While everyone’s eyeballs are melting from the visual achievements being made in VR, the controllers so far leave something to be desired. Big, bulky or downright weird (side-eye at PlayStation’s Freudian Move controllers), none have offered the balance of comfort and performance that VR desperately needs. Oculus Touch is on the way later this month from the Facebook-owned company, but it could have some competition from Valve’s new prototype controller for the HTC Vive.
According to game makers at Wednesday's Steam Dev Days event, the crucial updates include a strap, so the controller stays secured to your hand however wildly you’re gesticulating, and the ability to track your hands opening and closing. They might look like the worst Eighties rave hall accessories since Hypercolor t-shirts, but you’ll be literally blindfolded while you’re using them, and the feedback from people who braved the long lines to try them is promising.
“It further breaks down the barriers between people using VR and their experience, and encourages more natural interactions," says Fox Buchele, VR Designer and Developer at Idean, a brand agency specializing in cutting edge tech. "The Vive controllers are definitely abstractions, but the prototype was the first controller I tried that actually felt like my real hand."
He rated the new controller ahead of the Oculus Touch, which he says has problems with tracking and doesn’t feel as natural. With the Valve prototype his left hand struggled a little due to static from the event hall carpets, but the right was uncannily accurate.
It’s also a big leap from the current Vive controllers. “It really was far more immersive than doing the same scene using the Vive controllers. It didn’t track individual fingers, only the entire hand pose from open to closed, but I was told there isn't a technological restriction keeping them from tracking the individual fingers.”
Buchele also got an insight into the mind games that Valve’s hardware experts have to use to help our slow human brains deal with this new virtual world.
“There were some Velcro straps attached to your wrist, which I originally thought was to keep you from accidentally throwing the controller," he says. "Turns out that's not the case – the developer from Valve that I talked to said the Velcro straps were a psychological trick. They didn't actually bear any weight, even when throwing things as fast as I could, but he said people felt quite uncomfortable 'letting go' of the controller without the straps.”
This is the notoriously experimental – and inscrutable – Valve, so there’s no official word on whether these designs are final or even anything beyond prototypes. Still, the fact it's letting game developers go hands on at an event (and tweet about it) suggests this latest attempt to refine VR control might be closer to reality than we think.