Oculus Touch is an honoree in the 2017 Innovation By Design Awards, Fast Company‘s annual celebration of the best ideas in design. See the rest of the winners, finalists, and honorable mentions here.
VR technology lets you travel from the bottom of the ocean to the top of Mount Everest, glimpsing some of the planet’s most remote sites along the way. And yet it’s always had a shortcoming: You can look, but you can’t touch. Apple vet Caitlin Kalinowski (she helped design the MacBook Air and Mac Pro), who now heads product design engineering at the Facebook-owned VR firm Oculus, has remedied this. She and her team have developed wireless controllers that give you functional hands in virtual reality for the first time, allowing you to feel as if you’re throwing objects and making actual gestures. Called the Oculus Touch, the $100 devices—which started shipping in December 2016 and have won nearly universal acclaim—balance in your palm and feature squeezable grips that can sense when you are trying to reach and grasp objects, while mechanical buttons can detect the presence of your fingers, much like an iPhone screen. This means Touch can mirror your hand movements, however subtle, in the virtual world. Sure, you still can’t feel virtual textures or the weight of objects. But you can grasp a soda can, light firecrackers, and (adventure-game players, take note) satisfyingly pull a slingshot.
Fast Company: Touch looks a lot like plastic brass knuckles. Did you have this shape in mind from the start?
Caitlin Kalinowski: We had to get everything wrong over and over to get the right thing. We tried [making it] a sport wrap around the palm, and that didn’t have the right feel. We didn’t have a place where you could rest your thumb, so you’d have your thumb up all the time, which got really tiring. Over a lot of iterations, we developed this yoke on your hand, so you can open and close your fingers without dropping it. Peter Bristol’s industrial design team and our team worked closely on that.
FC: There’s also a ring encircling your hand, like a halo, which is tracked by a sensor connected to your computer. Was that as complicated to design as it looks?
CK: When you open and close your hand, you don’t hit that ring. The position of it, the location of the infrared LEDs, the way the shape wraps around your hand, and the geometry was a breakthrough. No question. Figuring out a way to do that in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the balance, too. Every tiny change has a million effects for the rest of the device.
FC: How did you get touch-screen-like capacitive sensors into the mechanical buttons?
CK: There was a time where we weren’t sure we could do it, to be honest. [But] when we experienced it in prototype, that’s when several of us became convinced that we had to do it. With my background, I had some real concerns. I hadn’t seen a mass-produced product that had good capacitive response. But we went for it.