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In Virtual Reality, Are Your Hands the Best Controller?

Leap Motion says yes, and has announced a new partnership with Razer to make its case.

Shutterstock / Dan Kosmayer

When I first wrote about Leap Motion’s virtual reality ambitions, I said its hand-tracking sensor offered a means of controlling apps and games that normal people, not just geeky VR developers, might want to use.

In other words: Putting a VR headset on one’s head is daunting enough to a new user. Having to learn how to use additional hardware on top of that is harder still, particularly if you’re not a gamer and already familiar with an Xbox or PlayStation-esque controller. The less hardware, the better, right?

Well, there’s just one problem — Leap’s solution at the time was a make-do $20 mount that would clip its sensor onto the front of devices like the Oculus Rift. For developers, that created a new fragment to the already messy world of VR headsets. The company even hosted a developer event in October to drum up interest in its input solution.

 Razer’s OSVR developer headset with a Leap Motion camera behind the faceplate
Razer’s OSVR developer headset with a Leap Motion camera behind the faceplate
Leap Motion

Now Leap Motion is introducing the next phase of its VR work: Partnering directly with OEMs, starting with Razer. The peripheral manufacturer’s Open Source Virtual Reality headset will soon be available in an alternate form, with Leap’s hand-tracking sensor baked into its front.

The original Razer “hacker dev kit,” which is scheduled to ship to developers in June, costs $200. In an interview with Re/code, Leap CEO Michael Buckwald said the price for the hand-tracking version is not finalized, but will probably cost about $280.

Buckwald added that Leap is starting to consider VR its main focus.

“Reaching into a computer, grabbing an object and having it move exactly as if you touched it — there’s something magical and powerful about that,” he said of the company’s overarching philosophy. “VR is now a mature enough market that it probably is our top priority, and it’s because it’s the truest form of that original vision.”

CTO David Holz acknowledged that some virtual reality experiences will still be best with physical hardware peripherals, but said hand tracking should be the default, general form of control.

“If you want to play a racing game, having a wheel and pedals is probably going to be the best experience, or if I’m playing a shooter having some kind of gun thing,” Holz said. “But I’m not going to use the gun thing for the driving game. I’m not going to use the driving wheel for the gun game.”

Holz demoed an early prototype of a future hand-tracking software update, an “interaction engine” that registers when the virtual version of the user’s hands have closed in enough to “grip” a nonexistent object. In the virtual world, knowing this information and showing it to users lets them perform subtler, more lifelike motions.

Leap says it wants to partner with more OEMs in the future, but it’s hardly the only one looking at hand tracking for input in VR. Last year, Oculus bought a hand-tracking startup called Nimble VR before it could even finish a Kickstarter campaign. And at a virtual reality event in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sony Magic Lab’s Richard Marks said the PlayStation R&D division is toying with hand tracking along with many other input methods for VR.

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