Virtual Reality Peripherals and Software
Discussions of Virtual Reality (VR) technology tend to center around consumer geared headsets particularly the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Gear VR. A headset is just the start. When you put on these devices, you can be transported into another world and have the chance to delve deep into a game, training or other experiences like never before, but how do you make that first step and control your new environment? Virtual Reality peripherals and software – from controllers and chairs to apps – are just as important as they give us greater control over our actions and surroundings and can help to improve the experience.
The best controllers for VR headsets.
The most important virtual reality peripheral for any gamer at the moment is the basic controller. We have plenty of information on the specifications of the Oculus Rift, Gear VR and Vive systems, but we need that connection between the game and the feedback. The obvious starting point for most developers was to ensure that the headsets were simply compatible with current hardware – the Oculus Rift can be used with an Xbox controller while the Gear VR can be used with game controllers for Android or iOS phones. This is a decent starting point, but these systems really need specialized devices if users are going to control their environments to the system’s potential and get the most from the experience.
Unsurprisingly, most companies have been hard at work creating their own controller to match their headset. Details of these “wand” controllers have been trickling out steadily and most should be available by the end of 2016. There is the Oculus Touch, which has adapted the Half Moon prototype into a more user-friendly, textured design, and the Valve controller for the Vive, which seems to be focused on customization within the buttons and trackpad. Both developments are great news for gamers that want more precision and adaptability.
The big three are not the only companies developing controllers, however, and it may be worth looking at current models like the Razer Hydra which was the first consumer based controller for VR. These motion sensing controls are designed to allow for three dimensional movement and greater accuracy in shooter games. It also boasts “true six degree-of-freedom magnetic motion tracking” and “hyper-repsonse” buttons. This approach is appealing for gamers that want to go beyond standard VR simulation games into classic first-person shooters and RPGs, something that the standard controllers cannot always allow for.
These new controllers offer progression from other VR gaming hardware.
The ability to control an environment in a tactile, natural way is crucial for full immersion and this is lacking in other methods. Current VR gaming systems rely on other devices to control the gameplay, such as joysticks and HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick). The latter makes a lot of sense when there is such a focus on simulation games, as it provides a more realistic approach to controlling the aircraft. Continued development of racing and aviation games in VR means that there should still be a demand for improved HOTAS systems and more responsive joysticks in this niche. The problem is that these old-fashioned items can only go so far. As VR games develop into new styles, with greater physical capabilities, the joystick will become obsolete.
The death of the joystick is inevitable because of one crucial development within VR gaming and software: haptic feedback. Haptic feedback systems and haptic controllers are based on motion tracking software, only more refined. Technology has come a long way since the Wii remote and the frustrations of the Microsoft Kinect system and there are many prototypes for wearable tech, such as gloves and vests. At the moment it is all very cumbersome and mechanical, but these products are continually evolving. Eventually, these devices will not only kill off the joystick, but perhaps the need for controllers too.
Creating the best seat for a VR experience.
Virtual reality is nothing new. The ability to view VR in a headset is the revolutionary part, but motion simulators have been providing a form of virtual reality immersion for years. Most fairgrounds and theme parks have a ride of some sort – Universal Studios would never have been so successful without motion simulators. The attractive thing about these rides was the use of motion chassis and motion seats to provide the sensation of movement and to add realism to the virtual ride on the screen. These rides can still draw in the crowds, but advancements in gaming chairs and other virtual reality peripherals means that gamers can begin to recreate an element of the experience in their own homes.
Fans of Racing and Flight simulators should consider static or motion simulators for a deep sense of immersion. These “cockpits” can be fitted with joysticks, steering wheels, pedals and more to give the player a true sense of “presence”.
There are many static, non-motion chairs on the market that are designed to give players a greater feel for racing and driving simulation. They are the ideal companion for the joysticks and HOTAS devices mentioned above, and many have these controls built-in for greater realism. These simulators vary greatly in price with entry level simulators from Playseat available from Amazon for less than $300. A full blown motion simulator with bells and whistles can run over $50,000. They are compatible with a range of current gaming systems, to bring a touch of VR to a standard game, and work with steering wheels, pedals and other accessories. This isn’t virtual reality as many gamers now wish to experience it, but these non-motion chairs can provide a better gaming experience. When paired with new VR headsets, players should be able to make that leap directly into the driver’s seat or cockpit for a greater immersion.
