The main three companies at the forefront of VR development, Sony, Valve, and Oculus, would have us believe that VR is the future of gaming. And they could be right, but not without some reservations from consumers and analysts – myself included. Whether it’s the price of the hardware or the potential to induce nausea, there is plenty to be cautious of.
Beyond all of the normal pros and cons though, one of the things that’s missing from typical VR discussions is the idea of accessibility. What’s interesting about this new wave of technology is how it now allows consumers to engage digital spaces in more realistic ways. Reaching out and grabbing an object is much more interactive than just tilting an analogue stick and pressing a button. That means when developers create games for these new platforms, they don’t have traditional controllers in mind; the very nature of simulating real interactivity requires an evolution of sorts. The results are simpler designs that ape real world tools. Essentially, there’s no need for years of muscle memory that taught us that the Triangle button is in the same place as the Y button on the PlayStation and Xbox controller respectively. A basic understanding of what you’re trying to do is all that is required to enjoy some of these new experiences.
An example of this can be seen in Google’s Tilt Brush. This software allows artists to draw, paint, and sculpt in a 3D space using the Vive’s motion tracking wands. Life-sized works of art (that you can actually walk around) can be created quickly and easily. Because the wands take the place of your tools, being able to create something nice depends solely on your ability to airbrush. While there are buttons that help you pick your colors and type of brush, they are intuitive by design. Most anyone would understand “hold trigger to paint” even if they never played a video game before. Everything else is just moving your arm the same way you would if you were holding an actual paintbrush.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to speak with Patrick Hackett, co-founder of Google’s Tilt Brush to learn more about their mindset going into development. Hackett said that “it was and continues to be a challenge, but we’re dedicated to extending the controls in a way that remains intuitive and accessible to everyone”. He went on to add that they’ve dedicated time to getting feedback from their users. “Our aim is to ensure Tilt Brush is a great experience for a wide range of people.”
Because the idea here is to simulate real movement in a shared space, what can be done in Tilt Brush is slightly beyond the capabilities of say the Wii or Kinect. For one, the Vive’s wands only translate your movements accurately whereas Wiimotes are designed to mimic what a particular movement should look like. Slashing a sword back and forth in Zelda can be done by wiggling the Wiimote or by swinging it back and forth – it’s inaccurate, but it tries to simulate a similar sensation. If you were to wiggle the Vive’s wands, your digital arms would just wiggle as well – it doesn’t give your movements the benefit of the doubt like the Wiimote. There’s also no random gestures to learn – hold your hand here for a few seconds to move your character forward – like with the Kinect. Of course, there is some overlap as some actions aren’t that difficult to mimic. The results would be the same if you were trying to shake up a spray can for instance.
Another, perhaps better example, of accurate and realistic use of your hands inside of a virtual world comes from Manus VR, the company that created the first consumer virtual reality gloves (think Nintendo Power Glove but a million times more responsive and with fewer buttons). These Manus Gloves are poised to potentially be the pinnacle of controller evolution as everything is controlled by your hands in a one-to-one fashion. How do you pick up an in-game item using these gloves? The same way you would in real life. By reaching down and grasping it. There’s absolutely no learning curve; even a six month old child can grab things with very little effort. Eat your heart out, Johnny Mnemonic!
Even though I’m happy that advancements are being made in terms of accessibility, even if that wasn’t necessarily the main reason to move away from conventional input devices, there are some nagging problems still to be addressed. For one, I’m not so sure these peripherals will work well with every game coming to these new platforms. Manus VR’s Chief Technical Officer, Maarten Witteveen, seems to share this sentiment. When asked about the challenges that were presented during the Manus Gloves’ development, Witteveen stated that, “While it is surprisingly fun to play games like Skyrim by moving your hands and bending your fingers, this is not where the strength of our glove design truly shines. To get this rich novel gaming experience that true hand presence in VR offers, you need games specifically designed for hand presence.” Makes sense. The thought of navigating through multiple menus to level up or equip a weapon using the Manus Gloves seems like a hassle.
Another problem deals with those who aren’t as dexterous as they used to be or have other physical limitations. When I asked if the people falling into this group were considering during development, I got some good answers. Manus seemed to be taking the most forward steps though. “To learn more about the impact of disabilities we are doing research together with a medical university in the Netherlands for stroke rehabilitation patients,” stated Witteveen. “This will not impact the glove design, but it will impact the way users can personalize the interaction in their games.”
We’ll always have the traditional controller for our traditional shooters, platformers, RPG’s and so on. That said, it’s nice to know that there are new experiences being created that will allow for greater accessibility. “We just love the smile it brings to people when they are able to step into a complete new world and be enveloped by a truly impacting and lifelike experience,” said Witteveen.