One of the main attractions of E3 2014 was the relative abundance of virtual reality technology for me to try out; I got to see gadgets like Sony’s Project Morpheus, the Oculus Rift and the Omni Virtuix in action, and all were very impressive. One company that particularly wowed me was Control VR, a Los Angeles based company that is taking the concept of virtual reality to a whole new level.
In short, while the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus only allow you to look around your virtual environments, Control VR’s technology extends that level of interactivity to your hands. By slipping on a pair of sensor-mounted gloves and a chest piece looking very much like Iron Man’s Arc Reactor, you’ll be able to look down at your hands in the virtual world and move your fingers around with pinpoint accuracy. The actual technology Control VR’s unit is based on has existed for some time, but it was only until very recently that it was paired up with a head-mounted display like Oculus Rift to be used for gaming applications.
I spoke to Control VR’s Brandon Laatsch about this stunning new addition to VR, and he had this to say:
Your hands are so key to yourself, because every time you reach for something, you see it. If there’s one part of your body you see more than anything else, it’s your hands, it’s your fingers. So the idea is within a virtual world, it’s absolutely essential that you have hands and fingers that move like your own. They don’t necessarily have to be your own skin tone, they don’t need to be your same race. You could be an alien. But they have to move organically for you to accept that, hey this is me, I’m in this world, and I care about myself here like I care about myself in the real world.
The possibilities of Control VR’s technology are countless, such as being able to interact with objects by picking them up, pushing them or swatting them with your hands, and not a controller. Most importantly however, as Laatsch points out, is that it allows for nonverbal communication in a multiplayer context:
The idea is that you can go into a virtual world, and you can look and you can see your friend, and he is talking to you and he waves at you, and you can see your friend crossing his arms, and you’re like, “My friend crosses his arms when he talks”, so you know that’s him, because you see his real world mannerisms in a virtual world.
The implications for this have far-reaching possibilities. Deaf players can communicate to one another through sign language, and players of military shooters will be able to communicate using hand signals, much like how real-world soldiers do.
Being a relatively small company, Control VR is looking to keep their technology as open source as possible, to allow for other developers to have maximum freedom with the unit. The dev kit will come with out-of-the-box support for Unity, Unreal Engine 4, and the SDK. Of course, Control VR’s unit really can be re-purposed for just about anything an imaginative mind can dream up, whether it is flying drones, linking with Google Glass and other augmented reality systems, and navigating menus a la Minority Report. However, as Laatsch told me, “Gamers are the early adopters; they’re always looking for what’s next for gaming.”
I obviously had to give this thing a shot, and Laatsch was more than happy to accommodate me. Putting on the unit was a fairly methodical affair; I had to slip on the gloves and the chest piece slowly so as to not get tangled up in the wires that run all over them, and finally slip on an Oculus Rift DK 1. Then I had to stand perfectly still for several minutes with my arms akimbo and fingers slightly arched back in order for my entire body to be accurately processed into the demo. Because Control VR’s unit covers hand and body rotations, and not leg movement, I was given a Wii-mote to move around in the demo.
The demo took place on the moon, and my perspective was within an astronaut’s spacesuit. Immediately, I was struck by how accurate the hand sensors read my arm, hand and finger movements. I clenched my fist, and the unit translated that into the in-game hand with perfection. I saw another astronaut nearby and flipped the bird at him (or her), and the unit replicated my middle finger dexterity like it was second nature. Impressive as it was, I was told that this demo was put together two weeks before E3, which is an extremely promising sign for the future of this technology.
Additionally, my spacesuit had several buttons on my left wrist. I was able to reach over with my other arm and push on those buttons, which activated a goofy sounding song inside my helmet, and shot out tennis balls from my arm. I immediately thought of the last two Fallout games and the possibilities of interacting with your Pip-boy computer the same way I was interacting with this demo’s spacesuit wrist buttons. The buttons on the Wii-mote allowed me to jump and use the suit’s jet pack, and combined with the added sense of self afforded by the gloves, hopping 20 feet in the air while in space made my stomach queasy, as my body seemed to really buy that I was on a rock where gravity was six times weaker. Overall, I was utterly floored by what Control VR has accomplished by adapting their technology for gaming in such a short amount of time.
Control VR’s Kickstarter page has already surpassed its $250,000 funding goal, but with 19 days to go there is still plenty of time for them to accumulate more funding. You can head on over there to back it or for more information.
Its pleasing to see the pace at which VR gaming is advancing. With the combined powers of the Oculus Rift, Control VR, and Omni’s Virtuix, one could theoretically have a total-body immersive VR experience, in which one could look, move and interact with all four limbs. Virtual reality is in a position to truly propel itself, and gaming, into incredible, uncharted heights in just a few years. My thanks to Laatsch and Control VR for their time and allowing me to try out their unit.