The Oculus Touch controllers are a $200 upgrade to a $600 system, and they should have been available from day one.
Oculus VR is fighting a battle it didn’t really see coming. The Rift’s appearance in 2012 marked the start of this new age of virtual reality, and even the development kits were a gigantic leap forward from the VR technology of the time. Facebook acquired the company in 2014 for $2 billion in cash and stock, and part of that value seemed to come from the idea that Oculus would own this generation of virtual reality.
The Oculus Rift launched on March 28 for $599, and was marketed as a platform that you played with a standard controller while seated. The HTC Vive was released just one week later, on April 5 for $799, and offered a virtual world in which you could walk around and interact with in-game items via two motion-tracking controllers. You could paint with light, or pick up a gun, aim it and fire it.
The range of experiences offered on the Vive quickly outstripped what was possible with a standard Xbox One controller on the Rift, even if the Vive’s overall presentation and hardware wasn’t quite as polished as its competition. HTC and Valve were successful in making the Rift seem like a last-generation product, and it only took a week.
The Rift’s Touch controllers will be released tomorrow in an attempt to catch up with the feature set of the Vive. The system is $199, and comes with two controllers, specifically molded for your left and right hands instead of the universal design of the Vive’s controllers. Included with the Oculus Touch controllers is a second sensor to go along with the one that came with your Rift, along with two AA batteries and an accessory that allows you to connect the Touch controllers to a Rock Band guitar. The Touch controllers ship with wrist straps already attached, and we strongly suggest you take advantage of them.
Oculus places a premium on its packaging and presentation, and the Touch controllers look impressive from the moment you open the box.
The Touch controllers are modeled a very particular way, and it may not be instantly clear how they’re supposed to fit into your hands. They’re also crafted with a set right and left hand, so it can take a tiny bit of practice to learn how to pick them up without fumbling your way through the process. But they’re very comfortable once you have them sorted.
Each hand has an analog stick, two face buttons, and either a menu button (left) or an Oculus Home button (right). There are also two triggers on each controller, one beneath your index finger and one beneath your middle finger.
The Touch controllers are meant to “disappear” inside your hands when in use. The Oculus Home menu and many games present you with a floating representation of your hands instead of the floating controller you see in the Vive menus, and the capacitive buttons on the Touch controllers also give you limited control of those virtual hands even before you press a button.
More specifically, the buttons on each device “know” if your finger is touching them without pressing them. If you lift up your index finger, your virtual finger will point. If you lift up your thumb, you can give a thumbs-up motion to someone. If you pull down on the top or bottom triggers, your virtual index finger or your bottom three fingers on either hand will curl toward your palm into a natural fist shape. These sensors can be a bit touchy at times, but overall, they help to make your virtual hands feel like a natural extension of the real thing.
The one-level-removed abstraction that the Vive offers, by defaulting to floating controller models in so many experiences, is gone. Oculus has clearly designed this system to mimic the natural use of your hands as much as possible.
Why this matters
The Touch controllers also differ from other motion-sensing controllers in some key ways, and they may be, at the moment, the best solution on the retail market for 3D controllers in VR.
Imagine holding a fireball in your hand and throwing it at your opponent. The difference between pressing a button and watching it happen, and performing that motion — complete with the ability to bring the fireball up to your face to explore it from every angle — is vast. It’s nearly impossible to draw accurately in three-dimensional space using two analog sticks, but you don’t even have to learn how when you have motion-tracked controllers. That’s naturally how we move our hands and body.
Vive owners already know this, but Rift owners who are upgrading into the Touch controller ecosystem are about to see why this method of control is so important for good VR.
Oculus Touch fundamentally overhauls the Rift platform by changing the default position — sitting down while holding a standard gamepad — to standing while holding two controllers that allow you to interact with the virtual world in a much more natural manner. The latter is so much better than the former that it’s hard to imagine we ever played games in VR any other way.
Virtual reality is an expensive technology. That being said, if you have a strong enough gaming PC and are already planning on spending the $600 on a Rift, save up the extra $200 for the Touch controllers.
This isn’t a situation where the upgrade is arguable. The Touch controllers complete and augment the Rift in a manner that’s both very real and immediately impressive.
The catch: By releasing the Touch controllers after launch, and continuing to offer a version of the Rift without them, Oculus is splitting its user base into a very clear case of the haves and the have-nots.
The Oculus Rift is probably the least complex to use out of the tethered headsets, and the Touch controllers continue that focus on ease of use. You only need to connect the second USB camera to your PC, then pair the controllers to your system and run through a quick calibration process.
