way.
Trying to sell motion controls to an audience raised on gamepads–gamepads which have been virtually unchanged for a decade–was never going to be easy. And it didn’t help that aside from the controller itself, the rest of the gaming experience was identical to what came before.
To be able to change the status quo so that players and developers alike favor a new way of interacting with games, you need an experience that’s jarringly new. Something that can still keep people engaged and distracted–errrr–entertained while you smooth over the bumps and figure out what actually works. This is what makes the Oculus the perfect candidate to usher in the next wave of gaming and computing.
With the Oculus strapped to your head, the entire experience is foreign. Chances are you’ve never experienced anything like it. The gaming system can react to the movement of your head and shoulders. Naturally, you’ll want to start moving your hands as well. (This even happens to me without the magic of VR head tracking.) Like Luckey suggested on stage, When every part of the experience is this new, learning a new control scheme presents itself as less of a hassle.
But as potential-filled as all this is, there’s just one problem: Oculus Touch isn’t ready yet.
When the Oculus Rift headset ships in early 2016, Oculus Touch won’t be included. Oculus Touch won’t even be available until the first half of 2016. Instead, the Rift will be bundled with–drumroll, please–a very, very conventional Xbox One gamepad!
Perhaps more problematic is that once the Oculus Touch is available, it will likely be sold separately. For developers, that means they will be closing themselves off to a yet-to-be-determined fraction of gamers who don’t have the controller if they choose to focus on Oculus Touch.
This is a very risky move for the long-term vision of Oculus, as it could possibly plant the idea in the minds of gamers and devs that the gamepad is the “normal” way of interacting with the Rift. But as Gizmodo points out, this a very necessary move since the Oculus Touch isn’t quite ready for the spotlight yet and Valve and HTC are fast approaching with a VR headset of their own, which means that Oculus doesn’t have time to wait. If the headset doesn’t succeed, nothing else matters.
Of course, this entire argument is predicated around the idea that the technology works as advertised. Oculus plans to demo the controllers at the upcoming E3 gaming expo, but until then, how good these controllers are is anyone’s guess. Based on what Oculus has done up until now, I’m optimistic. But if it’s anything short of “very good,” it will not only send people running back to the gamepad, but could set motion controls back years, if not decades.
But no pressure or anything, Oculus.