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Moving Around in Virtual Reality Is Still a Big Unsolved Problem

"If it doesn’t work one time, you’re going to go, 'Oh, this damn system.'"

Eric Johnson

After trying the Oculus Rift for the first time, one of my colleagues came to me with a sense of urgency and surprise, overflowing with nice things to say about virtual reality. Even in their unfinished states, the Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus have a tendency to make converts out of VR nonbelievers.

Try enough demos, though, and as with any emerging technology, the cracks will start to show. And the biggest crack right now is in user input — the buttons, pads or sensors that make VR as interactive as traditional videogames.

As a serial demo-er of the Rift and Morpheus, I’ve also had mostly good experiences with virtual reality (except for that one time). It has made huge strides in both quality and cost, enough progress that Facebook was willing to plunk down $2 billion on Oculus earlier this year.

That progress includes making it far less likely that well-designed VR content will make users lose their lunch, which is big. But at the inaugural Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference, which opened yesterday in Mountain View, Calif., the hodgepodge of possible input solutions amounted to an eager, enthusiastic shrug.

I counted at least six different answers on the SVVR expo floor, each with its own advantages and limitations. The consensus is that better input will make better games, and that the devices we already own, like mice and keyboards or console-style gamepads, probably aren’t enough to provide that input.

“In my experience, just standing up out of your chair increases the feeling of immersion,” Virtuix CEO Jan Goetgeluk said during a panel about input and motion. Being able to rotate one’s body in the virtual world, and then being able to put one foot in front of the other to move, increases the feeling even more, he added.

Some expo floor demos, like Couch Knights in the Oculus booth or the skiing game Snow Drift, used vanilla Xbox 360 controllers hooked up to a PC. Project Morpheus used two PlayStation move controllers, one in each hand. Sixense showed off its Kickstarter-backed Stem System, which puts two different types of controllers in players’ hands. Leap had a booth for its gesture-based control system Leap Motion. Virtuix reps were on hand but didn’t have their Omni treadmill set up, though a different omnidirectional treadmill, called Infinadeck, was available to try. The wearable controller suit PrioVR was also on the floor, directly across from the booth of a startup called Stompz that let attendees strap sensors to their ankles and stomp their heels to move forward in a game.

And that’s just from one quick pass through the floor — I’d be shocked if I didn’t miss at least one alternative to all of those.

The big question is: How important is the fidelity of our motion to our enjoyment of a game? The flip side, of course, is that even the most sophisticated hardware could undermine one’s enjoyment of the software if executed poorly.

“It needs to be very close to 100 percent,” Survios CEO Nathan Burba said during the same conference panel. “If it doesn’t work one time, you’re going to go, ‘Oh, this damn system.'”

Some of the best demos right now have designed around the need to move to emphasize other things. The virtual character you inhabit after sitting down to play Couch Knights is — wait for it — a person sitting down and holding a game controller, directing one of two diminutive medieval knights around a virtual living room. The demo Sony brought, on the other hand, has the players standing in one place as they practice sword fighting, crossbow shooting and (a questionable final exam) being eaten alive by a dragon.

It’s not hard to see why these prominent demos elide the idea of moving from one spot, even though both headsets are more than capable. The modern revival of virtual reality is still so young that developers haven’t found a marriage of game and hardware that passes the Goldilocks test. Nothing that isn’t designed around the lack of a perfect input solution feels quite right.

And as Goetgeluk and Burba’s fellow panelist Richard Marks said, that’s a big deal. Marks, a senior director of R&D at Sony’s Magic Lab, said the goal of people working in VR needs to be to “create interaction in the real world that feels right.” He said this focus on input technologies is new to an industry that had mostly settled on the gamepad decades ago.

“It’s not easy to replace a button,” Marks said.

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