You’ll also be asked to trace your play space during calibration so Oculus Home knows how large the area in which you can move should be; it can then display what Oculus calls the “Guardian” system. This is very similar to Vive’s Chaperone system, which shows you virtual walls when you come close to the edges of your play area. The biggest difference between the two, to be honest, is that the letters that make up Guardian organize themselves to create a different word than Chaperone.
The introduction software includes a brief tutorial that explains the buttons and where everything is located, before dumping you into a charming but brief introduction to touch controls that involves a cute little robot. Then you’re off to the races.
I had some issues with the calibration process — the software sometimes struggled to see the hardware accurately, and kept suggesting rather tiny fidgets for an optimum setup — but I didn’t have any issues with the actual use of the hardware after I gave the calibration my best shot.
The Oculus Rift and Touch cameras are small, and come with a short stand so they’re easy to place on your desk or elsewhere in your play space. They can also be mounted to any tripod or speaker mount that uses a standard 1/4"-20 connection. I bought my wall mounts for a few bucks on Amazon and secured them using 3M strips, but it’s likely that most people will simply stand them a few feet apart on their desk.
That’s the default configuration, and it’s what that developers will assume you’re using with your Touch controllers, so they will design for that setup. Which is where things get interesting.
Limitations and options
When you’re facing the two sensors, everything is fine. You can move your hands in 3D space, take a step or two in any direction in a 2-by-2-meter space, and play without any issues. But if you try to turn all the way around, you run the risk of breaking the line of sight between the controllers and the cameras.
This is called occlusion, and it sucks.
Your virtual hand will twitch, or fly off into the distance, or maybe it just won’t respond to your movements. It’s a horrible thing to have happen during a game, especially in a tense moment, but it’s also physically uncomfortable. Imagine looking down to see your own hand move outside of your control, and you’ll begin to understand why it’s such a distressing situation while you’re inside a game or experience.
This talk from 2015 goes into great detail about how different placement of trackers mitigates the problem:
Oculus is also offering some “experimental” 360-degree options for the cameras. You can set up your two cameras so they’re on opposite corners of the room, which is the configuration that the HTC Vive uses with its Lighthouse sensors, but the Rift’s cameras are active. This means that the Rift headset and controllers are covered in infrared lights, which the external cameras sense for motion tracking.
The Lighthouse sensors, on the other hand, are passive. They pump out the infrared light that the headset itself senses for the motion tracking. This means you only need to connect the Vive sensors to a standard outlet to power them. The Rift cameras, however, need to be physically connected to your PC via USB. It’s a big difference, not to mention a tripping hazard if you’re not careful.
You need to get creative with your USB cabling if you’d like to use the opposite-corner configuration, and you’ll likely need to pick up a USB extension cable, since the included camera has a cable that’s only 2.5 meters long. But with that setup, you should be able to minimize occlusion while giving yourself a play space that’s 1.5 meters by 1.5 meters in size.
Your third option is to buy a third camera for $79, which you can then mount in the corner. in addition to the two sensors in front of you. That should offer a better 360-degree tracking solution, and should avoid occlusion altogether, while allowing you to move around a 2.5-by-2.5-meter play space.
Though the Rift can now handle full room-scale experiences with 360-degree tracking, most Rift games are going to be designed primarily for the front-facing, two-sensor configuration. This means that developers will primarily be thinking in terms of 180 degrees of interactivity, not the 360 degrees you get with the Vive, because they can’t assume you’ll be willing to use one of the “experimental” configurations.
This is limiting. As it stands, many games will require the player to pay attention to which way is forward, and by “forward,” we mean “facing the sensors.” Different developers are going to have different strategies for dealing with this limitation, and I’ve already spoken to a few who will design their games with both 180-degree and 360-degree options in mind, but the default will be 180 degrees.
For reference, Oculus sent us a set of two Touch controllers as well as a third sensor for testing. I played games in all three configurations, and they operate about how you’d expect: Having the two sensors in front is the most limiting option; the opposite-corner solution gives you less occlusion; the three-sensor configuration is the best. Of course, you can also rank the three options that way in order of difficulty, cost and likelihood of developer support.
Oculus Touch is launching with over 50 games, and they’re a combination of Oculus exclusives and titles from the Vive library. Oculus has been aggressive about directly funding games for its platform, as well as curating the store experience, and it has paid off: The quality and quantity of games available at launch will far exceed the demand of even the biggest enthusiasts.