On the subject of pedals, this additional form of hardware is something else that developers have been looking into, with varying degrees of success. Pedals are perfect on gaming chairs for these VR racing and flying simulations because they place control of the vehicle in the right place. We may be used to increasing the speed of our vehicles in Xbox games with a little more pressure on the trigger, but it makes more sense to use our feet if we can. Our feet are often forgotten in the development of VR peripherals and haptic systems but they are just sitting there waiting to be used. One approach, the VirZoom, went with the idea of adding sensors to what is essentially an exercise bike for an alternative way of moving a virtual landscape – and presumably getting fit. The approach could have great implications for fitness software, but perhaps not so much for gamers.
The issue with non-motion simulation chairs is that they are static – they have the comfort and design of the ideal motion simulation but not the chassis or mechanics to allow gamers to feel the bumps in the road or the shift in gear. A solution to this is to adapt a gaming chair with some bass shakers. These devices can be implanted into the chair and connected to the system to add some vibration to simulate the rumble of the road, the hum of a starship, etc. It is a simple extra at relatively lost cost that can give the effect of motion and provide a stronger connection to gameplay choices. A dangerous shortcut or stunt in GTA could result in a strong shockwave. At the moment, buyers are split between the cheap and subtle Aura Shaker and the more intense ButtKicker.
For those playing shooter and RPG games, the Omni Virtuix (US $699) uses special shoes and walking platform to simulate walking in a virtual world. The Virtuix Omni is an active VR motion platform. Active VR, where your actions in the virtual world are controlled by first-person navigation like walking or running, creates a sense of immersion which cannot be experienced sitting down. The Virtuix Omni lets you walk, run, sit and strafe with 360-degree freedom of movement allowing you to control your avatar without restraints. Again, this should help gamers move away from simulation games into VR RPGs and first-person shooters.
Away from the hardware, there are also VR applications to enhance the software.
The name Leap Motion may ring a few bells with avid gamers because this company has been working on motion tracking software for a while now. The original device acted as a gateway between the PC user and the monitor by monitoring hand movements and using them to control gameplay. Recent developments in VR mean that they have shifted their focus from PCs to headsets and have incorporated this tech into their new Orion system. This hand tracking engine will be compatible with headsets to provide the same sort of motion tracking for VR gaming, just with a much faster, smoother approach than their old PC model.
An application that offers something a little different is the Virtual Desktop from Steam. This is less about improvements to gameplay and more about increasing functionality within headsets. Controllers and hardware provide that connection between the game and the feedback to improve user control over a game. Applications like Virtual Desktop provide an even more fluid experience by giving users full control of their desktop and computer programs through the headset. This should mean gamers can come out of their session to check mail, chat to other players or look up information online if they are stuck on a level – all without having to remove the headset. This app is being developed for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive so could be a massive part of virtual reality in the future.
360 degree cameras that can be operated with VR.
Development within VR technology is all about how far it can take us, the potential that it is has in additional applications. The immersive experience of a VR headset and the increase in capabilities mean that there are also “practical” options that take us beyond the gaming chair. 360 videos are a major breakthrough for artists that want to capture a performance in all directions and give more control to the viewer, but they can be difficult to shoot. By combining a 360 degree camera with a VR headset, directors can step into the video and take charge.
The makers of the OZO won the race to create the “first professional Virtual Reality camera” with a system that streams live visuals and audio to the headset of the operator for “interactive feedback”. This process could make 360 video shoots much more engaging and easier to manage, and it is no surprise that major players in the VR world are adding cameras to their systems. The Samsung Gear 360 promises to offer high-resolution 360 images and to be compatible with a range of Samsung devices. It is safe to assume that the Gear VR will be among them.
Flying drones with VR.
Another application that will have may technophiles and VR enthusiasts anxious to get a VR headset is the ability to fly a drone. There have been a number of advancements in drone controls and the capabilities of the hardware, but there is still that disconnection between the drone and the pilot. VR has put gamers in the cockpit of flying machines, so the next logic step was to virtually pilot a real device. Using the Gear VR, you can fly a DJi Phantom drone as if you were in the drone. This is typically called “First Person View” or FPV. Here pilots simply need to turn their head to direct the drone, eliminating the need for too many complex controls. Again, this is an area that is sure to see plenty of interest from developers, which should mean some fine tuning and progression. Users looking to buy the Gear or Oculus Rift should look out for the Bebop 2, which promises to be compatible with both systems.
The range of virtual reality peripherals and software available is diverse and constantly developing.
It is easy to assume that all you will need as a first time VR gamer is the headset and a compatible controller, but the range of products in development shows that there is far more to the experience than that. From the hardware of static chairs, pedals and bass shakers to the software of motion sensor technology and virtual desktops, there are many ways to use these addition products and accessories to enhance the VR gaming experience.