The design firm Nonobject spent an entire year and thousands of hours on its latest project. It built hundreds of prototypes. And it billed zero dollars for it.
What could possess a design firm to invest so heavily in a pet project? For Nonobject, which is known for hit products like the UE Boom Bluetooth speaker, it’s the allure of being the first to design a truly perfect VR controller.
The studio’s final design is called the Air Hand. It’s the final chapter in Nonobject’s ongoing VR concept work, which aimed to fix the tiny pain points of VR, from how you put on a headset to how you look to everyone else when you’re wearing one. “We are passionate, gamers, we like the VR space,” says founder Branko Lukic. “We’re telling [companies], you have to do a better job, it’s possible right now, what are you people doing?”
The Air Hand looks a lot like the controllers from Valve or Oculus, but the team insists that, unlike those cumbersome devices, the Air Hand can barely be felt in your hand, even when you use it for up to four hours at a time.
To anyone but a VR geek, it probably looks like nonsense: It’s a motion controller, fitted with hidden dots that are tracked through an infrared sensor that sits on a nearby desk or wall. Nonobject’s complex geometry calculations ensure that the infrared sensors can always “see” the controllers as they move through space. But despite this focus on ergonomics, the controller is still a piece compelling industrial design with the polish of a mature commercial product, rather than the demo-level design that rules the industry today.
Nonobject’s big insight, however, was to add elastic suspension to the part of the controller that circles around the top of your hand. Think of it like a web of brass knuckles. Tightened by twisting a knob at the bottom of the controller, they distribute the weight of the Air Hand, effectively helping it feel weightless–plus, they make it possible to open your hand to gesture. That means you can go so far as to wind up and throw a baseball pitch in VR and not toss your controller across the room while doing so.
Crucially, there’s nothing to the design that pushes VR technology beyond its current limitations. “It’s not like seeing iPhone 11 renderings all over the web,” says Lukic. “This can be made right now.” While the company doesn’t technically have a working prototype built that it can mass manufacture and put up for sale and the project schematics aren’t open source, it would like to see a company like Valve or Oculus incorporate some of the ideas put forth by Air Hand, because Nonobject firmly believes in the potential of VR, even as many have cooled on it.
“VR technology isn’t going to go away. There may be a dip right now. In everything, there’s an up and down,” says Lukic. “[But] we actually see exactly what can happen today, and we want to share what we see.”