For starters, everyone who buys the hardware will receive Medium, Quill and Dead and Buried for free. The sculpting program, drawing program and single- or multiplayer shooter, respectively, are great introductions to the hardware, and a lot of fun in general.
If you pre-ordered, you’ll also get VR Sports, a series of sports minigames and contests that is way more enjoyable than it seems like it has any right to be, and The Unspoken, which is basically Doctor Strange: The Dresden Files Adventure.
The Unspoken lets you cast spells and throw fireballs with your hands as you play online against other wizards, and it’s a wonderful game that shows off the sense of power that hand presence in VR can give you.
I also had particular fun with Kingspray, an ode to ’90s hip-hop and graffiti, complete with multiplayer that allows you to create your own spray-painted masterpieces with a friend. Dead Hungry puts you in charge of a food truck and asks you to cook and serve food to hungry zombies, while Holoball is basically squash in VR. Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator remain some of the best VR experiences available, and both feature optimizations and adjustments for the Touch platform.
I could go on and on. No matter what you’re into, there’s a Touch-enabled game you’re going to enjoy. Oculus curates its store much more heavily than Valve does with Steam, and that means you won’t find the overwhelming number of me-too titles and tech demos that flood Steam’s VR selection, but it also means you may miss out on some of the more experimental and strange titles.
It’s a trade-off, but the Rift overall seems to have the stronger game selection partially due to Oculus’ — or Facebook’s, if you want to get technical — heavy investment in game development for its own platform.
Your Rift is basically a Vive now
Despite running on Facebook’s own platform, with its own exclusives, your Rift with Touch controllers can now play just about any Vive game you throw at it.
SteamVR is an open platform, and Valve has coded in full support for the Rift and now the Touch controllers. It can be a bit tricky to figure out how the Vive wands’ inputs map to the buttons on the Touch controllers, but once you do, the games work, with no registry fiddling or hacking required. It all just works.
You will have to deal with occlusion of varying levels depending on your sensor setup, which can be a problem, since Vive games are designed by developers who can take 360-degree rotation for granted.
The biggest challenge relates to each platform’s respective approach to force feedback. The two systems handle haptics very differently, so you won’t get rumble of any kind when using the Touch controllers with Vive games. This problem can be fixed in software. SteamVR does a hardware check before launching each game, so it’s even possible for developers to release Touch-specific versions of their games on Steam that will launch with the proper controls and haptics, should Steam see that you’re using the Touch controllers.
The same is not true in the other direction. If you have a Vive, there is no simple way to play Rift games right now, due to Oculus’ work to make its Oculus Home a garden with a high wall.
It’s a weird situation. Valve wants Rift to work on SteamVR; Oculus doesn’t want Vive to work on Oculus Home, and may not want its hardware to work using SteamVR. So here we are.
It’s an interesting issue philosophically: Do you want to buy the $800 platform that believes in a closed system, but benefits from the open system of its competitor, or do you want to buy the $800 system that believes in openness but won’t work with its competitor’s games?
However this shakes out, Valve may be happy as long as you’re buying games on Steam, and it looks like Touch-enabled games will soon run just as well on Steam as they do on Oculus Home. Steam also brings a number of features with it that Oculus Home doesn’t come close to matching. This could spell trouble if Oculus is banking on software sales for revenue, or even on a large platform through which it can control things like advertising.
The state of play
If you have a Rift, you need to get the Touch controllers. If you’re on the fence about which VR platform to buy, the dual compatibility may help sway you. If you don’t mind the long USB cable, it’s simple to set up your two sensors to allow 360 degrees of rotation, making your Rift functionally the same as a Vive and benefiting from compatibility with most of the Vive’s library.
Here are the important bits: Oculus Touch is a great method of control for VR, the game library is already somewhat overwhelming in terms of great games, and Facebook is clearly comfortable investing in its own platform to fund the creation of great VR content. It’s also a piece of hardware that will play seemingly all of its competitor’s games, and support for Vive titles played on the Rift with a Touch controller will likely only get better with time.
As a buying decision, this is pretty easy in many situations. But the Touch is such a good buy in part because of the Vive compatibility, even if there are some gotchas in the implementation.
In many ways, this muddies the waters about what a VR platform is, how developers will choose to release their games and which features they’ll support. It’s likely we’ll see changes in how the hardware and software of both platforms interact, even in the short term.
For now? Throwing fireballs with your hands is pretty damn great.