A Cabinet of Curiosities: VR Peripherals at GDC 2016

Iwill be heading to San Francisco next week to attend the annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), and their newly-differentiated Virtual Reality Developer’s Conference (VRDC) to see what the VR landscape looks like just weeks before the first consumer VR headsets are delivered to their owners. That last point is an interesting one — as huge as VR is right now, nothing has shipped commercially. This should make for a fascinating and somewhat bizarre expo, since none of VR’s critical supporting technologies have been vetted by anyone but a few cloistered developers. A huge, well-established industry can provide a sobering influence and help reign-in preposterous ideas, but such massive markets are also notoriously risk-averse and quick to stifle innovative approaches when deemed too “out there”. At this early stage, VR knows neither the burdens nor the benefits of a mature market. It’s not unlike the Cambrian Explosion, when the world was populated by a surreal bestiary of disparate physical forms that would soon be winnowed down by massive extinction, leaving behind the relatively few phyla that remain today. Good times.

The Cambrian Explosion: When god threw spaghetti at the wall

So which of these specimens will go on to dominate our world and which will be unceremoniously compressed into the dark shale of conference brochures and developer resumes? Here are a few of the exhibitors that I’m looking forward to checking out.

Getting Around in VR

Locomotion is one of the big problems to be solved in VR, and several approaches are currently in development. It’s tough, because humans are huge compared their constituent parts such as heads and hands, so tech that seeks to enable activities like walking and running can’t rely on dainty little IR sensors — you need big, space-eating equipment. Users must feel their legs and body operating naturally, while their vestibular systems must be convinced that they are truly on the move. It’s no small feat, but there are no shortage of companies taking their shot.

Virtuix Omni (Booth 410)

No one in the VR locomotion space has received more press than Virtuix Omni (Cyberith’s Virtualizer is a similar effort). This is a treadmill-sized contraption that buckles the user into a central ring that holds them in-position as they run in place, all while sensing the user’s orientation within the device, which in turn reorients the user’s avatar within their virtual environment (simple as that). This is not a treadmill however, but rather a smooth plastic surface across which the user user slides their feet while wearing special shoe covers to minimize friction. Like so…

Sprinting around a virtual war zone in one of these units would demand some suspension of dignity on my part, and I’d be quick to dismiss it were not for consistently stellar first-hand reviews. I’ll try to keep an open mind.

Tactile Feedback

The sense most missed in VR is definitely touch. Smell is all fine and good but it’s hard to beat the practical utility of feeling the objects with which one interacts. Haptic technology seeks to address that shortcoming by synching mechanical actuators to signals generated in one’s virtual world, thus allowing virtual contact to result in physical sensation. It’s critical technology that’s been with us since the first Nintendo Rumble Pack, but it’s seen some improvements lately, as well as some really bizarre implementations.

Whirlwind VR (Booth 2437)

Promoting a mysterious technology they have dubbed “air haptics”, Whirlwind VR seems to be focussed on blunt environmentals such as rapid heating and cooling, and broad-force effects such as explosive shock waves. That’s pretty much the only info that can be wrung from the web at this point — could be groundbreaking, could be a glorified blowdryer. We’ll see.

Tactical Haptics (Booth 115)

The video above demonstrates the underlying tech behind Tactical Haptics’ solution for delivering plausible force feedback for handled objects such as firearms and melee weapons. They will be demonstrating a more polished revision of the system at GDC this year, which I am excited to try. For many VR and gaming experiences, feeling impacts through a handle is really all you need.

H2L (Booth 2344)

Time to strap on the strange. H2L’s UnlimitedHand system has rigged a powered cuff with electrical contacts strategically positioned over the muscles in your forearm that control your hand and fingers. When a defined stimulus occurs in the virtual world, an electric current is directed through the skin to the appropriate muscle, thus causing that muscle to contract and…I’m not entirely sure how this ends up feeling, or how it makes for a convincing analog to familiar touch. Seems like one would be loathe to repeat whatever action triggered the “feedback”, but who knows?

All Hands on (Holo) Deck

The two major HMD producers — Oculus and HTC — have both adopted similar solutions to allow users to manually interact with their virtual environments. They have each developed a pair of hand controllers that provide users with flexible and intuitive tools to use, but have decided not to tackle the challenge of implementing virtual hands at this time — and it’s easy to understand why. Controllers really are adequate for most tasks, and the complexities of tracking and displaying functional hands has to be incredibly complex. It wasn’t until I tried Leap Motion’s Orion system that my satisfaction with the controller approach started to sag a bit. Orion is far from perfect, but something clicks in your brain when you work with your hands that can’t be replicated with floating tools.

Leap Motion

Leap Motion tracks hands with a sensor mounted to the front face of an HMD. Their recent Orion software upgrade was a huge improvement over past performance, and while Leap Motion will unfortunately not be exhibiting, expect to see their tech on display in other booths (look for people wildly clawing at the air).

Manus VR (Booth 536)

The Manus VR solution to getting your hands in-world is gloves. Wireless, and using internal sensors to track hand pose, the Manus VR solution may avoid some of the issues around occlusion and tracking volume that have dogged IR and camera-tracking solutions.

SoftKinetic (Booth 512)

With tech very similar to that of Leap Motion, SoftKinetic is interesting primarily due to having been recently acquired by Sony, who will soon be launching their PlaystationVR HMD. No word on what they will be showing at GDC, but they have a lot of foundational tech to draw from.

Full Report to Come…

That’s it for now — I’ll be sure to post a follow up to see how all of the above panned out, and to add any other interesting examples of VR peripheral tech that I didn’t see coming.